The art of building consensus out of the “vague and confusing medley” of individual opinions, Walter Lippmann wrote in The Phantom Public, consists in narrowing issues to a few simpliﬁed alternatives that can be reduced to “symbols which assemble emotions after they have been detached from their ideas.” It would be hard to go any further in that line than the slogans the current administration wallpapers across the backdrops for presidential appearances: “Jobs and Growth” when the president pushes for his tax cuts, “Compassion in Action” when he speaks about AIDS, or, most ambitiously, the “Mission Accomplished” banner aboard the USS Lincoln in May of 2003.
For a lesson in how the right uses language to shape political perceptions, consider the television ad that the archconservative Club for Growth ran during the Iowa caucuses. An announcer asks a middle-aged couple leaving a barbershop what they think of "Howard Dean's plans to raise taxes on families by $1,900 a year." The man responds, "I think Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading ..." -- and then his wife picks up the litany -- "... body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs."
"The masquerade is over; it's time to ... use the dreaded 'L' word, to say the policies of our opposition ... are liberal, liberal, liberal."
-- Ronald Reagan, 1988
Since the 1930s, the landscape of American political discourse has been framed by the words liberal versus conservative. In this era, U.S. commentators first began to speak of American politics in terms of the spectrum of left, right and center, words previously used chiefly to describe foreign politics or the factions of radical movements. It was in the same New Deal period, too, that liberal and conservative were settled on as what Franklin Roosevelt described in 1941 as the "two general schools of political belief" of representative government.
My American Prospect study of press labeling continues to evoke responses from conservatives vexed by the finding that the press actually labels liberals more often than those on the right. In a lot of cases the objections are pure bluster. For example, Andrew Sullivan writes:
I ignored Geoffrey Nunberg's piece in the American Prospect in April, debunking the notion of liberal media bias by numbers, because it so flew in the face of what I knew that I figured something had to be wrong. (And I was too lazy to do all the enormously laborious number-crunching to refute it. So sue me.)