One of the barriers to productive political debate is language–its use and misuse.
Genuine communication–in general, not just in politics– is anything but simple. Back in “the day,” when I was a high school English teacher, discussions of grammar included a lesson on the difference between “definition” and “connotation”–between the dictionary meaning of a word, and the social or emotional “freight” it had picked up through use. (Further complicating matters, that “freight”–the negative or positive spin on a word or phrase–often varies depending upon the constituency hearing it. Think of how different ears hear “woke.”)
We all bring our individual world-views to our discussions, and those views and personal experiences become the lens through which we interpret what others are saying. Often, those interpretations are wildly different from the intended meaning–think “Defund the Police”–which is why political strategists and PR folks are so concerned with the language employed by candidates and/or commercial interests. Insisting “that isn’t what I meant” is almost always ineffective; it’s far preferable to initially frame an argument or proposition using language that is as accurate about meaning as possible, and that will be most resistant to misinterpretation, whether intentional or unintentional.
Sometimes, partisans forget that the object should be to communicate, not simply to engage in virtue signaling.
Back in April, Governing Magazine ran an article titled ” ‘No Accountability, No Peace’: Sloganeering and the Language of the Left,” focusing on the differences in language employed by contemporary Republicans and Democrats. The author noted the “constant demand on the left” to be sensitive, to use words that are received as less hurtful. Sometimes, he wrote, this makes perfect sense. “Other times it feels like they want to fight on the wrong battlefield.”
This is not an isolated linguistic debate. It comes just after the recent overbaked argument about whether President Biden’s infrastructure plan, or parts of it, qualify as infrastructure, namely caregiving for children, the elderly and those with disabilities. Mother Jones was not alone in decrying this as a “semantic argument,” stressing the importance of Biden wanting to support women workers as part of the recovery.
But semantics do matter in politics. For years, the right has found success by putting potent, clever labels on things that help make their arguments for them: Recasting estate taxes as the “death tax,” for example, or succeeding in switching usage from the clinical description of intact dilation and evacuation to the soberingly graphic “partial-birth abortion.”
On the left, the impulse is more aspirational. You increase the power of your vocabulary by borrowing meanings, asserting that some things actually mean other, good things — that child care is infrastructure, or that housing is a human right or health care is a human right.
Give credit where it’s due: the GOP has been far more successful than Democrats in using language–words–to drive public opinion. That success has been partly due to good PR advice, but it also owes a debt to the fact that today, Republicans are far more monolithic than Democrats, and their major goals are simpler to convey: keep my taxes low lends itself to far clearer messaging than, say, immigration reform, or even “Black Lives Matter.”
I actually think a large-scale public debate over the meaning of “infrastructure” would be very useful. I have often distinguished between physical infrastructure (roads, bridges, the electrical grid, etc.) and what I think is accurately described as social infrastructure–the governmentally-provided social supports and services that are arguably necessary to social functioning and national cohesion.
America is rather clearly not ready for that discussion–not ready to use language for its intended purpose, which–I will reiterate– is to communicate. Far too many of us evidently subscribe to Tallyrand’s theory that “speech was given to man to conceal his thoughts.”
“Make America Great Again” comes to mind….