The right wing in the USA has perfected the use of language to control the debate and public opinion. By shifting language—while retaining the same policies—and picking specific terms that resonate in debates, the right wing has framed their positions as favorable, while denigrating the other side.
For most areas of policy, the general public lacks knowledge of public policy past the memorization of simplified media coverage or partisan talking points. Due to the lack of knowledge surrounding the specifics of policy, different labels on identical policy choices often poll radically differently (ex. “entitlement cuts” are reviled while “entitlement reform” is acceptable to the American public).
The conservative movement has taken advantage of the American policy ignorance and susceptibility to this tactic in order to trick Americans into voting against their interests; unfortunately, the left has been much less effective in reframing the debate back onto favorable terms, and this is one area of politics that the Democrats must emulate the right wing’s tactics.
Conservative pollsters use focus groups to identify the ways of describing policy in a way that is favorable to conservatives. Once they isolate the best way of describing a policy, they then distribute these talking points to the rest of the conservative apparatus (politicians, fundraisers and activists) to be repeated ad nauseum. The specific words and phrases determined in the focus groups become the party line and no deviation is tolerated (ex. any Democratic immigration reform is “amnesty,” regardless of what it includes). Eventually, the American people begin to realize that they don’t like the policies that are being implemented, thus the cycle begins anew and the pollsters must begin finding new ways of describing their policies.
In many ways, the Republican policy platform is like a Hermit crab—it is the same ugly and mean interior that sheds its shell every couple years.
The Republican strategist Frank Luntz is the little known, but very effective, consultant who has driven much of the right wing wordsmithing for the past two decades. While he has largely stayed out of the limelight, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow obtained and posted a copy of Frank Luntz’s report, detailing the procedures of wordsmithing for the issue of the 2010 financial reform discussion. The following picture is the summery at the end of this report as to what the most effective messaging terms would be for the conservatives
This list of terms and sayings laid the groundwork for the entire 2010 conservative campaign to fight against the Democrats in their attempts to rein in the excesses of the big banks.
Progressives should immediately and widely begin utilizing the tactics of wordsmithing in order to push their agenda. This tactic has relatively little cost and essentially no risk to the progressive movement; it has been proven to be effective in swaying low-information voters and could be used to syphon them from the Republicans.
Using the model created by conservative studies and focus groups—as detailed in the reports which have been leaked—or simply hiring conservative defectors, progressives can reverse-engineer their methods and, hopefully, achieve similar results.
There is no downside to utilizing progressive wordsmithing and I predict one of three results to this tactic:
- If Progressive Wordsmithing Works: There is a very real possibility that progressive wordsmithing could increase the number of low-information voters who support the progressive movement; these people are tricked into supporting conservative policy, against their own interests and the progressive use of wordsmithing can recapture them (essentially tricking them to actually want what is best for them, rather than what they think sounds best for them).
- If Progressive Wordsmithing has a Negligible Effect: It is possible that conservative wordsmithing and progressive wordsmithing cancel each other out, thus leveling the playing field. As conservatives are already ahead in this game, the leveling of the playing field actually signifies a substantial gain to the progressive messaging attempt.
- If Progressive Wordsmithing Provokes Increased Scrutiny: People interested in the competing phrasings of the same policy, as provoked by dueling wordsmithed terms, will likely research the subject in order to understand the conflict. As conservative policy is often not based upon facts, and the more educated people become, the more they tend towards progressivism, these people would likely become more receptive to the progressive viewpoint. A well educated population, making rational decisions, is the best friend of the progressive, and the worst enemy of the conservative.
Wordsmithing works best on low information voters, thus the remedy to its effects is education. Ideally, progressives would only utilize wordsmithing until they manage to truly educate the American people on the issues. Unfortunately, this is often a futile endeavor (people are busy and a lot of issues are complex) so, in reality, progressives wordsmithing will likely be necessary for a long time into the future.