Strategy And Language Matter

One of the more under-appreciated consequences of living in information “bubbles” is  lack of recognition of the realities of political communication. 

Because I write this blog, I routinely access messages from the left, right and (dwindling) center, and it has become obvious that Americans who reside in silos are simply unaware of what the people in other bubbles are hearing and thinking. They aren’t only “preaching to the choir”–they believe most of the church is singing their hymns. 

I will admit to a partial bias in that direction myself–as I read claims made by those promulgating the “Big Lie” or bizarre beliefs of QAnon adherents, I wonder how any sentient person could believe such nonsense. But then, I remind myself that an uncomfortable number of people do believe these things–and that the language we employ to communicate with their fellow-travelers matters.

In my own silo, too many people have forgotten that. Too many see arguments about strategy as lack of commitment to progressive goals. 

We saw this most recently with the disastrous “Defund the Police” slogan. No one I know disagreed with the goals of the “defund” movement, which were eminently reasonable. But people with even a moderate understanding of political strategy understood how easily that slogan could be weaponized against progressive candidates.  Purists defending the slogan by insisting that it “just needed to be explained” were incredibly naive.

If there is one thing Republicans do well, it’s demonizing and weaponizing progressive terminology. It began a long time ago, when the GOP managed to turn “liberal” into a swear word, or a synonym for communist. They have had somewhat less success with “socialist,” mostly because they accuse any government action–most recently, repairing infrastructure–as “socialism.” (Or in Marjorie Taylor Green’s case, as communism.)

That one talent–turning progressive words into weapons–can derail well-intentioned but clumsy efforts to avoid hurtful language. 

Michelle Goldberg recently wrote about one such effort to demonstrate “wokeness” via terminology.

If you follow debates over the strident style of social justice politics often derided as “wokeness,” you might have heard about a document called “Advancing Health Equity: A Guide to Language, Narrative and Concepts.” Put out by the American Medical Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges Center for Health Justice, the guide is a long list of terms and phrases that some earnest people have decided others in the medical field should avoid using, along with their preferred substitutes.

Some of these substitutions make sense; health care professionals shouldn’t be referring to people who’ve been in prison as “ex-cons.” Some are a matter of keeping up with the times, like capitalizing Black when talking about Black people. Some, however, are obnoxious and presumptuous and would impede clear communication. For example, the guide suggests replacing “vulnerable” with “oppressed,” even though they’re not synonymous: it’s not oppression that makes the elderly vulnerable to Covid.

As Goldberg points out, “Advancing Health Equity” would probably be ignored, if it didn’t “inadvertently advance the right-wing narrative that progressive newspeak is colonizing every aspect of American life.” Parts of the “diversity, equity and inclusion” movement are admittedly heavy-handed and feckless, and the rest of us keep having to answer for them.

John McWhorter, recently made much the same point in a column about the use and misuse of the term woke. McWhorter traced the emergence of the term and its original utility–and the subsequent success of reactionaries and White Nationalists in weaponizing it.

“Woke” has also followed a trajectory similar to that of the phrase “politically correct,” which carried a similar meaning by the late 1980s and early 1990s: “Politically correct,” unsurprisingly, went from describing a way of seeing the world to describing the people who saw the world that way to describing the way other people felt about the people who saw the world that way. Some in the politically correct crowd on the left had a way of treating those outside it with a certain contempt. This led to the right refashioning “politically correct” as a term of derision, regularly indicated with the tart abbreviation “P.C.” The term faded over the years, and by 2015, when the presidential candidate Donald Trump was declaring that “political correctness is just absolutely killing us as a country,” “woke” already had greater currency.

There probably wasn’t much progressives could do about “woke,” which began as a useful descriptor. But as Goldberg points out, there is a lesson here, and activists who actually want to win elections need to learn it. Language matters–and reluctance to use terminology that is a gift to the GOP isn’t evidence of a lesser commitment to the cause.


  1. Yes, language does matter. I am not even sure what progressive means anymore based on the current semantic police. I think the new categories come to Neo, as in Neoliberal and Neo progressive, both of which are fake.

    Why would a new liberally minded person want to privatize the government and force austerity on the people while lavishing the rich with all the breaks in the world?

    Neither neo nor liberal fit.

    Same with progressives.

    Hillary called herself a progressive which she is not. Then we have the young progressives who say they are progressive, but they vote like a traditional democrat.

    Egos like to identify with words. However, don’t we all judge the person based on their actions?

