News media outlets, political candidates, and both the Democratic and Republican Parties are using conservative language metaphors in the media, and it is hurting the ability of progressives to pass their legislation and win political races.
What metaphors am I speaking of? George Lakoff, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant and numerous other books on political discourse, likes to use the example of “tax relief” (Lakoff p. 3). The word relief implies that working families are “afflicted” by taxes and anyone who cuts taxes is a “hero,” (even if those cuts are mostly going to wealthy people), while anyone who raises them is a “villain,” placing a burden on working families. So, if one thinks about the metaphor “tax relief,” one can see why it favors fiscally-conservative policies.
So, of course, right-wing media outlets love to use phrases like tax relief. Fox News’ most recent article on President Trump’s response to the coronavirus touts part of it as a “tax relief” plan (O’Reilly www.foxnews.com). And, in doing so, they are helping reinforce the idea that taxes are bad.
Now, no one would be surprised by President Trump, the Republican Party, and Fox News using phrases like tax relief. The problem is that progressive candidates, the Democratic Party, and progressive news media outlets are using these phrases too. Earlier this month, the New York Times used the phrase “tax relief” in the headline of an article about coronavirus (“On Virus Response…” www.nytimes.com). Additionally, when I worked in New Hampshire in 2006, the Democratic Party was bragging about how New Hampshire had the lowest tax burden in the nation, and trying to take credit for that. In using this phrase, these media outlets and the Democratic Party are ruining their chances to send money to education and health care because they are making taxes-something that is vital to invest in these programs-sound awful.
All of this underscores the important point: progressives must start using language and metaphors more to their advantage because it will help them win elections and get their agenda passed by selling their values to the American people in a way that makes linguistic sense.
The question is how? Conservatives have been drilling phrases like tax relief, small government, family values, and free markets into our heads for decades, and we all instantly know what they mean. Additionally, they are hard to argue against. Arguing against family values makes it sound like you are arguing against the family unit, or saying that families are bad. Does anyone in their right mind want to say families are bad? Of course not. That’s why conservative candidates and media outlets love to use that metaphor. Googling the phrase “Fox News” + “family values” returns over 5 million results. Additionally, key Republican congress people, such as freshman Senator Joni Ernst (IA), who is up for re-election, use it frequently in dialogue with the press (Hall caffeinatedthoughts.com).
So, how can progressive candidates, media outlets and the Democratic Party use language to their advantage?
I can think of one example of a candidate who started doing that: Barack Obama. As far back as his first term of as a President, Obama would say he wanted to use tax dollars to “invest” in education, and progressive education groups followed suit by using the same language (McCabe www.nea.org). Investments, in our society, are a good thing because you get a return on them. Thus, Obama, was making spending on education a good thing.
In this case, the investment Obama was selling to the American people was going to deliver a return in the form of a pro-active way to avoid future poverty, and, of course, having an educated work force. In fact, he called it “the best anti-poverty program around” (McCabe www.nea.org). By using this language, Barack Obama helped convince the American people that tax dollars can be a good thing, if properly used.
More recently, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have tried to use the phrase “medicare for all” to win over support for their health care policies (Scott www.vox.com). Medicare is a popular program, so emphasizing it over say “socialized medicine” does make sense. Additionally, Pete Buttigeig has made effective use of language by saying he supports “Medicare for all that want it” (Scott www.vox.com). This way of talking about health care implies more choices, and choices are a good thing in our society. My hope is that Joe Biden will follow suit and use the language the Buttigeig is using.
I’m curious to see what kind of responses people have to Lakoff’s ideas about language. What are some ways we could use language to sell progressive values to the American people?
Hall, Jacob. “Iowa Senate Candidate Profile: Q & A with Joni Ernst.” Caffeinated Thoughts (2020). https://caffeinatedthoughts.com/2014/05/iowa-u-s-senate-candidate-profile-qa-joni-ernst/
Lakoff, George. Don’t Think of an Elephant. Chelsea Green (2004).
McCabe, Cynthia. “Obama Calls for $4 Billion in New Education Spending.” National Education Association (2019). http://www.nea.org/home/37894.htm
“On Virus Respnose…” The New York Times (2020). https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2020/03/10/us/politics/ap-us-virus-outbreakwashington.html
Scott, Dylan. “Pete Buttigeig’s Medicare for All Who Want It Plan Explained.” Vox (2019). https://www.vox.com/2019/9/19/20872881/pete-buttigieg-2020-medicare-for-all.