Losers in the war of words

Leslie Savan is the author of "Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and, Like, Whatever" and "The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV, and American Culture."

DESPITE the influence of “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” linguist George Lakoff’s remedial language course for Democrats, the party out of power still has a language problem. Liberal politicians still don’t talk from the gut; they create sleep-inducing slogans like “Together, America Can Do Better”; and, awed by conservative rhetoric, they do little more than stalk the talk: “I have values too,” they insist. “I am a person of faith. Really.”

In Lakoff’s 2004 book, the remedy was “framing” -- choosing the bons mots that will make people think of issues with your slant and do a memory-wipe on your opponent’s. The GOP’s term “death tax,” for instance, has nearly killed the Dems’ “estate tax”; on the other hand, the left’s “global warming” has reached the water cooler, leaving the right’s “climate change” stuck in Limbaugh. The problem, of course, is that no matter who manufacturers them, buzzwords by themselves rarely change the larger picture: The tax on inherited wealth manages to survive, while the planet may not.

Now, just in time for the midterm elections, comes linguist and NPR commentator Geoffrey Nunberg with “Talking Right,” a book that greatly improves on Lakoff by expanding the critique from words and phrases to the overall verbal structure of political debate. Framing, writes Nunberg, is “usually just a dignified-sounding name for spin.” Sure, catchier slogans can help, but even a bumper-sticker answer to “cut and run” (Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry offers “lie and die” about the Iraq war) won’t resonate unless it’s attached to a compelling story, specifically, Nunberg writes, a “populist ... story about the powerless against the powerful, of dreams betrayed and righteous anger.”

His is a long-overdue call for Democrats to start talking like the populists they should be. But because Nunberg doesn’t really tackle the reasons they haven’t already done so, his remedy is no cure either. Nevertheless, “Talking Right” takes us -- with terrific wit and eye-opening research -- about as far as language alone can go to counter what Nunberg convincingly calls the conservatives’ “linguistic coup.”


The right has taken control of political dialogue by single-mindedly sticking to its story, which, he writes, “always comes back to the spurious conflict between ‘regular Americans’ and the ‘liberal elite.’ ”

The beauty of this story line, Nunberg shows, is that any and all issues can be hung on it. No matter that tax cuts have nothing to do with abortion, or affirmative action with Iraq -- effete liberal know-it-alls will always try to take your money, your religious beliefs, your job or your patriotism away from you. Even better, the high-decibel melodrama allows a right-wing politician to switch positions (Osama, dead or alive!/Osama who?) without being tagged a flip-flopper. Righteous anger, kept at a boil to maintain the spurious conflict, can make consistency seem as quaint as adhering to the Geneva Conventions.

The liberal-elites-hate-you formula is the result of a far-reaching, right-wing strategy orchestrated by such players as the late GOP consigliere Lee Atwater, Bush tactician Karl Rove, “kinder, gentler” writer Peggy Noonan and TV blowhard Bill O’Reilly. To broaden the party’s appeal, Republicans had to find a new language, Nunberg writes, “ways of downplaying the differences in economic interests between the working-class white voters they were courting and their traditional constituencies in business and the upper middle class.”

The UC Berkeley scholar makes a strong case that the right has built its story not with eventually transparent coinages like “compassionate conservatism” but with a “core vocabulary” of seemingly plain words -- values, freedom, terrorism, Christian and, of course, the spat-out liberal. These words “work the most mischief,” he writes, “precisely because they’re the ones that people are unlikely to examine for their hidden assumptions.” Even the “liberal media” fall for them: In the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, “conservative values appears about four times as often as liberal values does.”

Nunberg also found that on CNN, as well as on Fox News, the number of references to the “business elite” and “financial elite” are dwarfed by references to the “media elite,” the “Hollywood elite” and other cultural snoot-mongers. “As the right uses the word, elite transfers suspicion from the genuinely powerful” -- like, say, the still-secret Big Oil elites who wrote energy policy with Vice President Dick Cheney -- to those with “differences in lifestyle and social values.”

To make this transfer, Nunberg says, “the right had to suppress the political connotations of liberalism and turn it into a lifestyle brand.” No problem in a country that would rather shop than vote: A “we” can conjure a politically suspect “them” just by listing a group’s supposed brand preferences. (His subtitle -- “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” -- is taken from an attack ad by the conservative Club for Growth against Howard Dean in 2004.) Products define the man -- and the girly man. The author notes that most of the brie is consumed in this country by Republicans. But the cheese smears only Democrats because, as he says, brie “stands in perfectly for the right’s stereotype of liberals -- soft, pale, runny, and French.”

Liberals have tried to take back these “symbol-words,” accusing right-wingers of terrorism by Hummer or protesting that renting a fifth-floor walk-up is not elite. But their voices often fall flat, because they don’t speak the dominant dialect of perpetual outrage.

Nunberg’s advice? Liberals must breathe fire into their indignation and let it propel a narrative -- with “characters and plots ... subjects and verbs” -- about a “hero” who helps “ordinary hard-working people stand up to powerful bullies, who finally get their comeuppance.”

"[I]f the right can do this with an ersatz populism,” Nunberg writes, “surely the Democrats can do the same thing with a genuine one.” As a shining example of the latter, he quotes something Bill Clinton said during his 1992 presidential campaign: “I am tired of seeing the people who work hard and play by the rules get the shaft.”


The NAFTA-loving, telecom-deregulating Clinton was no populist. But he sounded like one. Nunberg takes populism seriously, but at times it’s unclear whether he’s suggesting that simply sounding populist is enough.

But why aren’t Democrats (with such notable exceptions as former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, activist Al Sharpton and the revved-up former Vice President Al Gore) telling this story in the first place? Is it because they don’t know the story? Because they can’t find the words? Nope. It’s because they’re auditioning for money from the same corporations as the Republicans are.

Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, for instance, can talk from the gut and he’s a good social liberal. But he can’t tell a clear-cut story about the financial elite because, as a senator from a state that deliberately wrote its corporate law to attract banks and credit-card companies, he helped push through the 2005 bankruptcy bill that gives a lot of hard-working people the shaft.

The very word populism causes shivers among such triangulating centrist Democrats as New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton because it evokes images of just-folks storming the same corporate headquarters that funnel the money to pay for the ads that politicians need to convince us they’re just folks.


Being beholden to bullies doesn’t just mean pulling legislative punches; it also means you mustn’t indulge certain emotions -- like an I’m-not-going-to-take-it-anymore indignation. Real campaign finance reform -- meaning, for a start, laws that force TV and radio to provide free political ad time on public airwaves -- is the preface liberals need to write before they can tell a populist story out loud.

Then, they should read Nunberg for the best advice yet on how to talk their way in from the cold. *