Frank Luntz, the Republican focus group wizard, says a magic phrase for Republicans is “for the children.” Talk about kids, and voters are with you.
So what do people who care about our habitat talk about? The “environment.” “Sustainability.” They talk about abstractions that have zero affective content for those who have not bought in already. The environment is the world we inhabit. Sustainability is about the world our kids will inhabit. Why can’t we talk about them that way?
When I worked in Congress, I found the writing in most left wing and “progressive” publications pretty much useless without a lot of reworking. Either it was social criticism couched in the sectarian lingo of the left (“racist,” “homophobe,” “sustainability,” etc.) Or else it was policy analysis that spoke at people from on high.
I rarely found a phrase that actually might be effective on the political stump. Policy is not separate from the language in which it is expressed. If politicians can’t hear themselves saying something back home, then they are not likely to use it, and rightly so. The right understands this. They practice polemic in their policy talk. They speak from the popular psyche; the left speaks at it.
It’s a challenge for those who don’t much like the mainstream to embrace its standpoint and values. But who said this was going to be easy?
The left of course fancies itself as speaking for the people. But there’s a difference between “for” and “from.” The left views itself as the intellectual wing of the political realm. Science is the ultimate authority, as opposed to those Bible thumpers who listen to moral authority. Experts know best. Smart people know best.
Hence the spate of books making fun of George Bush’s syntactical lapses and fudging of facts. But most Americans weren’t first in their class and didn’t always like the people who were. Politics isn’t the same as getting into Harvard or Yale. Those with the highest SATs don’t always win.
Nor do those with the most refined sensibilities. When the right cuts the budget the left uses such words as “heartless,” “cruel,” “insensitive.” Well, boohoo. A lot of Americans think toughness is a good thing in a leader, especially with Al Qaeda lurking. So why can’t we hear that? Why can’t we call them wimps when they whine about their upper-bracket taxes and, say, let polluters pressure them into weakening clean air standards?
It takes a tough man or woman to make sure our kids get clean air to breathe.
Jonathan Rowe is a YES! contributing editor.