By Josh Sager
In recent years, it has become apparent that the right wing in the USA has perfected the use of language to control the debate. By shifting language, and picking specific terms for use in debates, the right wing has framed their positions as favorable, while denigrating the other side. For many policies, there is a lack of specific knowledge over exactly what is being discussed by the policymakers, thus different wordings of identical policy choices often poll radically differently. An example of this phenomenon can be found in the 2009 healthcare debates, where the right wing reworded the “single-payer option” as “government run healthcare”; as many Americans are wary over policy which they consider a “government takeover” (another term abused by this tactic), the policy of “government run healthcare” is seen as far less favorable than when it is referred by its synonym of “single payer”.
Those who follow this situation know that this tactic is not accidental because right wing strategists, as well as the propaganda wing of the Republican Party (Fox News), have issued memos detailing the strategy when making arguments. Republican strategist Frank Luntz, a little known but very effective consultant, has driven much of the right wing wordsmithing for the past decade – unfortunately, there has been little to no left wing analog for this tactical movement on the right.
In order to fight back against the right wing wordsmithing, those who support the left must do one of two things:
- Educate the population on policy to the point where wordsmithing is ineffective --- This tactic is very difficult, if not impossible to achieve, thus it is not the best short-term solution
- Push back using left wing wordsmithing --- While many might see this as “sinking to the level of the right wing”, those in the left must play the game that the right chooses. If on party begins using a tactic, the other party can either stand on principle and let itself hemorrhage low-information voters, or push back using the same tactic (no matter how unpleasant that tactic is: IE. Super PACs).
Negative → Positive Wording Shifts
“Government spending” → “Investment in the future”
All too often, the right wing portrays all government spending as “waste, fraud and abuse”, in an attempt to convince people that government is not necessary. In reality, government, when properly run, can do many things which would not have otherwise have been possible – public education, national defense, criminal justice, and the national infrastructure are all examples of areas where government spending is actually a form of investment. The government is the actor which exists to benefit all of society, not make a profit, thus there are things that only the government can do properly and equitably.
While the general public often has a cynical view of government operations, thus are unlikely to support the unspecific idea of “government spending”, these same people have a lay-understanding of investment, and are less likely to consider something termed as in investment as waste; an investment brings the future gains to mind when discussing policy, not just the immediate costs.
“Taxing the rich” → “Making sure that the everybody pays their fair share”
Taxes are a necessary evil, if we are to have a functioning government. In general, Americans believe that taxes are too high, and a very nervous about anybody talking about raising taxes – regardless of whether this aversion is rational. The facts show that the rich and corporations are currently paying a lower percentage in taxes (both as a function of their income and total tax revenue) than at any other point in modern memory; the trick to messaging the solution to this problem (tax increases in the upper income brackets, loophole removal, and the consideration of capital gains as income), lies in turning it into an issue of fairness.
Polling suggests that, while many don’t want to raise taxes, a majority block of the American populace does not believe that the wealthy are paying their fair share: this disconnect can be utilized by progressives through the use of the term “fair share” in substitution for simply stating that they want to raise taxes. It is far more difficult to argue against fairness, than to simply protest a tax increase, as it is difficult to create slogans against fairness (and much of the low-information voters are swayed by slogans). Many middle class Americans believe that any taxes raised could be their own, thus they are reticent to support the idea of tax increases - However, by making it clear that the rich are not currently paying their fair share (a widely held belief), and promising to fix this through increasing only their tax rates to a “fair rate”, the progressives can overcome much of the public dislike for tax hikes.
“Healthcare government option” → “Medicare for all”This rewording is very simple: Americans love Medicare, a single payer health insurance system, yet many Americans do not support a national single payer. This disconnect is due to a lack of understanding that Medicare is a single payer system, and a belief that all “government run medicine” is inherently bad or inefficient: by connecting the idea of government run healthcare (government option) to a well-liked and highly successful program, people are more likely to support the “new” idea of a “government option”, than if the same ideas were proposed as a new policy.
Ironically, the data which supports this wording comes from right wing strategist Frank Luntz - his polling and focus groups during the ACA fight found that, of all possible phrasings for the same healthcare policy (single payer), the term “Medicare for all” was the most positive (>70% support), and the term “government run healthcare” was the least supported (<50%).
“Government (or “job killing”) regulations” → “Restrictions on unsafe/illegal business practices”
Few people like government interference, whether on personal or economic issues, and the general public has virtually no understanding of how important government regulations are to protect the public; when combined, these characteristics have led many people to be very susceptible to the suggestion that all regulations are “job killing” and that the market can regulate itself.
By framing the regulations as targeting illegal or dangerous practices (as most regulations do anyways), the public is much less likely to consider them an overreach than if this qualifier is not made – after all, who want to let businesses endanger their workers or customers. All but the most libertarian/anarchist individuals support sane regulations on industry, and by framing the argument as a matter of public safety rather than arbitrary government action, those who support sane regulations can deflect some reflexive distaste from low-information voters. It is very difficult to justify allowing unsafe or illegal practices, even to low-information voters.
