Textual analysis provides insight into development of conservative rhetoric

January 15th, 2020

How has conservative rhetoric evolved over the past two centuries? And what kind of language have writers consciously used to express a moral opinion that might be qualified as conservative? In a new research paper, historian Joris van Eijnatten employs textual analysis tools to explore the nature of conservative rhetoric in the London-based Times newspaper between 1785 and 2010. Among other things, his findings throw light on the confluence of right-wing and left-wing rhetoric over time. The paper was recently published in Digital Scholarship, Digital Classrooms - New International Perspectives in Research and Teaching.

For his research, Van Eijnatten, director of the Netherlands eScience Center, employs two text mining techniques: n-grams (especially bigrams) and word embeddings. He traces a number of bigram phrases during the period in question, the most important of which are “conservative principles”, “conservative values”, “traditional values” and “permissive society”.

On principles and values

Van Eijnatten starts by exploring the term ‘conservative principles’, arguably the first instance of conservative rhetoric. His analysis reveals the popularity of this term and how its usage, both in parliament and in the Times, peaked in the 1840s before declining from the 1850s onwards. While the term was mostly political in nature, its usage can be classified into three distinct phases. During the first phase, pre-1830, it reflected the counterrevolutionary sentiment of early conservative thought. In phase two, between 1830 to 1950, it continued to be used in opposition to reform and the reform movement. The third and final phase (1950-2010) was characterised by a decline in its use.

Using bigram embeddings, the author then demonstrates several phrases that came to have the same meaning as conservative principles, the most popular being ‘conservative values’. "The use of the term values grew towards the end of the 19th century, when principles were on the wane", Eijnatten explains. "In its original sense, it referred to the economy, finances and trade. Its ethical connotation and political connotation originally emerged in the US before being widely adopted in British English.”

The moralising turn

But could the linguistic popularity of the term ‘conservative values’ have arisen in another context than principles? To answer this, Van Eijnatten selected nine words that continued to have stabled meanings in the periods 1901-1905, 1951-1955, and 2001-2005. For each of these words, he generated the top fifty most similar words, and for each of these words another top fifty most similar words. This resulted in 22,500 words in total (9 x 50 x 50), with the number of unique words ranging from 5,000 to 7,500.

By forcing the network to cluster automatically into three groups, a linguistic pattern emerges, one that seems to indicate what Van Eijnatten refers to as the ‘historical moralisation’ of politics. "Between 1955 and 2001, the semantic relations between the political and the civilisational became stronger, as illustrated by the transition from 'conservative principles' to 'conservative values'. This led me to examine value-laden phrases in which the political qualifier 'conservative' was omitted, in particular the phrase 'traditional values'."

The phrase 'traditional values' can be traced to the early part of the 20th century, a time of rising tension between tradition and modernity, says Van Eijnatten. Initially, the debate largely centred on socio-cultural change and allowed for various opinions and positions. This tension evolved into conflict in the early 1960s, when tradition was used in an explicitly oppositional sense to what become known as the permissive society. “The term eventually took on clear political significance and, as its use in The Times shows, became part of the rhetoric on the right in the UK.”

Conservativism as moral language

By tracking several strands of conservative rhetoric, from conservative principles through conservative values to traditional values, Van Eijnatten’s findings demonstrate how these phrases followed specific historical trajectories and, just as interestingly, how conservative rhetoric became assimilated into popular discourse in the UK in the 1980s.

Van Eijnatten: "We tend to categorise moral languages as ideologies, as enlightened, liberal, Christian, nationalist or conservative, but these simple labels often do more justice to ordering the present than to understanding the past and vice versa. Digital history techniques help us to identify the changing clusters of words that come together in moral languages. As my research shows, these techniques open up new avenues for research and paint us a different, more complex, ambiguous, and varied past, and help us conceive of different futures in a present that seems to have lost its bearings.”

Publication details

J. van Eijnatten, ‘On Principles and Values: Mining for Conservative Rhetoric in the London Times, 1785-2010’ in Digital Scholarship, Digital Classrooms - New International Perspectives in Research and Teaching pp. 1-26 (Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2020).

Read the full paper

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