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Winning with words

How Republicans grabbed terms like freedom, values.

Published July 9, 2006

The turning point in the war of words between liberals and conservatives came in August 1968, when the group Up With People sang at the Republican National Convention. The group was introduced by someone who noted there was "not a hippie among them," which prompted cheers from the delegates. Up With People, described by one writer as "attractive but nonetheless very square," was the perfect symbol for the Republican Party's new emphasis on "values."

Since then, writes Geoffrey Nunberg, conservatives have dominated the national discourse with repetition, well-chosen phrases and a little linguistic thievery. Today, Nunberg says, the political right "controls the basic language of politics."

Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley who clearly sides with the liberals, has written a thoughtful and often funny book that shows how and why the liberals lost the lexicological battle.

Pundits often credit Republican wordsmith Frank Luntz and other strategists for creating phrases like death tax, ownership society and compassionate conservatism. But Nunberg contends those terms had only a modest impact. It wasn't compassionate conservatism that got Democrats to vote for George W. Bush in 2004, and the president's promise of an ownership society fell flat last year when he tried to privatize Social Security.

Nunberg says the real victory for conservatives was their success at seizing ownership of broader terms such as freedom, values and patriotism.

Consider this: If someone tells you they care deeply about values, would you guess they are a Republican or a Democrat?

If someone says they want a party that stands up for freedom, which would they prefer?

Your answer in both cases: Republican.

Indeed, conservatives have quietly seized those words and many others. Call it Grand Theft Noun.

Not only have they appropriated those terms; they have used them to redirect the national debate. Nunberg writes that "A large part of the Republicans' successes over the past 30 years or so is attributable to their ability to change the political subject - diverting resentments that have their roots in economic inequalities to debates over 'values,' making programs that chiefly benefit the wealthy sound like they're aimed at benefiting the middle class, turning government into a term of abuse and making reservations about the direction of American foreign policy sound like signs of weakness of purpose or questionable loyalty."

It has been successful, Nunberg says, because conservatives are better storytellers. They have a few simple themes and their troops recite them over and over.

Conservatives have also skillfully defined their enemies, using terms such as elite (the Hollywood elite, the media elite) that cast their foes in a negative light.

They have turned liberalism into what Nunberg calls "a lifestyle brand," consistently portraying liberals as Volvo-driving, latte-drinking snobs. (The book's title comes from a TV ad by the conservative Club for Growth.) They have portrayed liberals that way so often and so consistently that the image has stuck.

"The right has been remarkably successful in pigeonholing liberalism as a white, upper-middle class affectation," writes Nunberg. Consider, for example, that you virtually never hear someone refer to a "working-class liberal." And after conservatives portrayed Democrats as liberal extremists, Democrats themselves stopped using the liberal label and, in the process, lost their identity, Nunberg points out.

An astute observer of the rhetorical wars, Nunberg has written a fascinating book that reveals the strategy (or lack of strategy) on each side. Conservatives won't like his political leanings, but they may appreciate his praise and his insights. Liberals, who have the most to gain from this book, may find it painful to read, as it recounts episode after episode of how they've lost the battle.

Bill Adair is the Times Washington Bureau chief.

[Last modified July 7, 2006, 11:33:06]

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