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Political Animal

War Of Words

By Brian Morton | Posted 11/17/2004

Deep inside the engine of American politics, past the exhaust of the advertising and the cogs and flywheels of government, seeps the fuel of it all: words. Language is what separates winners from losers, good ideas from bad. The group, the cause, the lobby that manages to capture the high ground on language tends to come home with all the trophies.

Whether it’s a city council race or the billion-dollar run for the presidency, the candidate that puts the battle of ideas in language that puts him or her on the high ground tends to win. And conservatives have begun framing issues—and sticking to their language—until it enters the popular lexicon, one way or another.

Take for the most glaring example, the estate tax. An “estate” is a common word, with a legal and precise definition. If you die, whatever assets you own are your “estate,” whether it’s a few million dollars or a few quarters. In the eyes of a lawyer or an accountant, they are the same.

But words gather different connotations removed from legalistic contexts, and they become value-laden with other meanings. Too much prattling from Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island, and suddenly people start thinking of an “estate” as something only owned by rich people, and a little class antagonism enters the picture. Then an “estate” tax is something that is seen as making some dead millionaire pay his dues to society after living too long.

In recent years, with the trend by conservatives and the wealthy right wing to transfer the tax burden from unearned wealth to actual work, the “estate tax” needed to be renamed, because nobody really cared about those millionaires. Suddenly, the estate tax became the “death tax,” something nobody’s going to stand up for. After a few years of the giant right-wing media Wurlitzer repeating it ad nauseam on the Fox News Channel, on Rush Limbaugh, and in the pages of the New York Post and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, the term has swayed enough people so that in the next year or so the heirs to all this wealth will reap the benefits of the change in language, and America will take one step closer to becoming an old-style House of Lords, where money passes from one generation to the next without anyone actually working to earn it.

The master of the right wing’s language laboratory is Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Luntz was the guy who tested all the language behind Newt Gingrich’s Contract on . . . sorry, Contract With America. Gingrich, of course, was the man who saw the power of language to define one’s opponent, and he began sowing those seeds long before he ascended to his political pinnacle as speaker of the House. His now-legendary 1990 memo “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control” encouraged Republican challengers to “paint a vivid, brilliant word picture.” He supplied lists of words for Republicans to use when referring to themselves and their campaigns—“activist,” “courage,” “freedom,” “moral,” “pro-flag,” “reform”—and a list of negative words for Democrats: “anti-flag,” “anti-family,” “betray,” “corruption,” “incompetent,” “liberal,” “sick,” “traitors,” and “waste,” among others.

Last week, the staff of the Columbia Journalism Review’s online blog posted a few updates to the language and noted how six particular words, “ostensibly apolitical” as they called them, could be matched to a political party. They were “steadfast,” “nuanced,” “resolve,” “elite,” “freedom,” and “values.”

Conservatives have clearly seized the high ground, because when these words are used in news copy it has been fairly clear that, as CJR noted, “steadfast, resolve, freedom, and values” have been “commandeered by Republicans.” The other two, more pejorative words have been invariably applied to Democrats.

Here’s another example you may not noticed, but it’s been cropping up more and more: use of the phrase “the Democrat Party” by Republicans in speeches and in advertising. Although we’ve long called the party of FDR and JFK “the Democratic Party,” right-wing pollsters have found that the shorter, less-euphonious “Democrat Party” is more of a turnoff to listeners. So in the clinical lockstep that the new Republican media machine operates, you’ll now hear more usage of the jarring “Democrat Party.”

In the coming months and years, as the GOP asserts its claimed mandate, you’ll be hearing more of this language carefully crafted by the Luntzes of the political world to make radical ideas seem more acceptable. “Privatization” of Social Security was shoved off the table with the fall of the stock market and the spectacular failure and revealed corruption of publicly traded companies like Enron, so now the assault on Social Security is being advanced as “private accounts,” when, for all intents and purposes, nothing about the plan has changed.

And, as noted in CJR, George Orwell wrote in his masterful “Politics and the English Language” in 1946, “Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

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