Don’t Talk Like a Twit


May 20, 2004
Yes! magazine


Browse in Language Politics

I was hitchhiking around England in the Spring of 1983. It happened to be the middle of an election campaign: Margaret Thatcher was running for re-election against a professor named Michael Foot, who represented what was called, with wonderful British aplomb, Labour’s “Radical Tendency.”

Somewhere north of London I got a ride from a lorry driver. The man looked as though he had stepped out of a Labour Party poster from the 1930s: gaunt frame, missing teeth, and wool snap-brim cap pulled down to the eyes. I expected a Labour speech, but got something different.

Yes, Foot was for policies that would benefit workers: progressive taxes, social safety net, all that. Thatcher, the hardest of Tories, was against all these things. But Foot was also for unilateral nuclear disarmament, and this, plus his general demeanor, sent off an aroma that this driver could not abide. “What a twit he is,” he said, in an inflection I cannot begin to duplicate, especially in print. “Ya goot ta be toooof.”

You got to be tough. It’s a rough world out there, and this Foot was a wimp.

I have thought of that conversation often over the years, as I have watched Democrats and progressives flounder in the face of a Republican assault. I think of it in particular when I hear them talk. The president’s tax cut package was “risky” and “ill-advised.” Risky? Since when are we Americans afraid of risk? Ill-advised? That’s the way lawyers talk, and we know how people feel about them.

Recently, President Bush, in a typical display of armchair bravado, declared of the guerilla fighters in Iraq, “Bring ‘em on.” Here’s a man who avoided service in Vietnam, talking tough and leaving it to others to walk his talk. But how did the Democrats respond? The President showed “tremendous insensitivity,” said Howard Dean. John Kerry called for more “thoughtfulness and statesmanship.”

Worthy sentiments all. But these Democrats were letting Bush have the Clint Eastwood role while they played Marian the Librarian. Listen to Democrats and progressives these days and you often hear a neutered language that is part Ivy League policy salon, part Beltway operative, and part sensitivity training class. A favorite term of disapproval is “inappropriate,” which means, essentially, ill-mannered. We talk propriety while they talk right and wrong.

Might this have something to do with the fate of our causes politically? Polls say that a lot of Americans agree with the progressive end of the spectrum much of the time. Most are concerned about such things as the natural environment and the commercial assault on their kids. They support public schools, and they think corporations have too much power. A recent poll of attitudes toward U.S. institutions found Americans put big business and HMOs at the bottom of their lists. The opposition to Bush ought to be doing much better than it is. Yes, money is a problem. But just maybe something is getting lost in the translation.

There are two ways to think about political speech—any speech, in fact. One is self-expression, the other is communication. Self-expression starts with me and what I think. It wants you to hear what I have to say, in just the way I want to say it. Communication, by contrast, starts equally with you. It asks not just what I want to say, but also what you are going to hear.

What we hear probably has less to do with a checklist of issues than with style and character. Voters ask themselves, “Is this person pretty much like me? Do I hear echoes of myself—my annoyances and irritations, my sense of right and wrong, my concerns about my family and the world?” Ronald Reagan perhaps was not the brightest bulb in some respects. But his sense of audience was exceptional, as was his ability to situate himself in the living room of the mind. Bill Clinton had these qualities too, which is why he infuriated—and threatened—the Right so much. He was claiming space they thought was theirs.

In the political arena we generally cannot convince people of anything they do not, in some sense, already believe. But we just might be able to convince people that what we say is really what they think already. To do this, we have to understand their system of belief, really get inside it. We need to speak in terms that sound familiar, and like what people hear in their own thoughts.

If people have reservations about affirmative action or gay curriculum in the schools, or if they oppose abortion, we can’t just assume that they are racists or homophobes or fanatics. If they like to hunt and keep guns, we can’t assume they are incipient felons—not if we want to talk with them about these issues. If instead we can get inside their moral universe, we just might find something we can speak to, especially when the topic turns to something else.

Progressives generally don’t do this much. Instead they try to bridge the gap through appeals to class and economic interest. Factory workers will forget their guns, Catholics will forget about abortion, because the Left is with them on trade or tax cuts for the rich. Sometimes that approach works. But culture can run deeper than money, especially for those who don’t have a lot of money. A majority of union members today give Bush a high rating. Irony of ironies, Democrats end up in the role of advocates of narrow self-interest (more tax cuts for us) while Republicans strike orchestral chords of enterprise and growth. The side that panders shamelessly to the very wealthy gets to claim the polemical high ground.

