Monday, June 12, 2006

Loser Linguistics

One of the more hilarious games played at Eschaton recently involves picking the best slogan for the Democrats to use during the 2006 elections. Many like Newt Gingrich's pick for the Democrats: "Had Enough?" Others prefer more scatalogical screeds, none of which would fit on even a Hummer bumper sticker, or be fit for family viewing. One thing is certain, however, most of us are not all that thrilled with the slogan the Democratic Party has selected.

Geoffrey Numberg, a linguist who teaches at UC Berkeley's School of Information, had an op-ed piece in yesterday's Los Angeles Times dealing with just this issue.

"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 widespread discontent with 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.

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" — the implication being you can't be a liberal if you can't afford the granite countertops.

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.

...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" (as the American Prospect's Michael Tomasky has put it), 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." That's a miniature narrative, complete with characters and a plot, the size of a capsule movie summary. 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.
[Emphasis added]

I think Mr. Nunberg is absolutely correct in his assessment and in his suggested cure. The Democrats do have the language and the stories to counterbalance the world view of the right and the disasterous results of that world view. It is simply a matter of the Democrats finally beginning to stand up and start telling those stories rather than meekly accepting the frames the GOP keeps ramming down all of our throats.

It is neither impolite nor impolitic to tell the truth in the clearest and most strident tones. The nation deserves no less.


Anonymous sister of ye said...

Brava! A most excellent and discerning post! Every Dem from Howard Dean on down should be made to read it.

Except for Dem "advisors," who should be forced to print it out and eat it, bit by papery bit.

6:06 AM  

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