Decoding the Political Buzzwords of Election 2012

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With the Republican presidential primary debate season drawing to a close, we asked linguist Geoffrey Nunberg to decode some of the language heard on the campaign trail thus far, including words and phrases uttered in 19 debates, nearly $70 million worth of political advertising, countless stump speeches, interviews and media appearances.

Lauren Feeney: What does “dog-whistle politics” mean? Have you heard any examples during this primary season?

Geoffrey Nunberg

Geoffrey Nunberg: It was originally about using coded expressions that evoked a specific message for one group while sounding innocuous to others. George Bush talked about “people of faith” as if he was talking about religious believers of any sort, but Karl Rove made it clear the phrase meant conservative Catholics, Charismatics, Pentecostals and the like. Nowadays, though, the phrase can be just a question of plausible deniability. Newt Gingrich’s references to the “food stamp president” go straight back to Reagan’s talk about “strapping young bucks” using food stamps to buy “T-bone steaks.” That’s not really dog whistle, anymore — it’s at a frequency that anybody can hear.

Feeney: Mitt Romney, in his now famous “I’m not concerned about the very poor” interview with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, defined the middle class — about whom he says he’s most concerned — as “the 90-95 percent of Americans who, right now, are struggling.” That seems like more than the middle. Is “middle class” a definable category?

Nunberg: Not in exact terms. Ask Americans out of the blue what class they belong to and most will say the middle class, referring to their values and aspirations. But give them a list of choices and that figure drops to 45 percent, with just as many calling themselves working class. If you’re talking economically, as Romney was, 90 percent is way, way too high — that would include a lot of people below the poverty line and millions more of the near-poor, who depend on that safety net, that Romney says he’s not concerned about.

Feeney: Are “1 percent” and “job creators” the same word in two different languages?

Nunberg: Well, in a loose sense they are. The Right doesn’t like to use words like “wealthy” or “rich” — in fact the only time they use the word “class” is when it’s either preceded by “middle” or followed by “warfare.” So it’s about taxing the “job creators” or “penalizing success.” Or these days, they sometimes draw the line in a very different place, between the 55 percent or so who pay federal tax and those who don’t, the “makers” as opposed to the “takers” — or the “moochers” or the “lucky duckies” as The Wall Street Journal has called them. You can’t make this stuff up. There are also more than 100,000 Americans in the top 5 percent who don’t pay federal income taxes — the HINTs, they’re sometimes called, for High Income No Taxes. You don’t hear that word as often as the others.

Feeney: How would you define “conservative?” It seems like an evolving term.

Nunberg: At one point the word was basically associated with issues like limited government, decreased regulation, and so forth. Those things still matter but these days people’s position on abortion, gay marriage and immigration tends to be more decisive than their view on taxes, say. And the criteria are expanding to include views on evolution, global warming, even the theory of relativity — the whole package. But mostly it has become a matter of committing to an uncompromising, sectarian rhetoric. When you track the words “socialistic” and “communistic” in the media since the 1940s, they become less and less frequent until a couple of years ago, when they suddenly started to shoot up again.

Feeney: Republican strategist Frank Luntz recently advised Republicans to avoid the word “capitalism” and replace it with “economic freedom” or “free market.” Good advice?

Nunberg: Yes, I think so. “Capitalism” is hardly a dirty word, but it isn’t one that most Americans warm to, either. And “capitalist” has been beyond redemption since the 19th century, when it conjured up those top-hatted plutocrats in the political cartoons. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates aren’t described as “capitalists” — you can’t use the word these days unless you modify it with “venture.” So you talk about the free market. Or “free enterprise,” which was coined by the great economist Alfred Marshall more than a century ago to soften the edge of “capitalism.”

“Economic freedom” is a curious term. Look in news articles or on the web and you find people using it two ways — sometimes it refers to freedom from government interference in the market, sometimes to the freedom that economic security gives people, as an expansion of FDR’s Freedom from Want — as in “the money gave me the economic freedom to pursue my education.” But in editorials or on the op-ed pages, it never means that, only the absence of government meddling.

Feeney: Who came up with the word fracking? Do you think the sound of the word has impacted the debate on the issue?

Nunberg: “Fracking” has been a standard term in the energy business for 40 or 50 years, with that spelling. Then it was picked up by environmentalist opponents, as in “no fracking way.” At that point the industry objected that the word was offensive and should be spelled “fraccing.” I think they’ll take a shelaccing on that one.

Feeney: A new Pew study shows that 50 percent of people have a positive reaction to the word “liberal,” 62 percent react positively to “conservative” and 67 percent react well to the word “progressive.” What do you make of that? Why the difference between liberal and progressive?

Nunberg: Well, up to now, anyway, “progressive” isn’t tarred with all the invidious stereotypes that have been attached to “liberal” — the fatuousness and condescension, the cheese, the lattes, the Volvos, or Priuses now, I guess. Actually the left had as much to do with creating that picture as the right did. Some on the right have tried to establish that association with “progressive” — Bill O’Reilly rails about far-left “secular progressives,” or SPs for short, who are waging war on traditional values, and depicts them as more seditious than liberals are. But that doesn’t resonate with people outside the Fox ambit. And a lot of conservatives seem to put the word in quotes or talk about “so-called progressives,” which indicates a kind of discomfort about it — those are the devices you use when you’ve lost control of the conversation and have to use the other guy’s language. For a long time I thought the only course open to liberals was to reclaim the L-word; now I’m not so sure. I think most people consider the terms “progressive” and “liberal” as pretty much equivalent in terms of political views, even though there are a lot of self-styled progressives who would disagree with that. Actually, my sense is that the major difference between progressives and liberals is that the progressives insist that there is one.

Feeney: We’ve been talking a lot about the language of Republicans, since they’ve been doing a lot of the talking these days, with 19 debates plus advertising and other media appearances. What are some code words that Democrats use?

Nunberg: Well, right now it’s the Republicans who have been getting most of the attention, understandably. And the Democrats haven’t generally been as adept as Republicans at shaping the language of political discourse, or not in recent decades, anyway. “Affirmative action,” “welfare,” “public option” — those all began their lives as liberal euphemisms before they became just the standard names for things. (“Public” is the word we use for government programs and institutions we approve of, like schools and libraries, particularly since the Reagan years, when “government” itself became a bad word.)

I worry about the left’s tendency to use language that demonizes the wealthy in general, as opposed to say, going after the Foster Friesses of the world, who are fair game. But I think that the most interesting addition to the language of the left right now is “the one percent,” which is the most explicit reference to class that liberals have permitted themselves since a century ago, when people talked about “the upper tenth.” But there’s also the return of “fairness,” which should by rights be a central value, but which was pushed to the side for several decades when white working-class voters took it as a code word for programs like quotas and busing. It’s clear that “fair share” is going to play a very important part in the general election — the Republicans aren’t talking about it, obviously, but the conversation is going to be very different next summer and fall.

Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California-Berkeley. He is the author of Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show. His new book, Ascent of the A-Word, deals with the breakdown of modern political discourse. It will be published in July by PublicAffairs. You can follow him on Twitter at @geoffnunberg.

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