Language and Politics

The Economist notes that Democrats believe their intellectual and moral superiority prevents them from winning elections.  A linguist named Lakoff provides affirmation of this superiority, and advice on how to overcome it, and so has become trendy in lefty circles.  The Economist mostly refutes this Democratic self-image (Democrats win plenty of elections, all politicians waffle and manipulate language) but still gives it undeserved credence. 

“When Republicans and Democrats use different terms for the same thing, the Republican phrase is nearly always shorter and more concrete, observes [an expert.]  He has a point.  When talking about abortion, Republicans favour (sic) ‘life’ (evocative) while Democrats talk about ‘choice’ (abstract.)”

“Life” as pro-lifers use it is an abstract noun, and choice is a crisp, one-syllable word, so so much for that argument.  Moreover, the whole challenge for the pro-life position is that it is so abstract; it has to argue that human life in the abstract is good, or that unborn babies fall under the category.  The pro-choice argument is often that all that’s well and good in theory, but a fetus just doesn’t feel like human life (a clump of cells, more like it.)  If unborn life were really evocative, opposing abortion would be like opposing infanticide- no argument would be necessary.

As for choice, yes, it’s an abstraction, but it’s a pretty powerful one.  Republicans employ it in different debates.  School choice, for instance (vs. the Democrats’ highly concrete defense of public schools.)  The right to abortion is easily made more concrete through various rhetorical devices (“a woman should control her own body,” “let’s not have back-alley abortions.”)  And in case you missed the last election campaign here in the states, like The Economist apparently did, we were introduced to the charming and delightful rhetorical device of the War on Women- that’s two very short nouns, one with very primal appeal, with a humble preposition between them, plenty simple enough to move legions of voters.

The Economist continues: “Republicans talk about ‘taxes’ and ‘spending’ while Democrats want to raise ‘revenue’ for ‘investment.’” But this is a case where Republicans adopt neutral terms, while Democrats resort to euphemism or positive spin.  The whole point is to make unclear what you’re talking about, so it’s only natural your language is going to be less crisp.  On the other hand, Democrats and their pet parrots all know how to say “tax cuts for the rich” and “Medicare, Medicaid, social security, education,” nice and crisp, simplistic and effective.  (And everyone knows we spent wildly under GWB, so who cares about the partisan distribution of power, anyway?)

“George W. Bush had the ‘Patriot Act,’ whereas Mr. Obama has the ‘Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.’”  George W. Bush and 90% of Congress have the Patriot Act.  It wasn’t, originally, a Republican thing.  9/11 had just happened, cynicism was out and patriotism and trust of government were in.  The law could have been called anything and passed; patriot act, in the mood of the times, just seemed like the most natural thing to call it. 

Meanwhile, dozens of universal health care plans have failed in America; it’s not like you can get people to change their basic relationship to the state with a linguistic trick.  Ordinarily, a piece of legislation will have an unwieldy name, but politicians can and do refer to things like “universal health care,” “health care reform,” “health insurance reform,” etc.  At the beginning of the debate, when people have little other information, these snappy slogans even produce favorable polling results.  ObamaCare’s PR failure wasn’t a matter of Obama and Pelosi spending months stumbling over the phrase “patient protection and affordable care.” 

“Mr Lakoff urges Democrats to be more concrete.  ‘Have I seen it with my own eyes?’ he asks.  ‘Can I take a pen and draw a picture of it?’  ‘Air’, ‘water’ and ‘soil’ are better than the ‘environment’, for example…”  But Democrats talk about air and water all the time, and who’s to say “environment” isn’t effective?  I’d at least like some kind of evidence.  When we consider specific environmental issues, global warming is less concrete and evocative than poisoned water or destruction of pristine species and environments, but that’s just the nature of the issue.  Obviously, Democrats attempt to overcome these barriers as best they can by talking about the children’s future and dying polar bears and storms and droughts. 

“[Democrats] struggle to unite around a slogan because their base includes disparate groups…who do not, themselves, speak the same way.”  I’m for The People, not The Powerful.  There, problem solved (Gore, 2000.)  “The Republican base is varied too, including both small government types and devout Christians, but they unite around slogans such as ‘liberty’, whether freedom from taxes or the freedom to pray in schools.”  Waaait a second!  A few paragraphs ago, “choice” was too much of a big word, but now the abstract, three-syllable “liberty” is an effective rallying cry.  Here, of course, Democrats’ typical objection is that Republicans are too abstract, that they make all government action into a threat to Liberty, as a step down the Road to Serfdom, whereas Democrats claim such deep principles are often not implicated and we must look at policies on more of a case-by-case basis. 

In reality, both parties employ a mix of demagoguery and sophistication, of abstract and concrete, and are about equally effective.

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