How to Out-Talk the Right

Overheard during lunch in Washington: a right-wing think-tanker pitching a story to a receptive Time editor. The line? The compelling case for a Time cover featuring the intellectual triumph of the right-driven by the political leadership of credentialed academics and the intellectual bankruptcy of the left. Watch for it. I see it slightly differently: small ideas, big mouth. The right's ascendancy--especially the libertarian/corporate right's ascendancy-owes its undoubted success in small part to some two-bit intellectuals, but in large part to a ten-dollar gold piece of a propaganda machine. You don't have to blame Newt Gingrich for the Oklahoma City bombing to remark on the ubiquity of the libertarian right's reach. From the Atlantic of the Heritage Foundation to the Rocky Mountains of the Militia of Montana to the Pacific of the Taxpayers' Revolt, the libertarian vision shines through. The National Rifle Association (freedom to defend one's family) and the tobacco industry (freedom of choice); the flourishing business lobby (freedom from oppressive regulation) and the medical right (freedom from socialized medicine); mining, timber and real estate interests (freedom from unjust "takings") and opponents of civil rights law (freedom from quotas)--all have adapted libertarian themes and language to cloak their political objectives. Triumph of ideas? No; triumph of words. On the left our ranks are hardly bereft of good thoughts, but we are sorely lacking in the resources and will to develop, test and propagate political rhetoric that effectively challenges the right's vision. Let us be clear: The libertarian right has found fertile ground not simply because its researches and deploys emotionally evocative rhetorical formulas. It has developed a beguiling diagnosis of the ills that plague the country and a compelling vision of a future society that resonates powerfully with the anxious, the angry and the alienated-especially among white, male, middle- and working-class voters. Liberals, by contrast, are now seen as offering deaf ear to citizens stressed by gnawing economic and social anxieties. Liberalism seems to offer no answers to such fundamental concerns as the decline in blue-collar income and the deterioration of our cities. Most Americans view liberals as reflexive defenders of government programs and regulations who offer no coherent vision of the good society to which such programs and regulations can lead. And while liberals rightly defend government as a bulwark of the marketplace, they are not heard to acknowledge that government can also serve only elites and that government itself can in fact be an exploiter. At the same time, in a very practical sense the decline in vitality and influence of a wide range of local sources of political information-unions, political parties, the N.A.A.C.P., the League of Women Voters and others--and the decline of multiple media serving local communities have eroded the ability of progressive groups to take their arguments to the people through trusted intermediaries. Consequently, arguing the case against the libertarian right has become increasingly difficult for national groups at one or two removes from an engaged grass roots. Not only are top-down communications channels in disrepair but the bottom-up channels that kept national organizations informed about the local climate of public opinion are simply not working. The result: liberals' and the left's gradual retreat from a language of values and shared experiences (for example, safe food and medicine) in favor of abstract arguments concerning policy, programs and national statistics (F.D.A. regulatory procedures). The times require a balance of personal and political frameworks. Yet too few public interest groups possess the reach, the resources, the research expertise and the creativity to invent an effective language in which to argue their case to the public at large. Newt Gingrich, by contrast, understands and deploys language as a subtle political weapon. Among the rhetorical devices and language tactics used by Gingrich and his allies on the libertarian right are: Associating free-market, antigovernment policy initiatives with broadly shared values and symbols, such as freedom, family, work, opportunity; Associating government programs and regulations with negative values and symbols--bureaucracy, oppression, waste, elitism, corruption; Systematically undermining the currency of positive terms that have historically resonated with the public in rallying support for an affirmative government role: rights, regulation, welfare. It's hard to remember that those words were once positively charged. Now they're curses. Systematically shifting the denotation of special labels. For example, through the 1960s the negative label "special interests" was narrowly understood to mean influential big-business lobbyists. Beginning in the 1970s, neoconservatives with libertarian objectives consciously shifting application of the term from big business to labor, environmental, civil rights and pro-consumer constituencies. By the 1980s, what were previously labeled affirmatively as public interest causes could now be scorned as "special interests." Framing key issues in terms that evoke latent libertarian sentiment--budget cuts for education and social-welfare programs become tax relief for working families; workplace health and safety regulation becomes oppression of small business. Is there any hope of shifting the debate again? The right seems more aware than the left of our ability to seize back the language of political discourse. Republican pollster Frank Luntz's confidential memo to the House Republican Conference Committee, leaked in January, reveals these concerns and vulnerabilities: "If we...surrender our language to the Democrats (as we did in 1982 and 1986) our reign will be short indeed." The Luntz memo's polling and focus-group data remind us that: Programs do matter to people. "Individual programs have friends," Luntz writes. "Bureaucracies and bureaucrats don't." The left must bring home forcefully and constantly the truth that programs people care deeply about and rely upon will be harmed or eliminated; the libertarian regulatory "reforms," for example, will put family health and safety at the mercy of transnational corporations. Republicans don't give a damn. Worries Luntz: "A number of Americans...believe Republicans are `mean' and `uncaring.' As one woman not-so-delicately put it, `The Republicans don't give a damn about the average person.'" We must hammer home the fact that the agenda of the right will harm the average person. Stories have power. Luntz observes: "Our enemies are already gathering their stones. The New York Times has taken the lead, running two full pages of pictures of homeless people sifting through dumpsters for food." We must continue telling these stories, showing the faces of the victims and thus dramatizing the loss of essential programs and regulations. Advice to Time editors: If you must do a cover on the triumph of the right, for goodness' sake don't attribute it to the power of their ideas but to the skill with which they have manipulated language. As for liberals and the left: Sure, we need strong ideas, and maybe new ideas, to combat the libertarians. But we also need to learn at least one lesson from the right: not lying or hatemongering but respect for the emotive power of carefully crafted language to evoke responsive chords in unlikely allies.

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