Nuance, Resolve, Freedom, and Values

Pollster Frank Luntz, linguist George Lakoff and others have long understood how framing issues with the clever use of language can influence political discourse. Successfully framing an issue means controlling the parameters of debate. Who, after all, could be against “tax reform?” And speaking of taxes, an “estate tax” really doesn’t sound so bad, does it? But a “death tax?” No, thank you.

One consequence of the relentless focus on language is that partisans have effectively appropriated what were once perfectly useful words. Below we’ve listed six ostensibly apolitical words, each of which can, we submit, be matched to a political party:


Our extremely informal poll of Campaign Desk staffers, in which we asked them to match each word to a party, produced unanimous results: The adjectives “steadfast,” “resolve,” “freedom,” and “values” have been commandeered by Republicans, while the words “nuanced” and “elite” are invariably applied to Democrats. (Obviously, Republicans are better at this game than Democrats — you won’t be seeing a convention banner reading “Democrats — home of the nuanced elite!” anytime soon.) It’s no secret that language is one tool in the effort to instill in voters what amounts to a brand loyalty similar to what they might feel for a breakfast cereal. But it’s somewhat startling to realize that, in so packaging their candidate, campaign gurus are exacerbating not just a cultural divide, but also a linguistic one.

Remember the brief post-election “moral values” firestorm, which turned out to be something of a red herring? In a language-neutral society, asking about moral values as an issue would be a meaningless exercise, since it wouldn’t indicate the particular values on which someone has voted. But the fact that the question was asked — as well as the breathless media coverage that followed — signal that pollsters and reporters alike have let campaigns assign shades of red and blue to individual words.

It’s important to remember that nuance doesn’t belong only to Democrats, and that values aren’t solely the concern of Republicans, regardless of what partisan linguistic efforts would have you believe. As Michael Kinsley helped explain Sunday, we shouldn’t be cavalier in assigning meaning to words like “elitist” just because interested parties want us to be.

And as George Orwell wrote 58 years ago, there is an implicit connection between politics and the debasement of the language: The former relies on the latter. While Orwell was speaking with a passion born of the conviction that the fate of the world was in the balance in 1946, his cautionary note rings true today:

“Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.