Sunday, June 11, 2006

Nunberg nails it

Stanford linguist Geoffrey Nunberg puts his finger on the ways the Democrats forfeit an essential aspect of the battle for hearts and minds:
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.


The fact that Democrats have acquiesced in the demonization of the word "liberal" is one of the great self-inflicted wounds of our time. At the rate our Constitution is headed for the scrapheap, it could end up a murder-suicide.

2 Comments:

Blogger Canis Nasus said...

duh.


woof

8:42 PM  
Blogger Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

PLEASE!! When you quote an article as important as this one, give the source, and where we can find it, if we can, on the Net. I'm going to Google Nunberg, certainly, but isn't it better to direct people to him directly?

8:43 AM  

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