Speech Impediments

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."

That picture of liberals is a deliberate demographic hodgepodge, of course -- you picture Marilyn Manson on the porch of his house in Rutland, TiVo-ing Curb Your Enthusiasm and laughing so hard at Maureen Dowd's column that he almost chokes on his unagi cone. But the ad succinctly summarized the jumble of attributes that the right has assigned to liberals over the years in an effort to brand them as pretentious, effete, elitist, or deviant creatures outside of the cultural mainstream.

Even the syntax contributes to the effect. Object-verb compounds like "Volvo-driving" and the related "Volvo driver" have been a fixture in the conservative lexicon since the onset of the culture wars in the 1970s, when the right began to cast liberals as flag-burning, bra-burning, pot-smoking, draft-dodging, America-hating, lip-curling, card-carrying do-gooders. That's the syntactic form we use to construct an adjective out of an activity -- it turns what people do into a name for what they are.

It's true that liberals sometimes use expressions like "flag-waving" or "truck-driving" to describe the other side, but rarely for public consumption. As Howard Dean learned from the flap over his remark about pickup trucks and Confederate flags, liberals can get in trouble when they speak too candidly in public about the social demographics of their constituencies. (As it happens, "redneck" appears a lot less frequently in the liberal press than in the conservative weeklies, which are fond of putting it into the mouths of imaginary left-wing elitists.) In their public denunciations of the right, liberals tend to favor other types of compounds -- items like "narrow-minded," "hard-hearted," and "mean-spirited," which reproach people not for the activities they engage in but for character traits like a lack of social conscience.

Those patterns mirror a basic distinction. The modern right tries to define the fundamental political identities around cultural norms of behavior -- what you buy, what you wear, what you read, what you stick in your body (and where). For the left, the lines are drawn along attitudes about civic responsibility and social justice.

You can hear the distinction in two recent slogans. After Vermont passed its civil-unions law in 2000, lawns and bumpers began to bristle with signs that said, "Take Back Vermont," with the understood continuation " ... from deviants and Saab-driving flatlanders" (real Yankees drive Subarus). But when Dean appropriated that formula for his presidential campaign as "Take Back America," the implicit division was between decent working people and the greedy special interests. It reminds you that there are "two Americas" -- their "them" isn't the same as our "us," and vice versa.

It's tempting to attribute all this to a clash of moral systems -- between the daddy party and the mommy party, or, more thoughtfully, between "strict father" and "nurturant parent" models of morality that George Lakoff describes in his Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. But while red-state and blue-state voters have obvious differences over domestic morality, there's a danger in taking "liberal" and "conservative" as basic human types whose political, cultural, and moral attitudes all flow from a single cognitive mechanism. In its crude form, that's exactly the implication of the descriptions in that Club for Growth ad -- the idea that liberals' enthusiasm for overtaxation is just a reflex of the same sensibilities that draw them to raw fish and noncanonical body ornament. It's all part of a calculated effort to talk about liberals and conservatives as if they were incommensurable political genders, with a we're-from-Mars-and-they're-from-Venus roll of the eyes.

Morals and Morality

The essential difference between the sides isn't in the distinct moral universes they inhabit but in the kinds of moral values they take as defining political community. Yet in recent years, liberals have had what E.J. Dionne describes as "an allergy to invoking moral language to talk about public policy." Liberals may appeal to traditional Democratic themes like fairness, but they've been skittish about using terms like "morality" or "values." That's partly because of a diffidence about making displays of religiosity. But it's also a tacit acknowledgment that moral language has been invested with narrowly partisan meanings that make liberals uncomfortable.

The tendency is most subtly at work in the altered meaning of the word "values," which has become the exclusive property of the right. In discussions of American politics in major newspapers, references to "conservative values" are more than six times as frequent as references to "liberal values."

