Words, Words, Words…..

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….


  1. For me it is the Republican misuse and abuse of the term “conservative” as their party foundation. And using the term “liberal” as the ultimate insult and to cast blame for this nation’s problems.

  2. Frank Luntz advised Republicans to use the the euphemism “climate change ” instead of “global warming.” For the most part , we have gone along with this calculated reframing and don’t even notice it anymore.

  3. MAGA (Making America Great Again) has to be one of the most emotionally-loaded and divisive political slogans in American history. This is not because of “the hat” or because of the former guys genius with words and marketing but rather the incessant coverage it received from American Big Media (ABM) which simply could not get enough his noxious antics.

    Les Moonves, President of CBS, put it bluntly in 2016 when he said: “ It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”, and “Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun! I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

    MAGAt, a derisive word-play on MAGA and the word maggot describing one who holds MAGA dear has not taken hold in our lexicon in the same way as its forebear, partially because people associated with the left-center-left don’t have the same appetite for using words, phrases and terms that are blatantly hurtful and divisive. And, of course, because ABM won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.

    With a 4th Estate like ours who needs enemies??

    Speaking of words, and responding to comments from yesterday, here is more than you’ll ever want to know about the etymology of THAT word:


  4. Words matter, as do their accurate meanings. I frequently hear President Biden called a “socialist” , Communist, a fascist, and occasionally all three. Its useless to point out he is none of the above, but that trump was, by his actions and what passed for policy, at least quasi-fascist. The MAGA crowd doesn’t care, they use words that sound scary and “unamerican” to describe ideas they disagree with or don’t understand ( usually the later). Its all part of the debate regarding “divisive concepts” , often dishonestly referred to as Critical Race Theory, or even accurate history, the recent cancellation of an event in Texas at a state museum regarding the Alamo which painted a more accurate, but far less heroic and flattering, look at the Texans and the reason why the Mexicans and Texans went to war ( Mexico owned Texas and banned slavery, Texans were ” we don’t want to pay people to plant and pick cotton. The right wing vice-governor cancelled the event 3 hours before it was to take place, calling it a “fact free” idea despite several decades of research indicating the Alamo was not exactly what the movies told us it was.

  5. What are you asking from the Left–hire better propagandists? LOL

    Or, is it more like, don’t be honest, we need to manipulate others, so we need to use better propaganda?

    I’ll admit, the Koch’s hire the best PR folks to spin their news, bills, nonprofits, slogans, programs, etc., that actually sound like positives, but in reality, are bullshit. Think, #RightToWork, #RightToFarm, etc.

    As time goes on, Defund the Police will become more relevant. The Democratic Party hated it, but the Left doesn’t abide by the rules of the DNC, which produces rhetoric by the boatloads while delivering nothing. Please don’t forget; you’re referring to sociopaths or professional liars.

    I’m mesmerized by Christopher Wray, the Trump-appointed FBI leader, who lied to Congress multiple times about Intel collected about the 1/6 Insurrection, yet he’s still in charge of the FBI.

    It’s kind of funny when you hear the middle calling out or rating who has the best propaganda; two separate judges have ruled that news media on the Right (Fox News) and Left (MSNBC) is entertainment and should not be taken seriously. Hmm?

    You have to love the game — “who has better propaganda?” 😉

  6. Republicans have been masterful at framing the misuse of key words to benefit their candidates for decades. The erudite Steve Schmidt and Rick Wilson are two who admitted that that’s what they did all the way through George W. Bush. They saw the ultimate results of their work when the egregious Donald Trump came upon us from his fetid swamp.

    But the GOP framers used their “training” from the past to pimp Trump to the same audience that has been duped by Republican politics for decades. It worked. So yes, words matter and the misuse of them matters even more to those not paying close attention to those who would pick their intellectual pockets.

    No, Todd, Wray did NOT lie. It makes one wonder where you get your information.

    Meanwhile the GOP word slaughter continues with ever increasing rubbish. Why is rural America more susceptible than any other demographic?

  7. Should we be updating the old adage of “Sticks and stones may break my bones…” by changing the end of the phrase to, “and names will always harm me?” I think a major contributor to this (apart from clever messaging/branding by the Rs) is the lack of critical thinking by the masses. As a good friend of mine is apt to say, “this is what you get after systematically cutting funding to public education for 40+ years.”

  8. It’s much easier to gin up a little fear with the use of just a word or two than it is to convey anything positive in that same space. The last good marketer the Dems had was FDR.

  9. Speaking of words and politics…remember “Change” and the Obama campaign? Not much really changed and the DEMs have suffered ever since. Gotta walk the talk…

  10. Verbal and emotional abuse of children does as much, if not more, lasting harm than physical abuse. This carries over into adulthood; and lies at any age causes a lack of trust in all relationships.