    It’s why I don’t waste my time on egos–you’ll tell me who you are in time as I observe you. 😉

  2. Some new children’s books by Mike Huckabee are out just in time for Christmas. They instruct the little ones all about the dangers of communism and socialism…you know, that socialism stuff that Jesus taught about.
    You got to love those ever so White Christians. Busy, busy, busy spreading the gospel according to
    the Republican Party.

  3. The Protestors came up with the phrase “defund the police” after Floyd’s murder. This phrase was not really embraced by the DNC. I think the phrase should have been something like
    “cops are NOT above the law.” Followed by “He couldn’t breathe and was murdered right in front of our eyes.” Floyd was the first person I ever saw take their last breath so I’m kinda sensitive about what happened next. I remember silly details like that. The media blew it. Absolutely!

  4. The key is, if you have to explain it, it won’t work. That limits the complexity of thought that can be expressed, but most people don’t want complex. There used to be a credo for public speaking: KISS (Keep it simple, short). I may have Parkinson’s disease, but I eschew Parkinson’s Law. My best advice is when you’ve said what you need to say, sit down.

  5. Your point about silos was evident to me this weekend. We stayed in a hotel in Southern Indiana, and when I went to the breakfast room FOX News was on the TV. I observed as a family with young children watched in rapt attention as a commentator railed about how a “fine young patriot” named Kyle Rittenhouse had been mistreated by prosecutors and “vindicated” by the jury. I grabbed my food and retreated to the lobby so that I would be out of earshot of the TV, and I sat there fantasizing about going back into the room and switching the TV to local news or CNN.
    It was a clear reminder to me that I am only generally aware of the content of Fox News because I don’t and won’t watch it. However, we have generations of young children who are growing up watching Fox News and the other right wing outlets, and that is what they will come to know and believe. It is scary.

  6. I cannot remember where I first saw this, but it was an article about Frank Luntz, a communications consultant that helped frame issues for the Republican party. For example, to derail calls for increasing the inheritance tax rate it should be called a “death tax.” The article suggested that progressives revise their terminology:

    Entitlements –> “Earned Benefits”
    Redistribution of Wealth –> “Fair Wages for Work”
    Government Spending –> “Government Investing”
    Corporate America –> “Unelected Corporate Governance”
    Privatize –> “Profitize”
    Gun Control Laws –> “Gun Responsibility Laws”
    Pro-Life –> “Pro-Family Planning”

    Unfortunatley progressives keep undermining their goals with their impulsive use of language. It might feel good at the time for them, but it is not effective.

  7. I recently saw the following quote on Twitter, originally made by a prominent national Dem figure about the Dem party’s recent outreach efforts in Indiana, which are in themselves commendable:

    “It’s important that those folks understand what we have done for them. Because at the end of the day, every voter wants to be seen. They want to be heard. They want to be valued.”

    The first sentence hit me like a ton of bricks for its inept messaging. It reminded me of something Hillary would say and also a repeat of 2009 when Obama and Pelosi spent over a year passing ACA and then made it the centerpiece of the 2010 midterm elections when Dems got slaughtered by the nascent Tea Party. They’ve learned nothing in 11 years and paternalism still serves as the core style of Dem messaging.

    Republican voters, especially rural middle and working class R voters, HATE Democrats. Period. There is NO path to reaching these people with facts and reason. The ONLY path is to convince them that their real enemy is the GOP and there is plenty of ammo at their disposal. But instead they bring dull knives to a gun fight.

  8. Our irrational feelings, thoughts are often hooked by language. I understand that in the music industry they require a hook line that makes the song an ear worm in your head. This hook line can be verbal or a musical line.

    Politicians use hook lines that get people engaged but then fail often to explain the policies they want to create in service of the greater good. MAGA is a perfect example of a hook line that hooks people’s irrational beliefs, feelings. Underneath that hook line were nostalgic feelings for the 50’s, I suppose. But the 50’s were not a great time for so many Americans.

    I do not think that “Build Back Better” is a great hook line. It does, however, succintly state what Biden’s agenda is.

    If Democrats want to succeed in winning in elections, they will need to create hook lines that fire the imagination of progressive citizens, that create a vision of America moving forward in a way that lifts the boats of everyone in the nation. After all we came to America in different boats, but we are all in the same boat now.

  9. An issue is, does propaganda enjoy literary creative freedom that is greater than political speech does? I would argue yes because one is fiction and the other is nonfiction. There are always many more lies that can be told compared to the single known truth of reality. Opinion is also much more flexible than fact in that way. Also, entertainment is much more creative than news.

    I used to think about the headlines on the tabloids in the supermarket checkouts and think what a fun job, just make up a fun possibility and write it as the truth.

