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Ambiguous specificity: the production of foreign policy bullshit in electoral contexts

Meibauer, Gustav (2021) Ambiguous specificity: the production of foreign policy bullshit in electoral contexts. Politics, 41 (1). 15 - 30. ISSN 0263-3957

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Identification Number: 10.1177/0263395720936039


This article conceptualises the production of foreign policy bullshit in electoral contexts as a result of contending incentives towards ambiguity and specificity. Candidates must speak to widely divergent, even contradictory, policy ideas to maximise voter share in primaries and elections. At the same time, overly broad rhetoric or evasion risks signalling incompetence and unsuitability for office. Candidates are thus incentivized to hide the compromise character of their suggestions behind hyper-specific rhetoric. Following literature from philosophy and linguistics, this is a form of deception best captured by ‘bullshit’, that is, when the candidate simply does not care too much whether what they are saying matches with objective reality but does care that this inattention to truth is not known to the audience. This dynamic is illustrated in a case study on the 2015/2016 elections. Specifically, bipartisan support for a US-enforced no-fly zone in Syria cannot be explained by the tool’s likely utility and effectiveness. Instead, the tool’s value for many candidates lay in its effective communication of contradictory policy ideas. The tool allowed presidential hopefuls to appear resolute yet responsible, purposive yet pragmatic, idealist, and realist, while also signalling specificity and thus foreign policy expertise.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2020 The Author
Divisions: International Relations
Subjects: J Political Science > JA Political science (General)
Date Deposited: 08 Jul 2020 15:48
Last Modified: 20 Oct 2021 03:31

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