In his book Moral Politics, linguist George Lakoff contends that one way to understand the language of American politics is through archetypes of the family. The political Right embraces a strong-father family. It values authority, discipline, individual enterprise, and personal responsibility. The Left, by contrast, favors the nurturing mother: support, assistance, care, cohesion, and the like.

This pattern plays out in many ways. Where the Right regards the market as a testing place of individual character and virtue, the Left regards it as a jungle in which injustice prevails and the strong or merely fortunate rule everyone else. Where the Left would call psychiatrists and counselors, the Right calls clergy and police. Where the Right invokes traditional values and common sense, the Left harkens instinctively to academia and professional expertise. The psychological epicenter of the right-wing vision of America would be the military; of the Left, the Department of Health and Human Services.

To be sure, there are contradictions and hypocrisies on both sides. The Right has no problem with nurturing mother morality when it comes to, say, ailing S&Ls, corporate polluters, and trust fund babies. The Left, meanwhile, does not hesitate to invoke the strictest of strict father moralities when the issue is, say, sexual harassment or correct speech.

But this is just another way of saying that the strong father and nurturing mother both reside in all of us to some degree. Thus Bush’s handlers outfitted him with “compassionate conservatism” to bring mother back into the picture. And thus the chronic concern among Democrats to prove their mettle on defense. But this course often has turned Democrats into pale echoes of Republicans, while the Left, with its peace banners, invites the twithood that Republicans have prayed for ever since McGovern.

Claiming strength
What’s needed, among other things, is language that embodies strength on a range of issues, so that defense does not have to carry the whole strong-father load. The progressive camp needs to learn to speak to the living room of the strong-father psyche. This is not as hard as it might seem.

Take the environment. It tends to be a hothouse of nurturing mother imagery—Mother Earth, ecology, Gaia, and the rest—all of which signals to many Americans that environmentalists are very different from themselves. What’s wrong with balancing that with more strong-father language? For example, why don’t Bush and Cheney show a little backbone and stand up to the corporate polluters? Why is Gail Norton, the Interior Secretary, such a pushover for them? You can’t govern this country if you want to be loved by the boys in the blue suits. Instead of just deriding the president’s Clint Eastwood fantasies, why not work some aikido on them and turn that energy to constructive ends? Ya goot ta be tooof.

The Bush tax cuts were a prime example of how Democrats tend to miss the inner moral drama of the voters they are trying to reach. They decried tax cuts for the rich. But as Lakoff points out, most Americans see nothing wrong with being rich. They would like to be that way themselves.

Then there was the Al Gore approach, which was to harp ad nauseum on the “risky” tax cuts. But this nation regards risk-takers as heroes, whether race-car drivers or entrepreneurs. Fear of risk is a wimp signal to the strong-father mind.

Lakoff argues that the Left should harken more to the individual moral drama of personal responsibility and paying for what we get. Wealthy Americans get much from the government of this great country: courts, government contracts and subsidies, military protection, and the rest. Halliburton is doing quite well in contracts in Iraq. Is it asking too much for them to give something back? Aren’t we supposed to pay for what we get? Our brave men and women are risking their lives in Iraq, and what do we hear on the home front? Whining and complaining about tax burdens, from the most well-off Americans, with the president leading the chorus.

In recent decades, the Right has probed deeply into the dark arts of propaganda and spin. The Left is not innocent in this regard, but it cannot match the sophistication of Republican operatives such as Frank Luntz and Karl Rove. I am not suggesting Orwellian constructions such as the way the administration has turned cutting forests into a Healthy Forests Initiative. I’m suggesting only that we speak as though listeners matter, and that we attend to what listeners hear and not just what we want to say. (A little humor wouldn’t hurt either.)

Often people are further along than we think; they just see the path in different ways. Christian conservatives, for example, have been involved in the fight to get commercial influences out of the schools—not because they hate corporations or capitalism, but because they oppose the way corporations are undermining parental authority.

It’s a different way of getting to essentially the same place. There might be many such common places, if only we can speak in language that does not distance us from the people we need to reach.

A healthy politics, like a healthy individual psyche, includes both strength and nurture, responsibility and initiative, as well as protection and support. When people hear too much—or not enough—of one or the other they are put off.

In Washington, Democrats have been talking like Democrats but voting like Republicans—which leaves them pretty much like Republicans. Just maybe we all need to learn to speak more to the Republican side of the political psyche. When truck drivers in America start calling Republicans “twits” because of their failure to stand strong for ordinary people, then we’ll know we’re making progress.

Jonathan Rowe is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly and of YES!