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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

But Words Will Never Hurt Me?

I think this is more important than some are willing to acknowledge:

Democrats' loser linguistics, by Geoffrey Nunberg, Commentary, LA Times: Together America can do better." The Democrats' awkward new slogan may not say much more than "Anybody would be an improvement on the current bunch of bozos," yet many Democrats are hoping that it will be enough to bring the party back to life this fall. And they may be right, given the ... administration's apparently bottomless bozosity.

But the very ungrammaticality of the Democrats' slogan reminds you that this is a party with a chronic problem of telling a coherent story about itself, right down to an inability to get its adverbs and subjects to agree. Until Democrats can spell out a more explicit and compelling vision for America, it isn't clear how the party can restore its faded luster. ...

Americans are more than twice as likely to say that the Republicans know what they stand for. It's no wonder that the word "Republican" is statistically far more likely than "Democrat" to attract companion terms like "mainstream," "true believer" and "faithful." In the public mind, "Republican" names a movement...

True, most Democrats acknowledge ... they've let themselves be out-messaged in the bumper-sticker wars. But for all the Democrats' obsession with improving their issue-framing, the Republicans' electoral successes owe relatively little to their snappy line of patter.

In spite of catchphrases such as "No Child Left Behind," "Healthy Forests" and "Clear Skies," voters still give Democrats the edge on education and the environment. The administration's incessant invocations of the "ownership society" couldn't win broad support for privatizing Social Security. And surveys show that rebaptizing the estate tax as the "death tax" didn't have much effect on support for its repeal.

The right's real linguistic triumphs don't lie in its buzzwords and slogans, but in capturing the ground-level language of politics. When we talk about politics nowadays — and by "we," I mean just about everybody, left, right and center — we reflexively use language that embodies the worldview of the right.

Time was, for example, that the media used "elite" chiefly for leaders of finance, industry and the military — as the British press still does. These days, the American press is far more likely to use it to describe "liberal" sectors such as the media, Hollywood or academia, instead of the main beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts. "Elite" has become a placeholder for the effete stereotypes the right has used to turn "liberal" into a label for out-of-touch, latte-sipping poseurs. The phrase "working-class liberal," for example, is virtually nonexistent nowadays, though people have no trouble talking about "working-class conservatives" ...

It goes on. The media are far more likely to pair "values" with "conservative" than "liberal," even as they more often describe liberals as "unapologetic" (liberalism apparently being something people should have qualms about owning up to). And you hear the same tone in the dominant uses of words like "freedom," "bias," "traditional," and many others, even in the so-called liberal media.

Yet when Democrats try to recapture the language of politics, it's often with a clueless literal-mindedness. Sometimes they seem to believe that they can shed the fatuous stereotypes simply by disavowing their own labels. Many people who would have proudly called themselves liberal 40 years ago have abandoned the name in favor of "progressive" — like what Ford did in 1960 when it remarketed the tarnished Edsel line with a different grille under the name of Galaxie, in the hope that nobody would notice it was the same car.

But "liberal" is too deeply etched in the split screens of the American media to be discarded, and Democrats who avoid it in favor of "progressive" only confirm the widespread suspicion that liberals aren't talking the same language as other Americans...

Or sometimes, Democrats assume that they can neutralize the Republicans' linguistic advantages by co-opting their terminology, insisting, for example, that they have "values" too. But words like "values" have no particular magic in themselves. Since the Nixon-Agnew years, "values" has worked for conservatives because, through disciplined insistence, they've made it the label for a whole file of narratives about liberal arrogance, declining patriotism and moral decay.

It's only in this context that words such as "values," "liberal," and "elite" have acquired their potent political meanings. Democrats can't recapture the language of American politics except by weaving counter-narratives that dramatize their own vision.

That's not a matter of concentrating on symbolic politics while slighting the economic and social programs that brought Democrats to the ball in the first place. From the Progressive reforms of the early 20th century to the New Deal to the Great Society, the most ambitious social and economic programs of the past have always rested on powerful stories that dramatized the stakes and invited people into "a project larger than their own well-being" ..., even as they shaped the language of political discourse in the bargain.

From Jimmy Carter and Mario Cuomo to Bill Clinton and John Edwards, most successful Democratic politicians have been instinctive storytellers. Conventional wisdom credits Clinton's 1992 victory to his insistence that "it's the economy, stupid." But it wasn't just the economy — it was the way he told it, as a story about how "people who work hard and play by the rules get the shaft." ... Today's Democrats, if they choose to, have equally compelling narratives of their own to tell, touching the middle class as much as the working poor. They're stories that dramatize the increasing disparities of wealth and the shift of the tax burden from the rich to the middle class; insecurities over job loss, healthcare, pensions and college education; and a government that has broken faith with the American people.

It's out of stories like those that a new political language will emerge — perhaps with newly vivid understandings of words like "decency" and "fairness," and with a restoration of the neglected Rooseveltian senses of "freedom," encompassing economic and personal security. The words aren't important for their own sake, but for their capacity to evoke stories that conjure up the sense of common mission that can make "Democrat" something more than a synonym for "none of the above."

The author of the column has also written a book Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show. A recent review of the book in The Nation says:

The Political Power of Words, by Dean Powers, The Nation: If past elections are any indication, the X factor in the US House and Senate races this year may simply be the English language--the biased words that seep unchallenged into mainstream media coverage of politics.

So says Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley... Nunberg ... takes issue with the way mainstream media consciously or unconsciously skew political coverage by choosing words that favor Republicans.

Right-leaning talk show hosts, pundits and columnists, the drivers of the conservative "noise machine," have exploited real economic class divisions, and they describe political differences in terms of consumer or lifestyle preferences--watching NASCAR or shopping at Wal-Mart--rather than principles. Nunberg argues that even though certain bedrock buzzwords--"values" or "elites," "red state" or "blue state"--are imprecise and loaded with political baggage, journalists continue to use them.

"Since the Nixon era, the word ['values'] has been shorthand for a particular collection of narratives about the decline of cultural standards concerning sexuality, religion, hard work, and patriotism--anything...that's likely to make their 'middle Americans' angry about the drift of the culture," he writes. ...

Nunberg writes that the color-coded map of American politics leads commentators to pigeonhole "everything according to its place in some simplistic scheme of classification."

The Pew Research Center published a ... report [that] describes as "inadequate" the red and blue map the media uses to color America. "Judging by their opinions on a number of issues," the report stated, "many Americans simply do not fit well within either the conservative or the liberal ideological camps."

Nunberg argues that when the MSM speak in a language culled from the echo chambers of the right, they legitimize false constructs. That's already happened.

The question this election year is whether mainstream media will finally get serious about precision and clarity and capture the broad diversity of political opinion in America--or continue to use inaccurate, color-coded imagery to describe our political discourse.

In addition to the important point about the press being careful to avoid language and imagery that favors one political ideology, I want to emphasize that catchy slogans aren't enough. The idea(s) the slogan represents have to resonate with the public, have to stand for an underlying narrative and set of values that is compelling. It is the ideas that are important and that is the place to start. Once those are clearly defined and told in a way that compellingly addresses the concerns of  "working-class liberals," the slogans will take care of themselves.

    Posted by on Tuesday, June 20, 2006 at 12:15 PM in Economics, Politics, Press | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (35)

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