Speaking Democrat

GEOFFREY NUNBERG is a linguist who teaches at UC Berkeley's School of Information. His new book on politics and language, "Talking Right," will be published next month by PublicAffairs.

‘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.

A Democracy Corps study last year showed that 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, whereas “Democrat” suggests a P.O. box number.


True, most Democrats acknowledge that they have a communication problem, but only in the way that a man with the measles might perceive that he has a complexion problem. Yes, 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” -- 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.

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, even when it comes to pronouncing their own name right.

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” (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.

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.”