Tongue of Newt

The political power of language


Newt Gingrich may have left the Republican congressional leadership, but his spirit survives–on the Democratic side.

To understand the link, think back to 1990. At the time, Gingrich was the House Republican whip and general chairman of GOPAC, a committee for the training of Republican candidates. As the midterm congressional campaign got under way, GOPAC issued "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control," a linguistic guide for those who pleaded, "I wish I could speak like Newt."

The guide consisted of two lists, both of which grew out of focus group research. "Optimistic Positive Governing Words" such as opportunity, challenge, and commitment would help Republicans define their own vision. "Contrasting Words" such as crisis, threaten, hypocricy [sic], and ideological would help them define their opponents.

After Democrats attacked the guide as cynical and demeaning, Gingrich quickly disowned it as an aide's mistake. But in spite of their public indignation, the Democrats adopted its central idea: that language is indeed a mechanism for shaping the way people think about politics. Sometimes they openly acknowledged their intellectual debt to Gingrich. At a 1995 political retreat, Democratic senators and staff received an information packet that included the GOPAC document.

One reason the Democrats have done so well lately is that they have mastered both lists. These days, any speech by a Democratic politician will contain long stretches of "optimistic positive governing words," along with a few verbs and prepositions that give the illusion of thought. A typical passage sounds like this: "We have a precious opportunity to preserve our commitment to our families and protect the dreams of our children." Thanks to the list, speechwriters do not have to worry about order and logic. String the words together in another sequence, and they sound just as good: "Our families have precious dreams for our children, so we must preserve and protect our commitment to opportunity."

While these fuzzwords are dulling the listeners' capacity for critical thinking, the "contrasting" words are calling forth demonic images. Again, the Democrats have relied heavily on Gingrich's list, making adept use of such standards as greed, selfish, and intolerant. They've also made some additions, including mean-spirited and, of course, extremist. In the 1998 campaign, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) got away with applying the "extremist" label to GOP challenger Matt Fong, who is about as wild-eyed as Mr. Rogers. And in nearly every race, Democrats linked the Republican candidate to the king of the "extremists," Gingrich himself. As George C. Scott said in Patton: "Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!"

The political use of language involves more than the creation of positive or negative feelings. A virtuoso of the art will use wordplay to redefine the very terms of discussion. Here is where the Democrats have outdone Gingrich.

Seldom any more do they say, "We need to increase spending on federal domestic programs." Instead, they follow the lead of President Bill Clinton, who praised last fall's omnibus spending bill for making "critical investments in education and training." Not once in his statement did he use the word spend. Clever trick: "Spending" connotes loss, whereas "investment" implies the expectation of profit. Thus his words powerfully suggested that federal programs will pay for themselves–and then some–by making Americans more productive. Though the evidence points in the opposite direction, the language puts a daunting burden of proof on anyone who would balk at "investing" in workers and children.

Clinton's statement on the spending bill also said that it "added resources to protect the environment, to move people from welfare to work," and to do other nice things. That's typical: Spenders like to describe budget figures as "resources." When we hear the word, we tend to think vaguely of things natural and renewable–like pine cones. If you want to see how specious this language is, just try paying the IRS with pine cones.

Even more Orwellian is the voguish phrase "bill of rights." The term originally meant a set of strict limitations on federal power, but now the statists have applied it to proposals for increasing Uncle Sam's intrusiveness. The "Patients' Bill of Rights Act," for example, would give Washington tighter control over managed-care plans. We've come a long way from "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" to "The Secretary shall specify (and may from time to time update) the data required to be included in the minimum uniform data set under subsection (a) and the standard format for such data."

To regain the political initiative, free market advocates need to regain control of the political vocabulary. We should replace verbal smog with the crisp language of truth.

Take the word surplus, which the dictionary defines as "that which remains above what is used or needed." What do we do with surplus wheat or cheese? We give it away to the needy. So by extension, it apparently makes sense to donate the budget surplus to federal social programs–sorry, "critical investments."

Washington Post columnist (and a Reason Foundation trustee) James K. Glassman suggests that we break out of this mind-set by referring to excess revenues as "the overcharge." Unlike surplus, this term clearly indicates that the money really belongs to the people who paid it, and that they deserve a refund. If the language of "surplus" favors spending increases, the language of "overcharge" favors tax cuts.

Likewise, we should stop talking about the Social Security "Trust Fund." The system does not maintain a real trust fund, but instead a pile of Treasury securities–IOUs from the federal government. So let's call it what it is: "The IOU Account." Politicians can give florid speeches about protecting the "Trust Fund," but they could not muster the same eloquence on behalf of the "IOU Account."

We can take this approach to social issues, too. In recent years, the defenders of color-blind justice have made some progress in substituting the descriptive preferential treatment for the deceptive affirmative action. But the term does not go far enough in emphasizing that these schemes are zero-sum games: Advantaging certain groups always means disadvantaging the rest. Therefore, we should refer to such policies as "discrimination against Italians, Armenians, and Jews, among other groups." Try it: It drives the bad guys nuts.

By making a conscious effort to reform political language, free market advocates will be rejoining an old fight. In his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language," Orwell cataloged some of the linguistic swindles and perversions that had long served powerful people. He wrote that "one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end."