My friend Drew Westen, author of the classic book on political language, The Political Brain, observes that Republicans run rings around Democrats when it comes to the Orwellian use of political language, and that Democrats often step on their own strengths.
For instance, as Westen observes, Democrats should never, ever use the budgetary term entitlementsto describe our two most cherished Democratic programs, Social Security and Medicare. Democrats use the term either because they want to sound like savvy wonks, or out of sheer laziness.
To normal ears, the word has a negative connotation. People who are narcissistic are often described as “entitled.” They are not fun to be around.
Why in the world should we describe an earned, tax-supported, beloved program of social insurance as an “entitlement”? It would be hard to think of a worse term. It sets up the argument that these benefits should be taken away from all those undeserving, entitled people.
The word entitlement is bad enough in the bowels of OMB, but should never be used on the campaign trail. Just plain Medicare and Social Security are recognizable names with very positive voter approval.
I recently heard an otherwise savvy political operative describe conservative voters in a swing district as “pro-life.” No, they’re not. They are anti-reproductive rights. (Is that so hard to remember?)
When the right trains Democrats to unthinkingly use the right’s language, we are in big trouble. Indeed, if you define pro-life as actually helping the living, it’s Democrats who are pro-life.
Maybe we should appropriate the term “pro-life” for any beneficial social outlay and thereby muddle its political value to the right. (What do you mean you want to cut outlays for foster-care, home care, elder care, disability, etc. Aren’t you pro-life?)
Pay close attention to language, Democrats. Voters might be listening.