Ostensibly, values are a matter of moral judgments, but in political discourse the word is both narrower and broader than that. Like the "moral" of "moral majority," it's chiefly a matter of standards of domestic behavior rather than social commitments -- of morals rather than morality. When Peter Jennings challenged Howard Dean during the New Hampshire debate to defend himself against the charge that he doesn't share "mainstream values," nobody took him as alluding to the minimum wage or health care -- it's a matter of attitudes about "God, guns, and gays," many of them cultural predilections that are "moral" only in the loosest sense of the word. (No one cites Scripture to justify keeping the gun-show loophole.)

It's hard to imagine a reporter asking a Republican candidate the same question, not because of any partisan bias in the media but simply because it's the Republicans who have defined which kinds of attitudes count as "mainstream values" in the first place. It's a term designed to put liberals on the defensive by blurring the distinctions among mores, morals, and morality. You can hear that contradiction between the cultural and ethical meanings of the word in Nathan Lane's line in the movie Win a Date with Tad Hamilton, in which he plays a Hollywood agent trying to persuade a debauched movie star to dump the small-town West Virginia girl he's smitten with. "Your values are different," Lane's character says. "For instance, she has them."

Recovering Our Values

Lately, though, Democrats have begun to realize that they needn't concede the language of morality and values to the right. As Dionne observes, "Not long ago, a politician who used the word 'moral' was about to talk about 'permissiveness' and 'cultural decline.' But the new 'moral majority' being forged on the campaign trail is built on a yearning for community and a promise of social justice."

John Kerry says that America has a "broken value system" and calls on the president to occupy "the moral high ground." Joe Lieberman calls the failure to provide health insurance to 43 million Americans "morally scandalous." And Howard Dean says "this president has turned a blind eye to morality. We have lost our moral compass." John Edwards, meanwhile, reminds people that Americans have a "moral responsibility" to eliminate poverty.

"Values" -- along with items like "alienation," "juvenile delinquency," and "prejudice" -- first entered the general vocabulary as a social-science term popular in progressive circles in the postwar years. When the right began to appropriate the word in the late 1960s, it was a deliberate effort to counter the moral fervor of the anti-war movement by depicting its adherents as out of step with mainstream America. The earliest New York Times citation for "mainstream values" occurs in a 1968 article headlined "Political Activism New Hippie 'Thing,'" and a few years later the Republicans were describing George McGovern as the candidate of "acid, amnesty, and abortion." By 1988, George Bush Senior could make "mainstream values" a literal mantra of his campaign: "I represent the mainstream, the mainstream views, and the mainstream values. And they are your values, and my values, and the values of the vast majority of the American people."

That pattern of co-option shows up over and over again in the recent history of political language. "Empowerment," "diversity," "inclusiveness," "color blindness," "bias" -- those terms all began their lives on the left and then were redeployed by the right in new contexts, in the hope that the words' original moral valence would stick to them. It's the same strategy that marketers use when they attach once-lustrous brand names like KitchenAid, Lancia, and Abercrombie & Fitch to downscale product lines.

Listen to President Bush asking Congress to pass a faith-based initiative program, "so people of faith can know that the law will never discriminate against them again." The same logic would let you argue, with some justification, that the First Amendment discriminates against establishments of religion. But no one would have thought to put the point in those terms before "discrimination" in all its forms became an unequivocal social evil.

The appropriations can get pretty shameless, as when Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie charged Dick Gephardt with "hate speech" for calling President Bush a "miserable failure." But all of this is a backhanded tribute to the moral appeal of progressives' language. Conservatives concede as much when they acknowledge the need to describe themselves as "compassionate," or when they depict liberals as preening moralizers with labels like "sanctimonious," a word that the press applies to liberals far more often than to conservatives.

