Text networks of two States of the Union, 1790 and 2012

For my final presidential-themed post, I decided to use Auto Map and Gephi to create text networks of State of the Union addresses. I’d planned to post more than I have below. I went back and forth, creating networks out of first older and then more contemporary addresses, but after a dozen or so, I began to notice an obvious trend . . .

When visualized as a network of lexical communities (or clusters), older addresses—circa 18th and 19th century—tend to display much more cohesion. Certain words are used to discuss certain concepts and in connection with certain additional words; and they aren’t used to discuss other concepts or in connection with other additional words.

In contrast, newer addresses are a mess. They have far more communities but they aren’t as distinct as in the older addresses. Terms are more malleable.**

Text network of Obama’s SOTU address, 24 Jan 2012

Text network of Washington’s SOTU report, 8 Jan. 1790

Take a close look at the text networks. It’s much easier to chart the connections in Washington’s address.

Length is one reason for the greater cohesion in older SOTU addresses. The written reports of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison are simply much shorter than the delivered speeches of our contemporary leaders. Nevertheless, I think there’s a deeper stylistic preference at work here. The style is tied, perhaps, to the less ambiguous exigencies of a new nation (Washington wasn’t saddled with a centuries’ old bureaucracy or a constituency made of 300 million individuals from varied racial, religious, and class backgrounds). But the stylistic preference is also tied, I think, to the rhetorical ideals that imbued the writings and orations of centuries past.

In his superb essay, “The Spaciousness of Old Rhetoric,” Richard Weaver attempts to explain those old ideals, writing that “the archaic formalism of the old orator was a structure imparted to his speech [or writing] by a logic, an aesthetic, and an epistemology” (185). His essay explores that logic, aesthetic, and epistemology in detail. For my purposes here, it’s enough to note that the ‘archaic rhetor’ was a Platonic rhetor who knew what words to use in what places because all words partook in a larger Truth, a priori deduced. A slippage of signifiers was out of the question. The old rhetor did not equivocate through his lexical choices. 

In contrast, our contemporary leaders let their signifiers slip freely. So, we are left with a much messier network, in which a node that has high betweenness centrality, such as TAX, can be only a short distance from nodes as disparate as CUTS, SUBSIDIES, REFORM, and BIGGER . . .

“Tax” connectivity, Obama’s SOTU

. . . And completely disconnected from nodes that seem much more apropos:

“Help” connectivity, Obama’s SOTU

**Methods note: I left “will” in the network, even though it’s typically a stopword and hence removed. I just found it interesting how often modals such as “will” appear in SOTU addresses, though one would think such addresses were neither the time nor place for discussing the future. The state of the Union up until now . . . but no. How do we go forth? A willingness to go forth seems to define the nation’s state of strength.

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