Politicians have, in modern times, shown themselves more and more willing to do just about anything if it increases their chances of getting elected. This is why nearly every Presidential candidate patronizes the Iowa state fair before it’s caucus and refuses to denounce ethanol fuel subsidies despite almost every other state thinking it’s terrible or at least, mundane idea. However, amidst all the pandering and political maneuvering in today’s politics there lies a secret weapon that politicians use potentially more powerfully than any other. The power of language. It seems so simple, the ability to speak and for others to understand, but language is capable of much greater things, of inspiring, encouraging and even striking fear into your heart. Through the powerful and calculated use of language politicians and parties can not only appeal to the brains of voters but their hearts and souls as well.
To realize the power of language, consider this example. Imagine meeting someone, and upon inquiring what they do for a living, they say “I work in the propaganda department at [insert government or private institution].” Such an interaction seems more likely to be an excerpt from George Orwell’s 1984 than a real life encounter. Now, consider the same interaction but with the following answer “I do public relations work for [insert government or private institution].” It seems like a completely ordinary and regular job, yet the difference between “propaganda” and “public relations” can often be a very thin line if it exists at all. In the same way, political parties and movements carefully select their language to shed the best light on their beliefs. For example, consider the ongoing debate over abortion and a women’s right to choose, most Democrats or supporters of abortion identify as “pro-choice” while many Republicans or conservatives identify as “pro-life”. Notice how both groups identify as “pro-something” rather than being branded as “anti-choice” or “anti-life” phrases that while arguably identical to the ones used already, shed a much more negative light. Other examples of this can be seen in the pro-business vs. pro-labor dichotomy (as opposed to anti-labor vs. anti-business) and in the gun control debate where people identify as either a supporter of gun control, or as a supporter of Second Amendment Rights but not as anti-rights. This effort to avoid all negative connotations of being “anti-anything” creates a false and dangerous dichotomy in our politics by driving polarization. Advocates labeled as “pro-life” are much more likely to push for a complete and total ban on abortions than people who are viewed as “anti-choice”. In a similar fashion “pro-choice” individuals are much more likely to argue abortion as utterly fundamental and unrestricted right while being branded as “anti-life” is more likely to create a compromise. In essence, a pro-driven mentality drives politicians to be more combative and confrontational than an agenda based on opposing something which is more promoting of understanding and reason. It also creates a false expectation that our politicians only stand FOR things and never AGAINST them when in reality the job of governing requires opposing just as many bad ideas as it does support the right ones (if not more). Beyond the imbalance of the “pro/anti” dichotomy, many other terms in politics used charged language in a brilliant yet often misleading way. For example, take the Department of Homeland Security. Created shortly after 2001 the term Homeland Security now seems reasonable however upon its creation it sounded like an excerpt from a Stalinist propaganda film invoking images of a nation at war to protect the mother or homeland.
All around us in our political interactions we used phrases that have been coined by politicians and party strategists. These phrases and catch phrases carry some pretty heavy and dense connotations and often are biased or loaded in their content. If we want to create a political atmosphere of compromise, rational thought and logic we need to move away from language that works to win elections and towards language that works for actually governing. That means politicians are relying less on party phrases and applause lines and putting forward relevant policies and ideas. More importantly, it means voters taking the time to think about what politicians say, to do research, create informed opinions and not to vote for whoever sounds best in their 30 second sound clips and the media improving its coverage beyond rallies and fights to look at the actual work of governing that is going on and talking about real life policy issues. None of these steps will be as easy, or as entertaining as our current political arena is, but all are necessary to move towards a nation governed by logic and evidence and not on whims and opinions.