- On February 4, 2020
- Cold War, Partisan Brains, Political Brains, Political Speech
This political psychology (doctoral) writing sifts through former US President Ronald Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech from 1987 to identify purposeful language patterns and metaphorical devices used to convey a political view or position. On June 12, 1987, the President of the United States – then Ronald Reagan – gave his famous “Tear Down This Wall” speech (of approximately 2,650 words in length) to Germans, Americans, and the entire world from the city of Berlin (Reagan, 2009).
This 26-minute address, marking the end of communism in East Germany, was one of Reagan’s most famous and symbolic Cold War speeches.
Reagan’s speech came at the end of those 28 years and intended to emphasize the importance of freedom and liberty amidst an emotional reunification between the two German camps.
Reagan commences with a warm introduction and spotlights the sincere and vested interest in Germany’s security, economy, and political outlook by previous American Presidents. This helpful context establishes relevance; two key criteria Luntz (2015) points out are needed to “frame” the why of a message (Location 752). By highlighting not just his own Berlin visit but the slew of previous visits made by US Presidents before him, Reagan can better explain why the rest of his message matters (Location 752).
Seeing the (German) world through their eyes
Incorporating German language phrases into his introduction such as, “Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin. [I still have a suitcase in Berlin.],” and “Es gibt nur ein Berlin. [There is only one Berlin.]” allow Reagan to shed his own perspective and put himself into the audience’s position, seeing the world through their eyes (Location 779).
As Reagan shifts his words towards the description of “the (Berlin) wall,” his language leveraged intensely visual language to underscore how the wall created a barrier and cut into German culture.
Specific, vivid phrases include:
- “vast system of barriers”
- “divides the entire content of Europe”
- “barriers cut across Germany”
- “a gash of barbed wire”
- “cutting across your city”
- “brutal division of a continent upon the mind of the world”
- “every man is a German, separated from his fellow men”
- “Every man is a Berliner, forced to look upon a scar.”
This visceral language and evocative imagery emphasizes words synonymous with harsh cutting and deep division, such as “barriers,” “gash,” “separated from,” and “scar.” Visual context, like these examples illustrate, support and reinforce Reagan’s language and result in a multiplier effect, making his message that much stronger (Location 806).
Aspirational and repetitive language
Reagan next shifts from provocative, wall-related imagery to more aspirational language:
Aspirational language is later followed by repetition as well as simple, clear, and easy-to-follow messages. A specific passage of Reagan’s speech incorporating two such examples follows:
The repetitive usage of the “if you seek” phrase, repeated three times (along with Gorbachev’s name repeated thrice as well), and combined with three brief phrases – “come here to this gate,” “open this gate,” and “tear down this wall” – demonstrate how the combination of repetition and brevity enhance Reagan’s political stance.
Repetition of simple words and phrases is also one of Luntz’s rules of successful communication. Reagan, Luntz adds, is the only politician (in modern times) who enjoys saying the same words over and over again as though it was the first time he had ever spoken them (Location 506). Such a practice was a major reason Reagan was able to sustain personal credibility, despite his policies not being viewed as favorably (Location 506).
As stated earlier in this writing, Reagan’s Berlin wall speech is more than 2,600 words in length, and not all the “rules” of successful communication or the catering to the political brain are as clear or as obvious. I found the speech difficult to dissect in terms of the learnings gleaned from Westen’s (2008) Political Brain because Westen’s book is much more tailored towards advice pertaining to partisan brains and Reagan’s speech wasn’t really targeting a specific political party in the US.
Despite the latter, however, Westen’s (2008) writings do correlate with Luntz’s (2015) work – in terms of Reagan’s Berlin wall speech – in one important way:
Westen’s (2008) findings in terms of imagery, however, are specific to physical sight or sensory of sight rather than symbolism and context. While the sensory of sight, according to Westen (2008), is not as invariably emotion-laden as smell or taste, it does often elicit feelings; and when both sight and feeling-states are combined, tremendous emotional appeal can be garnered (p. 71).
As such, politicians – like Reagan and beyond – who combine visceral language, vivid imagery, and aspirational symbolism with other successful communication practices, such as repetition, simplicity, and relevance, will command the most attention and yield the strongest emotional experiences from partisan and political brains.
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Mayra Ruiz-McPherson, MA, MFA
Media Psychologist & Strategist
Westen, D. (2008). The political brain: the role of emotion in deciding the fate of the nation. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.
Luntz, F. I. (2015). Words that work: it’s not what you say, its what people hear. New York: Hachette Books.
Reagan, R. [ReaganFoundation]. (2009, April 15). Berlin Wall speech – President Reagan’s address at the Brandenburg Gate on 6/12/87. [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/5MDFX-dNtsM.