- “Oil/Gas/Corn Subsidies” → “Corporate Welfare”
- “Conservative Politics/Policies/Politicians” → “Regressive Politics/Policies/Politicians
- “Lobbyists” → “Big-Money Advocates”
Positive → Negative Wording Shifts
“Pro-Life” → “Anti-Woman” or “Anti Reproductive Freedom”
The term ”pro-life” is both deceptive and heavily biased in favor of the anti-abortion movement. Those who support abortion rights don’t actually like abortions, but believe it to be both a matter of women’s choice and public health; these people are just as pro-life (and often more so) than any anti-abortion protester. While this issue is very highly charged, and I seriously doubt that any amount of wordsmithing will substantively change the debate, I believe it necessary to push back against right wing messaging wherever it is purposefully deceptive.
By reversing the terminology from “pro-life” to “anti reproductive freedom” (or “anti-woman”, if appropriate), the supporters of abortion rights will be able to retake the language of “life” from those who seek to control other peoples’ bodies. Abortions are legal in the USA, this any attack on this right should be framed by its supporters as a reduction of the rights of large segments of the population. As Americans have a very adverse reaction to any perceived attack on “freedom” (real of imagined), this terminology is likely to garner more support than other pharasing of the same phenomenon.
For more on this subject: http://sarcasticliberal.blogspot.com/2012/02/pro-life-or-anti-woman.html
“Free Market” → “Unregulated Market” or “Anarchic Market”
One of the core beliefs for those on the right wing in the USA is that the market can regulate wide swathes of society and that the government is always worse than private companies (except the military) – The major problem with this belief is that it is absolutely false. As it is now, the market is corrupted by a lack of government regulation, corporatism masquerading as campaign contributions, and asymmetrical information available to the consumer and the producers. Put plainly, even if one believes that the market can regulate society, markets do not exist in the USA to the point where it can function in the way that the right wing says they do.
The American public idolizes the term “free” (or any of the permutations, such as freedom), yet they fail to understand that the “free market” is just another term for economic Darwinism. Currently, there is no free market in the USA, rather we have a form of corporatism: the rich have access and resources, thus they are able to stack the deck in their favor and crush those with less than them. By referring to the market as “anarchic” or “unregulated”, both terms accurately describing the current state of the markets in many sectors of the USA, progressives can communicate a more accurate description of the US economy, while at the same time removing the “free” buzzword that has been attached to the situation.
Any politicians who challenge the characterizations of the current markets of the USA’s economy as anarchic or unregulated should immediately be asked the requirements for a free market to exist – With the current state of the right wing in the USA, this is likely to result in numerous awkward pauses and misstatement that could be used to demonstrate the ignorance of the other side’s politicians of just what constitutes a “free market”.
“Job Creators” → “Millionaires and Billionaires”
The common buzz-phrase of “job creators” is used to justify tax cuts for the very rich, often at the expense of the public. The fact is, while some wealthy individuals create jobs through investment, the vast majority of the wealthy do not create jobs. In addition to this fact, tax cuts to the wealthy do not create jobs, as money which is reinvested into a company (thus creating jobs) is not taxed - only income and capital gains are taxed – thus cutting taxes actually disincentives reinvestment into a company. The so called “job creators” don’t create jobs, and should not be referred to as such. Progressives should make it clear that giving tax cuts to the wealthy, does not create jobs and that simply calling the mega-wealthy by another name does not change the effects of their actions.
In our tough economic times, it is easy to exploit peoples’ desperation to convince the low information voter that the rich create jobs. Progressives need to sever the idea of job creation from the discussions over the taxation of the rich, if only to make it less easy for the right wing to convince ignorant people to support their policy. It is far more difficult to argue that our tax dollars should go to millionaires than job creators, as there is an implied (and imaginary) benefit in giving money to somebody who will create a job; by simply promoting accuracy in labeling, the progressive movement can prevent the right wing from deceiving the ignorant into voting against their own interests.
“Tax Cuts” → “Tax Spending”
The recent push by the right wing to demonize government spending while cutting taxes illustrates an interesting disconnect in logic: Tax cuts for the rich are government spending as much as any industry subsidy. Put simply, giving $10 in tax breaks to a rich family is just as costly as spending $10 in education, and has none of the social benefits. Whenever people hear about tax cuts, they believe that they will get to keep more of their money and, unfortunately, unless they are wealthy, it is unlikely that this is the case. As the right wing has already conditioned much of the American population to dislike government spending, progressives utilize this rewording to attack the support of tax cuts through a simple wording shift
In addition to the characterization of tax cuts as spending, there are psychological differences between the reactions to different ways of describing redistribution. Studies have shown that people react differently, and far more negatively, to losses than to foregone gains: In order to reduce support for tax cuts to the wealthy, progressives must rephrase the discussion to argue that the government is giving to the rich, rather than not taking as much from them in taxes; this wording utilizes the above mentioned difference in reaction to portray the idea of tax cuts in a more negative light. While the difference in argument is semantic, the psychological effect of the perceived giving to the rich is far more negative than the psychological effect of simply not taking as much from them –regardless of the identical results.