[ the [ most adjective ] noun ]

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OK, I'm going to give it a shot — I'm going to make a comment about language use by some politicians while giving Language Log readers what they come here for: "discussion of language by real live linguists".

After the vice-presidential debate last night, I was pleased not to have heard Gov. Sarah Palin repeat Sen. John McCain's claim in the first presidential debate that Sen. Barack Obama has "the most liberal voting record" in the Senate. Speaking as a "real live linguist", this kind of claim is to my mind a little more insidious than your typical lie or stretching of the truth in a political campaign. Here's why I think so.

First, here's a syntactic tree representation of the most liberal voting record:

the most liberal voting record

When most modifies an adjective (like liberal) in a noun phrase like this one, what it entails (that is, what logically follows from it) is that there is some scale defined by the adjective (liberal) out there in the world that can be measured in some way. Furthermore, especially in a context like a political campaign, there is a strong implication that all relevant instances of the particular noun in question (the voting record of each member of the Senate, a compound noun as indicated in the tree) have been measured and compared (by some non-partisan group, one presumes), and that it has been determined that one particular instance of this noun (Obama's voting record) is on one end of this scale compared to all the other instances.

As we all know, though, liberal means very different things to different people, so it would be nice to know what definition of liberal — and by extension, what definition of the scale — was employed in this measurement and comparison. It would also be good to know the possible partisan leanings of the group that did the measurement and comparison. A few Google searches reveal a scary (though in retrospect, not surprising) answer to this question: the claim appears to have first been voiced in a Jan. 31, 2007 Examiner.com article by Bill Sammon ("Obama: Perception vs. reality"), where it says:

Obama has a 95 percent liberal rating from Americans for Democratic Reform, a liberal advocacy group that ranks all members of Congress. Yet he is often portrayed as a centrist. "His record is liberal, and his rhetoric is moderate," explained Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

Now, Larry Sabato is indeed the director (and founder, in 1998) of the Center for Politics, and may have indeed said what is quoted here in one of his many media appearances. The front page of Sabato's website has laudatory blurbs from the Wall Street Journal ("probably the most quoted college professor in the land") and Fox News Channel ("America's favorite political scientist"), which are both widely considered to be relatively conservative media outlets (now under the same roof), but Sabato also makes appearances on CBS, ABC, CNN, NBC, and so on.

But what about "Americans for Democratic Reform"? Try Google, and the top hit will be the article above, followed by many other references to the it. Several other hits include (references to) a piece stating that "Ethiopian dissidents are lobbying Americans for democratic reform" — not the same thing, obviously — and several WTF reactions, much like mine here, surmising that "Americans for Democratic Reform" either doesn't exist or, slightly more charitably, isn't willing to advertise itself (or its board, or its members, or where its funds come from) or to disclose the methods it used for arriving at its conclusions. (See now this Media Matters analysis, in response to a widely-publicized repetition of the relevant claim by Pat Buchanan and published over a year after the Examiner.com article.)

So are McCain and others lying when they refer to Obama's voting record? Not necessarily. They could very well simply be using this [ the [ most Adj ] N ] construction in the very informal way it is often used in ordinary conversations, as in That was [ the [ most incredible ] experience ] I've ever had or That was [ the [ most interesting ] book ] I've read in years — it's hyperbole, a deliberate exaggeration, directed specifically at a receptive audience. So the claim doesn't have to be literally true; the speaker just needs to believe that it's close enough to the truth for the purposes of the conversation. In short, McCain may well just be saying something like: "I believe Obama is too liberal for people who, like me, self-identify as conservatives".

Or, of course, McCain and others may not be lying simply because they haven't done the tiny bit of research that it apparently takes to find out that there's been no relevant measure of "liberalness of Senate voting records" performed. (Deliberately not doing the research is a good way to repeat a potential lie without technically lying yourself.) Or he may just be expressing his own personal opinion based on his experience with and recollection of Obama's voting record and that of others in the Senate, in which case I would say that the phrase [ the [ most liberal ] voting record ] is inappropriately misleading.