    “Words, Words, Words…”

  11. It appears to be that when one has a very focused agenda, as in “lower taxes, more wealth, screw anyone else,” one can use more focused language. The Koch boy(s) have been focused on getting, and maintaining power for the sole purpose of pushing their elitist, bigoted agenda, and all else flows therefrom. In essence, it is what one might call “Rocko’s theme,” from the movie “Key Largo,” aka “More!”

  12. Vernon, one has to venture off mainstream media to get the truth. Unfortunately, like the post today states, propaganda is the most prevalent communication, which means that laziness is a friend of the oligarchy.

    Wray lied about not having Intel on the insurrection even though it was planned on Facebook groups. He’s still employed under Biden, too. LOL

    Closed minds are an issue for so-called liberals, as well. 😉

  13. To lead or mislead.

    Leading an explanation to the single specifics of reality requires precision while leading people “off the scent” to anywhere else can be done with infinite variety.

    Scientific research begins with a hypothesis, as specific a description of the assumption being pursued as possible. There can be no ambiguity as to what is being tested and what proving it true or not true implies.

    Legal prosecution requires the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth leading to guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Defense requires anything and everything besides that.

  14. I think this has been said before, but political labels, like “cancel culture” and “woke” are for the intellectually lazy. They carry emotional baggage and the person using the them avoids having to think too hard about what they really mean, or if there is not some middle ground.

    But that said there are a lot of people that fall into this category, and the right uses this like a weapon and uses it well. Fear and anger are some of the best persuasion techniques out there.

  15. I agree with Dan @ 11:36 am ” Fear and anger are some of the best persuasion techniques out there.”

    The Reactionary Right Wing, bible thumper’s, and Rambo Wanna Be’s are full of fear and anger. McConnell and other elected GOP Officials can without losing any votes from their base proudly announce their purpose is to sabotage Biden and the Democrats every step of the way.

    The Dems are going to need the independents in 2022 and 2024. The Dems need to do more than wring their hands. Push for Single Payer health care, push for serious tax reforms so the 1% and big corporations and not able to dodge their taxes.

  16. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me. That old saying from some soothsayer is incorrect, as are many attributed to Aesop as well. Thus a broken arm can be mended, as I can attest, but I know of no remedy for having been wrongly labeled a pedophile by a witness under oath in a court of law, for instance.

    Trump and his cronies (see Barr amd the Mueller Report) are good at out front framing and projection. When Trump accuses Democrats or anyone else of something nefarious, more often than not he is projecting what he is doing, has done, or is planning to do. It’s as though in the mind of a projector that having projected he or she is free to follow suit, a suit that doesn’t exist.
    One is not likely to feel emotionally abused with a broken arm; not so with words, words which may accompany one from childhood to the grave. Political application of words these days to sway public opinion is nothing new. Consider the now obselete pamphleteering of the 19th century in American politics and Marx’s diatribes. Now we pamphleteer via the internet, so our means of transmission have improved even though the substance of our transmission has gone south mired in insult and threats of insurrection. We can, and I hope, do better.

  17. I agree with those who state that the Republicans use words to invoke fear. Fear is a powerful motivating force.

    I really wish the name calling would stop i.e. fascist/socialist. I am sad to say that although I love the idea of social infrastructure, Shiela, the Republicans would say it is thinly veiled socialism. And yes, I do believe that if we were truly a society where we care about each person in our country then child care, elder care, housing, and health care would be a right not just a capitalist opportunity to turn a profit.

    We all know that whoever controls the narrative usually wins the argument. Trump ran his narrative like a salesman. People sold hats, t-shirts and even flags with his name and his MAGA slogan on it. Democrats need to come up with better slogans than “Build back better”. HMMM. Maybe it should have been “Build up America”

    Maybe we need something like Make America Care Again, Fair taxation for all, Health Care for all, End homelessness, Honor our elders, Cool the earth, Plant trees, Children are our future. We need love, not fear. etc. And of course you could delineate your policies under each of these slogans.

    Someone is now suggesting we need a homicide hotline just like we have crisis calls for other mental health crises. As a mental health professional, I think this sounds like a really good idea. In addition to this, I still believe we need better criminal background checks( The FBI one) before anyone is sold a gun at a show, on-line, or at a store.

  18. How about instead of slogans at all, DEMs push, real policy improvements that most Americans, most GOPers agree with, e.g. “no fly, no buy”, citizenship for Dreamers, etc., raise wage ceiling for contribution for social security, etc.


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