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Every Time A Major Politician Used The Passive Voice To Deflect Blame

Updated May 3, 2018 2.8k views15 items

The topic of how politicians trick people is often debated and dissected by analysts, journalists, and political scientists. Politicians that use passive voice often come under fire. From accepting bribes to illegal arms deals, high profile scandals are par for the course in Washington. It would be a strategically stupid move for a political hopeful to fully take blame for any major mistakes or corruption. At the same time, however, it would be uncouth to deprive the public of an apology in the wake of a scandal. Left caught between a rock and a hard place, many fast talking politicians fall on the passive voice. 

How does the passive voice work? Grammatically, the passive voice is a sentence in which a noun is acted upon rather than acting. This construction often allows politicians to acknowledge a wrongdoing without explicitly assigning blame for that wrongdoing. "Mistakes were made" is commonly used in politics, for example, as a sly way to avoid saying, "I made mistakes." Throughout history, there have been many times politicians used passive voice to deflect blame. For some historical and grammatical education, browse this list below to learn all about the history of deceptive language in politics. 


  • Donald Trump
    Photo: cornstalker / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    The system being rigged was a favorite topic of Trump's during his 2016 presidential campaign, but he rarely identified specific people or entities responsible for the rigging. Trump frequently stated "The system is rigged" or posted those words on Twitter. 

    Some political analysts felt Trump's words implied he was in the same boat as voters in regards to the political power imbalance, despite his wealth and privilege. 


    • Party (if partisan): Republican
    • Titles: President

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  • Even in his well received speeches, Obama was notorious for using the passive voice, often as a way of deflecting blame or playing down strong emotional reactions. For example, in his 2008 campaign speech, Obama said, "There will be setbacks." 

    Paul J.J. Payack - a professional speech analyst - noted this was a means of "spreading responsibility around" as, "He didn't say, 'I will have setbacks. I will be wrong. I will make mistakes.' He used the passive voice for these kinds of constructions."


    • Party (if partisan): Democratic Party
    • Titles: President, Senator

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  • George W. Bush
    Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain

    In response to the 2004 Abu Ghraib torture scandal, George W. Bush said, "It’s also important for the people of Iraq to know that in a democracy, everything is not perfect, that mistakes are made."

    By saying "mistakes are made," Bush deflected blame from any specific parties involved in the decision to torture detainees at the Iraq prison. He also neglected to mention what the mistakes actually were, further glossing over the situation.


    • Party (if partisan): Republican Party
    • Titles: President, Governor

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  • Hillary Clinton
    Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain

    After the 2016 shooting of Terence Crutcher, Hillary Clinton tweeted, "Another unarmed Black man was shot in a police incident. This should be intolerable. We have so much work to do #TerenceCrutcher."

    This did not bode well for her presidential campaign, as she faced a swift backlash on Twitter. Many condemned her use of the passive voice. By calling the shooting of Terence Crutcher a "police incident," Clinton passively deflected any real blame towards the police. 


    • Party (if partisan): Democratic Party
    • Titles: First Lady, Senator, Secretary of State

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