September 17, 2005

War of Words

Pro-choice. Pro-life. Death tax. Judicial activism. Legislate from the bench. Culture of life. Raising taxes. Quota. What do these terms mean to you? Probably a lot. They are hot-button phrases that politicians, often after careful test-marketing from political consultants (such as Frank Luntz, the architect of Newt Gingrich's Contract With America) repeat in order to create Pavlovian responses in our brains. Notice how these phrases, and I'm sure you can come up with others, are loaded with postive or negative value judgments. Notice also that, other than "pro-choice," most of the memorable phrases are used by Republicans. From President Bush on down to his White House staff, GOP senators and congressional representatives, and their proxies in the right-wing media, they seem to be speaking these advertising slogans in lockstep. You have to hand it to the GOP, they're just so damn good at this. They believe that the way an issue is framed goes a long way, sometimes even all the way, toward winning the hearts and minds of the people. It seems quite insulting, but given the time and money devoted to this, they must be onto something.

The July 17, 2005 Sunday New York Times Magazine contained an eye-opening article by Matt Bai, entitled "The Framing Wars," on this very subject. Subscribers to the New York Times online version can find the article by searching the magazine link on the web site. It's about how the GOP has been winning these wars for years, and how the Democrats, with the help of linguistics professor George Lakoff and his book "Don't Think of an Elephant!" may be catching up. The example Bai gives of recent Democratic success in this war of words is the disciplined and repeated use of the phrase "abuse of power" to describe, and help defeat, Bush's and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's attempt to outlaw the Senate's traditional use of the filibuster in cases of judicial nominations. If you can't locate the Times article, there are some excellent summaries available, with numerous excerpts from the article. I would recommend going to the Daily Kos blog and locating the July 18th post entitled "I Could Kiss the New York Times."

It is important to think about these phrases that are tossed around so regularly in the media. Is the GOP really "pro-life?" Do they really believe in a "culture of life?" If so, how could they be for the death penalty? How can they seek to pass laws to protect the gun industry from lawsuits, a protection that no other industry has, when kids are being mowed down by shooters weilding military assault weapons at Columbine and other schools? Likewise, when they say they favor judges who would not be "judicial activists," who would not "legislate from the bench," what does that mean? Judicial activism is usually defined as ruling counter to legislation passed by the majority in Congress or a state legislature. Does that mean that the GOP wants judges who would have supported slavery, voting rights only for men or property owners, and racial segregation, since those were policies enacted into law by Congress and state legislatures at one time? Similarly, when is the last time a Republican mentioned any affirmative action program and did not use the word "quota" to describe and thus discredit it? When is the last time they mentioned "Iraq" and did not include "war on terror" in the same sentence? Even the Proxy News Channel gets in on that act. Whenever they cover a story on Iraq, they run a giant "War on Terror" graphic across the lower portion of the screen, as if one had anything to do with the other. And on taxes, whenever a Democrat says we should not implement a new tax cut because we have no money to pay for the rebuilding of New Orleans and Iraq at the same time, Republicans say that's raising taxes and thus bad. Since when is not cutting something, and thus keeping it the same, an increase? Only in Washington and only in the Republican party.

The result of this framing is often an extreme policy, one designed to please a narrow special interest group of constituents, dressed up in a reasonable-sounding euphemistic name. Thus, the GOP doesn't oppose affirmative action, it only opposes quotas, and after all, who wants those? They don't want to outlaw abortion and force women into back alleys with coat hangars, they merely want to promote life, and after all, who's against life? They don't oppose judges who identify and protect civil rights in the constitution, or favor judges who find no rights (such as voting rights for women and blacks) other than those explicitly spelled out in the Constitution in 1789, they only oppose judicial activists who would legislate from the bench rather than following the Constitution, and who could argue with that?

It would be nice if voters and reporters saw through these slogans and thought critically about what the speaker really means and who he or she is trying to please. Matt Bai concludes in his article that it would be fruitless for the Democrats try to emulate the GOP in the use of such rhetoric, without the substance of already-popular policies and powerful arguments behind it. Given the gulf between the popularity and power of many GOP policies on the one hand, and the popularity of their catch phrases on the other, I wonder.


At 7:27 PM, Blogger Chrystina said...

Thank you for thinking and expressing your thoughts lucidly. It is so refreshing to see someone look at these issues and break them down into more easily consumable parts. Good work! It doesn't hurt that I happen to agree with pretty much everything you say anyway, but this helps to solidify my thoughts and remind myself that there are people who actually think in this world, this country in particular.


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