  10. It’s unfortunate that at this late date we have to admit that Dr.Goebbels was on to something when he was in charge of Hitler’s propaganda machine. A Nazi Party that was not a majority party and thus in need of coalition partner(s) told and repeated enough lies to name the chancellor, thanks to the communication skills of Dr. Goebbels and Hitler’s finishing touches on the political end of such efforts with his screaming denunciations of the Treaty of Versailles, Jews, communists, French reparations from WW I etc., all of which he endlessly and successfully repeated, and all while the Good Germans sat idly by, assured that the Nazi scourge would die on its own. It didn’t, and we all know the horrific result of their inaction.

    I sense that we are in an early 1930 Germany. Fox and the radical right are the new Goebbels; the socialistic and baby-killing liberals are the new Jews and communists, and the majority of Americans are the Good Germans who by their inattention to what is going on these days are inviting perhaps a worse result, such as a Trump dictatorship and the end of the American experiment in self-governing democracy (a/k/a the day America died).

    What to do? First, pay attention to what is going on, and then relentlessly defend our democracy and self-governing by the people rather than “government” by a dictator, all while publicly fact-checking the organs of propaganda above identified every minute of every day with our own truth-telling in Goebbels-esque fashion.

    First Amendment problem? The Founders never intended free speech to include the right to overturn our democracy and destroy our government they had just established while using such constitutional rights, privileges and immunities as a cover for their treasonous acts, an issue (if it is) the Supreme Court should decide. Awaken, Good Americans!

  11. I like to think of the Democratic party as being “smarter” as a whole than the Republican party – there’s that progressive arrogance, I suppose. However, it never ceases to amaze me how inept they they are with messaging and how there’s no leadership on that front. Go to the districts of those loud Republicans such as Greene and Gaetz and explain what their negative votes mean to their community. Call out those Republicans – loudly and persistently -who voted against the infrastructure bill and are now going back to their constituents and taking credit. Get on Fox news and explain your position. It’s no good preaching to the choir all the time. And get your party in line – we could have passed the same infrastructure bill months ago and shown something positive to most of the country who really just wanted to see something normal again in government. That would have been a huge win. Now it’s lost in the wind and yet again the Republicans have the narrative.

  12. “Defund The Police” was a ruse for Democrats to fall for and to further erode their credibility.

    Let’s be honest, Democrats seem to be doing a great job at eroding their own cred without outside influences.

  13. The GOP’s consistently shrinking platform of ideas leads them to attack the words they don’t care for rather than the idea the word represents. To me, being “P.C.” or “woke” just means taking into account how another person might feel about something that is outside my experience and respecting their perspective. It seems that a great many on the right don’t want to have to think that deeply. They prefer to hold onto knee-jerk reactions.
    I have a bumper sticker on my car that says “It’s Ms. Liberal, tree-hugging, pro-choice, hippie-freak to you, Pal!” Maybe some people see an elderly, gray-haired women driving a car with that on it in the South might think differently about the word “Liberal.”

  14. Yes, Sheila, you are preaching to the choir here with me. I have long bemoaned the fact the Democrats, and especially the liberal/progressive wing, are so bad at messaging and the Republicans are so good.

    “Right to Work” sounds good until you realize it is a right to freeload and and attempt to destroy unions, giving you a right to work for less.
    Various “Clean Air” bills sound good, until realize that they legalize massive pollution.

    The Dems? “Defund the Police”, “Woke” – as Peggy said, if you have to explain it, you’ve lost. K.I.S.S.

    I have a split vocational background. I spent many years as a research scientist. Science is very nuanced, causing great deals of problems in explaining things like the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Now I work in IT. “Eats shoots and leaves” is a cute meme in describing language and grammar, but in the IT world, that missing comma means that your program explodes (figuratively speaking), the medical claim file gets lost, and you have a big problem. No nuance there, just very simple rules.

    The task of political communication is to turn that nuanced policy into concrete statements that are hard to misinterpret. The Democrats have to get a lot better at that.

  15. Over the last decade or so, every motel, hotel or inn where we have stayed while traveling has had the TV set to Fox; Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, California and Arizona. That fact has made me wonder how much Fox pays the hospitality industry for its complicity in creating a bubble of “entertainment” across the country.
    Pete B. has been conspicuous in his appearances on Fox and his ability to remain civil, rational and precise in his interviews.
    I am a liberal, progressive, woke or whatever appellation the politics attach to someone who believes that equal treatment is the aspiration, directive and justification for rule of law applied across the board. The criminal justice system is just one conspicuous example what is broken, most often by majority white, christian specific intention. Whether entitled by gender, race, religion, identity or age, it has always been this way and, I suspect, will continue long after I am gone. I fear for the country my grandson will inhabit.

Comments are closed.