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Taking Back the Language of the Debate
December 19, 2001
by John Carle (ulysses)

It's become an article of faith in American electoral politics that the holy grail, that which must be achieved in any election cycle, is the support of The Middle, those voters neither of the right nor the left. The middle-class, suburban soccer moms. The moderates.

Favoring a strong military, the end of welfare and — we're told — tax breaks for the rich, this group of voters has achieved near-mythic status in the consciousness of the Democratic Party, and little wonder — it was out of this bunch that the Reagan Democrats first appeared in 1980. Spooked by that defection, the party began a long process of jettisoning many of the progressive values that had been its hallmark since Franklin Roosevelt. Americans were told that liberal values were out of touch, that it wasn't the 1960s any more, that unregulated, free-range capitalism and an end to the capital gains tax would be the salvation of the country. After 21 years, even many erstwhile liberals now believe these things.

What's not realized is that the language of the debate changed around 1980 and has been changing ever since. America didn't move to the right, but its political language did.

The upshot of this is that progressive values have been marginalized. In a nation the idea of which is built on words, language represents nothing less than civic wealth — there is a reason that the freedom of speech guarantee resides in the first amendment to the Constitution — and that wealth (along with so much other kinds of wealth) has been appropriated by the right wing.

Take the term "liberal" itself. It became "the L-word", as if liberals were a kind of political cancer, at about the same time that Republicans learned to use soundbites. The end result? Leftists had to go on the defensive against a nonsensical slur while the GOP could spin a kinder, gentler morning in America with no rebuttal. (See also: "Liberal, Tax and Spend")

Take "welfare". If you were politically conscious in the 80s, I'll bet the term invokes the phrase "welfare queen" somewhere in the back of your mind, even though you know that was a Reaganite caricature the end goal of which was to cut even more funding from social service budgets. This too was never effectively countered.

"Compassionate Conservative". Say it out loud, in your best George Carlin growl. The idea that this was the tagline for the governor who presided over more executions — in Texas, mind you — than any previous governor is insanity. Yet, in the 2000 elections, it drew barely a giggle, much less the howls of laughter it deserved.

Take even the term "moderate", which is more properly an adjective when used politically — think "moderate socialist". It's been used so often to describe those more aptly called centrists that this one political position, wary of change, has alone acquired the glitter of reasonableness. All else has been moved to the fringe.

Which brings us back to the middle. Bill Clinton famously captured much of the electoral middle by standing for "moderate" values and moving the Democratic platform to the right. It worked for the most able politician of our time, but it also alienated progressives and left centrists expecting more movement in the same rightward direction — witness Al Gore's plan for an even greater increase in the Pentagon budget than was offered by George Bush.

A better solution for capturing the political middle for the long term is to talk to the people there. Explain to them that progressive ideals are American ideals — that liberals aren't against the folks in the armed services even when we're antiwar, that being against the death penalty doesn't mean we're soft on crime, that a progressive tax scheme doesn't mean we want to reduce everyone to the same income level, that support for domestic partnership laws and/or gay marriage doesn't mean that we're coming to imprison heterosexuals. We haven't explained ourselves to Middle America in this way since Harry Truman.

And we have to lose the elitism, both appearance and reality. Middle America isn't stupid, but the folks there aren't all political junkies either, and leftist political ideas aren't so complex that they can't be spoken of in plain language that people who have lives to lead can digest quickly. In other words, don't hit people with Noam Chomsky when Jim Hightower will do very nicely.

It's up to us, the people, to do this. The religious right takeover of the GOP was a grassroots movement, and it took time and a lot of talking to neighbors and friends. Reinserting progressive ideas to the American political debate will require the same time and effort. As they say in Washington these days, let's roll.

(With a tip of the hat to enki23)

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