The war of the words
How Republicans and Democrats use language
“POLITICAL language”, wrote George Orwell, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” No leader will admit to having had people tortured, but Dick Cheney did say: “I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation programme”—which means the same thing. Notice how, as Orwell put it, “A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details.”
Wars sound horrible in plain English, so they have always generated a smokescreen of euphemism. “Kinetic action” means “killing people”. “Collateral damage” means “killing people accidentally”. Politicians typically use the word “kill” only to describe what our enemies do to us; not what we do to them. In a speech in May explaining his drone warfare policy, for example, Barack Obama spoke of “lethal, targeted action against al-Qaeda and its associated forces”. As Orwell said, when “certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstrac
Orwell worried that sloppy language disguised bad ideas. Some influential Democrats today have a different complaint: that Republicans use words more skilfully to win political battles. Conservatives are shameless and simplistic, they grumble, and it works. When Mr Obama was struggling to explain the circumstances under which doctors might discuss end-of-life provisions with Medicare patients, Sarah Palin yelled “Death panels!” and spooked a huge chunk of the electorate.
“[C]onservatives use language more effectively than liberals in communicating their deepest values,” writes George Lakoff, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, in “The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic”. Liberals “present the facts and offer policies”, he claims. Republicans, by contrast, go straight for the gut. Newt Gingrich, while Speaker of the House in the 1990s, encouraged his footsoldiers to repeat focus-group-tested words like “sick”, “pathetic” and “coercion” when talking about Democrats, while parroting “family”, “children” and “liberty” as Republican values.
When Republicans and Democrats use different terms for the same thing, the Republican phrase is nearly always shorter and more concrete, observes Joseph Romm, the author of “Language Intelligence”. He has a point. When arguing about abortion, Republicans favour “life” (evocative) while Democrats talk about “choice” (abstract). Republicans talk about “taxes” and “spending” while Democrats want to raise “revenue” for “investment”. George W. Bush had the “Patriot Act”, whereas Mr Obama has the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act”. The former is an awful law that is hard to oppose; the latter an awful mouthful that is hard to remember.
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, which is perhaps why the “Clean Air Act” is the law of the land but the “American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009” (a cap-and-trade bill for greenhouse-gas emissions) crashed to ignominious defeat.
Republicans are also better, Democrats fear, at agreeing on a message and sticking to it. Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant, once said: “There’s a simple rule. You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you’re absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time.”
Democrats sigh that they are too sophisticated to feel comfortable reducing complex ideas to pithy two-word phrases. And they struggle to unite around a slogan because their base includes disparate groups (blacks, Latinos, unions, educated urbanites) who do not, themselves, speak the same way. 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. If only Democrats could “frame” issues better (in Mr Lakoff’s phrase), they would win more battles.
Not all weasels are Republican
But hold on. Democrats have won four of the past six presidential elections, so they can’t be doing everything wrong. And many of them use short words deftly. Barack Obama’s 2008 slogan, “Yes we can”, whipped crowds into a frenzy of approval (though one of Mr Obama’s speechwriters is said to have hated it). Bill Clinton’s formula “safe, legal and rare” helped bolster support for legal abortion. Democrats invoke “working families” to remind voters that “poor” and “scrounger” do not mean the same thing.
Democrats can be shameless, too: the campaign ad showing Paul Ryan tossing an old lady in a wheelchair off a cliff was not exactly nuanced. They repeat messages aggressively: Mr Obama in 2012 never stopped reminding voters that Mitt Romney was rich. And their rhetoric is often misleading. When arguing about budgets, for example, they use the word “cut” to mean “spend less than was previously planned”. So a “savage cut” can actually be a large increase. This is such a potent subterfuge that Republicans use it too, at least when talking about military spending.
Politicians will never use language the way Orwell did, marrying clarity of thought with precision. A politician has to win elections, which means convincing lots of people with widely varying interests and opinions that he is on their side. Alas, that requires waffle, fudge and snappy slogans. These are hard to coin, as Mr Lakoff inadvertently proves. He has urged Democrats to refer to taxes as “membership fees” and to argue that “Patriotism requires Medicare for all.” Somehow, neither has caught on.