Getting the '60s Right

In a sense, the Republicans' efforts to keep '60s idealism at bay have also served to keep its memory alive. So it seems natural that the Democrats' new embrace of moral language should be coupled with invocations of the moral ardency of that period. The anti-war movement was the defining experience in John Kerry's personal history. Howard Dean recalls the America in which he came of age; he speaks movingly of the hopefulness of that moment, and the achievements of Medicare, Head Start, and the Voting Rights Act -- a moment when "we were all in it together." John Edwards, meanwhile, repeatedly decries "the scourge of poverty," a word that has been in eclipse since the perceived failure of Great Society programs led people to disaggregate it into less emotionally charged components. (Over the past 20 years or so, America hasn't had a poverty problem, just a literacy problem, a welfare problem, an affordable-health-care problem, an inner-city-schools problem, and an Internet-access problem.)

Americans are likely to be receptive to the Democrats' new tone. Despite the right's appropriation of the "values" issue, a CBS News poll last November showed that voters were evenly divided as to which party came closer to sharing their moral views. And the excesses of the '60s movements with which Republicans used to frighten voters have largely faded into irrelevancy. The legions of young anti-war activists who have energized the Democratic base don't evoke the same disquieting associations that the hippies did in 1968. (Getting "Clean for Dean" is a lot less of a tonsorial challenge than getting "Clean for Gene" was in 1968, when Sam Brown was charged with tidying up the longhaired activists who flocked to New Hampshire to join the McCarthy campaign. Besides, the nerdy grunge look that the current activists favor isn't exactly alien to the American heartland nowadays.) And over the past six months, reservations about the administration's Iraq policy have become entirely mainstream, as events start to call up other retro '60s expressions like "hearts and minds" and "the light at the end of the tunnel."

Predictably, Republicans will also counter the Democrats' vision of two Americas with the familiar incantations of "class warfare" and the politics of "envy," terms that William Safire trotted out in a recent column on Ted Kennedy's influence in Kerry's campaign. Track the frequency of "class warfare" in the press and you find it spiking whenever Democrats raise objections to a Republican power grab: at the height of the Gingrich revolution in 1995; in the summer of 2000, when Al Gore adopted a more populist rhetoric after his nomination; and when Republicans were putting through their tax cut at the beginning of 2003.

That has been an effective rhetorical strategy in the past -- "class warfare" is a phrase that usually sets Americans to looking over their shoulders. But this time around, the phrase isn't likely to neutralize middle-class anxieties about job loss, health-care costs, and education. Even with the stock market's comeback, people are no longer disposed to believe that growing disparities in income are a tribute to the industry of entrepreneurs or the genius of the free-market system, rather than to greed and cronyism. (A Harris poll last October showed that only 35 percent of respondents agreed that "people on Wall Street are as honest and moral as other people.")

Recapturing the language of morality is the most important single step in refashioning a new progressive rhetoric, one free of the technocratic jargon for which Democrats have had a lamentable penchant in the past. (Phrases like "unfunded mandates" and "single payer" may be accurate, but at the cost of coming across as opaque to the Great Unwonky who make up most of the electorate.) As Lieberman put it, "If we just get programmatic and bureaucratic ... we're not using a language people use every day."

Finding "the language that people use every day" is the crucial step in redefining words like "morality" and "values" to include everyday ideas of fairness and decency. The next time a Democratic presidential candidate is asked to assuage fears that he "doesn't share mainstream values," he might answer by pointing out that such values also include "a fair day's pay for a day's work," "many hands make light work" (particularly in the war on terrorism), and "pick up after yourself," a reasonable response to the administration's rollbacks of environmental protections.

That kind of commonsense, tough-minded moral talk goes a lot further toward dispelling those wimpy liberal stereotypes than conspicuous attendance at NASCAR events. Properly framed, progressive ideals should be compelling even to God-fearing, pickup-driving, longneck-guzzling, flag-waving, job-seeking, mortgage-paying, and condescension-wary red-state voters. They know as much as anyone how the deck has been stacked in recent years, and they have as much of a feeling for what decency and fairness require of a nation, whether they think of it as a question of "values" or simply of the idea that no man liveth unto himself.