(Incidentally: I was surprised to find that Palin had not used the word "maverick" ten or more times in last night's debate — maybe if "maverick" and "mavericks" were lumped together, though…)


  1. Mark F. said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 8:16 pm

    Well, maybe McCain's basing his claim on the National Journal ratings, which are flawed but do actually exist.

  2. bulbul said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 8:38 pm

    What Mark F. said. National Journal's ratings (where, incidentally, McCain was not rated at all because he missed too many votes) specifically have been quoted by a number of McCain surrogates (e.g. Pat Buchanan and John Fund on Maher's Real Time on September 12th), so I'd say we can be 95% certain that that's where this claim comes from. And yes, I did just pull that number out of my, um, thumb.
    Speaking of voting ratings, there's also Voteview.org, more specifically, this. I admit I do not understand how they calculations work. Oh if there only were some real live linguist with a firm grasp of mathematics and statistics to shed a light on their methodology…

  3. Bob Moore said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 9:13 pm

    Historically, the go-to ranking for liberality of voting records has been that of Americans for Democratic Action. They pick 20 key votes every year in both the House and the Senate, and rank all members of Congress according to how often they agreed with the ADA position on those votes. In 2007, Obama was rated only 75% by the ADA, because he missed 5 of the 20 key votes. He voted in complete agreement with the ADA on the other 15, but so did many other Democratic Senators, so it is hard to say that he had the most liberal voting record on that basis.

    In 2006, he was present for every key vote, and disagreed with the ADA position on only one, for a 95% rating. However, 10 Senators agreed with the ADA position on all 20 key votes in 2006, so one certainly cannot say Obama has the most liberal voting record on that basis.

    Bottom line: Obama has a liberal voting record, but no more so than many other Senators.

  4. John Laviolette said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 10:05 pm

    The coincidence of the 95% liberal rating from both the Americans for Democratic Reform and the Americans for Democratic Action suggests to me that that the Examiner.com article simply got it wrong, and they are the same organization. Which doesn't completely answer the question of why McCain, Palin, and other conservatives are calling Obama the most liberal senator, but suggests another explanation: it's a tale that grew in the telling, sort of the same way an urban legend grows. Pundit 1 quotes the 95% figure and says Obama is very liberal, Pundit 2 quotes Pundit 1 and maybe says Obama is one of the most liberal senators, it gets passed along a few more times, distorting the name of the source so that it can't be fact-checked, and eventually "one of" gets dropped and Obama becomes the most liberal senator, period. It becomes more a game of "telephone" than actual malicious intent.

  5. Eric Baković said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 10:25 pm

    I see. If I had searched for "most liberal Senator" in addition to (variations on) "most liberal voting record in the Senate", I might have found the relevant stuff.

    Thanks for the comments, folks. I'm sure the ADR = the ADA.

  6. Nathan Myers said,

    October 4, 2008 @ 12:46 am

    It's not very surprising if Palin did not mention voting records much. An examination of McCain's voting record would lead to embarrassing questions about the "maverick" image he cultivates.

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    October 4, 2008 @ 8:02 am

    I think that the factual support for the "most liberal" claim comes from places like this.

    An evaluation of the claim in a broader context can be found here.

  8. Randy said,

    October 4, 2008 @ 6:55 pm

    "There is no need whatsoever for an exterior criteria established by some mechanism or other to warrant the use of 'most'."

    What about a need for an exterior criterion for the appropriate usage of the word "criteria" as the plural of "criterion", and not as a singular of the hypothetical plural "criterias". Or has "criterion" gone the way of the "datum"?

    I think the above quoted statement of yours, along with what you follow it with, is the most ridiculous thing I've read in this comment thread.

    According to my most sloppy reporting of the analysis in the article "A network analysis of committees in the U.S. House of Representatives", by Porter Et Al., Nancy Pelosi has the "most liberal" voting record.

  9. Randy said,

    October 4, 2008 @ 6:58 pm

    The comment I am quoting above appears to have gone missing. Most unusual.

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