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F-bombs away: Why lawmakers are cursing now more than ever

For lawmakers and political candidates, 2019 could be the year of not giving a f--- about cursing.

Profanity - once considered a major no-no among those seeking public office - is no longer an earth-shattering political snafu. And according to new research, this year could be on track to see members of Congress swearing up a storm more than ever before.

In analysis conducted exclusively for ITK, GovPredict, a government relations software company, found that the frequency of lawmakers using words that might make one's grandmother blush has increased steadily since 2014.

President Trump and several of the candidates seeking to replace him next year - including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) - have used impassioned swear words to make their points recently. Sanders responded to a debate comment about "Medicare for All" last month by saying that he "wrote the damn bill," and Trump used the word "hell" at least half a dozen times at a Thursday night rally. 

GovPredict's data shows that obscene language not including the words "shit" and "f---" has been used at an all-time high by politicians, with 1,225 instances on Twitter so far this year compared to 833 in 2018.

The research, GovPredict CEO Emil Pitkin says, "shows a stark uptick in the overall usage of curse words by legislators on Twitter."

It wasn't always this way.

Ben Bergen, a professor of cognitive science at University of California San Diego, says certain four-letter words rarely came out of politicians' mouths in public years ago.

"For the most part, with a few exceptions, candidates have avoided being recorded swearing," says Bergen, author of "What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves."

A 2012 Forbes opinion piece asked readers, "When Can a Politician Use Profanity, If Ever?"

But these days, look no further than countless congressional social media accounts and political rallies for R-rated language.

Earlier this month, while talking to reporters, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas), a 2020 White House hopeful, dropped an F-bomb while expressing his seeming frustration with the media. After being asked by a reporter about what Trump could do in response to a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, O'Rourke said, "He's been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. Members of the press, what the f---?"

Booker also used less than flowery language after Trump blamed, in part, video games for the recent gun violence.

"Listening to the president. Such a bullshit soup of ineffective words," Booker said in a text message shared by his campaign manager on Twitter.

Booker made a similar statement in May in a CNN interview while speaking about gun control: "We are not going to give thoughts and prayers, which to me is just bullshit. I'm sorry to say that as a man of faith, but I was taught that faith without works is dead."

In early August, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) urged Americans to call on their representatives to ban assault weapons, writing on Twitter, "Demand the Members of Congress get rid of ALL assault weapons or kick our ass out of Congress!"

An increase in expletives, says Bergen, shows that the swear words politicians are using are "more acceptable in public discourse than they were a decade or two ago. That's a general change in the culture."

"We've seen media become democratized. There are fewer and fewer channels of communication that are censored. And as a result, there's just more swearing around," he says.

Bergen also says that for veterans of Congress who have "spent decades and decades crafting a public image," talking blue could be a calculated choice: "They believe that there's work that swearing can do for them, and that although there is risk associated with it, they're willing to take that risk for the potential reward."

Pitkin says that "as a growing number of elected officials break social norms, we are not likely to see a tempering of open-mindedness and self-expression by way of the usage of foul language."

Some critics of the boost in blasphemous words point to the president as the source of the current coarse political tone. A New York Times story in May detailing Trump's long history with cussing in public dubbed him the "profanity president." In a speech that same month, Trump said "bullshit" multiple times, one of several instances of foul language spoken by the commander in chief at rallies, in interviews, on Twitter and in private - including infamously referring derisively to "shithole countries."

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) made headlines in January when she exclaimed to a cheering crowd about Trump, "We're gonna go in and impeach the motherf---er." She later responded to critics by tweeting, "I will always speak truth to power. #unapologeticallyMe."

"It's hard to tell whether this is a moment that we're experiencing where political discourse is now, because of heightened emotions and stakes and so on, [such] that people are trying to reach into a quiver of more affectively laden language or whether this is just the new normal," says Bergen.

But can dropping F-bombs actually backfire on politicians?

Bergen says hell no - for those who are already fans. But it can backfire when it comes to winning over new supporters.

"People who are already likely to be supportive of those individuals are more likely to believe that they are honest, they're telling the truth, are more likely to believe that they're emotionally involved in the things that they're saying, and that they are powerful," the author says of cursing candidates.

"If they're not already in their camp, they're more likely to judge them as out of control, as less educated or less intelligent, and as unwilling or unable to follow social norms," he says.

During a 2017 speech, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) raised eyebrows when she said, "If we are not helping people, we should go the f--- home." Last year, during an appearance on CBS's "The Late Show," Gillibrand told Stephen Colbert that she was giving up swearing for Lent.

Despite the Lent effort, the 2020 presidential contender admitted that she lets colorful words slip out "all the time." 

Sanders also said earlier this year that he sometimes attempts to put the kibosh on cursing. Asked his favorite curse word during an interview with NowThis, the 2020 presidential candidate replied, "Like everybody else that I know, almost everybody else, I use my share of vulgarity, but I try not to use it in front of a TV camera."

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