In the media-saturated world of modern American politics, conventional wisdom now dictates that the most successful policies are buttressed by a clear, convincing narrative. Voters eschew complexity in favor of what is familiar and compelling.
This means that the words politicians choose reverberate directly to how the public perceives a given platform or piece of legislation. The coverage of President Barack Obama's recently unveiled American Jobs Act offers an illustrative example: the headline on Fox News is Obama Seeks Complications on Stimulus Bill, while The New York Times announces Obama Offers Jobs Bill, and the G.O.P. Balks.
The difference between a jobs bill and a stimulus bill is significant. Polls show consistently that unemployment is the paramount concern for the American public, so legislation aimed at generating jobs should be a winner. But the word stimulus is a signifier that evokes the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- or the stimulus bill, as it's more commonly known -- and conjures the familiar Republican position that Obama is recklessly expanding the government with wasteful federal spending.
Democrats Failing to Grasp Importance of Words
In an exceptional piece explaining his defection from the Republican Party, veteran Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren described how Democrats fail to grasp the profound importance of words.
Above all, they do not understand language, Lofgren writes. Their initiatives are posed in impenetrable policy-speak: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The what? - can anyone even remember it? No wonder the pejorative 'Obamacare' won out. Contrast that with the Republicans' Patriot Act. You're a patriot, aren't you? Does anyone at the GED level have a clue what a Stimulus Bill is supposed to be? Why didn't the White House call it the Jobs Bill and keep pounding on that theme?
Or take the vitriolic debate over raising the debt ceiling this summer. The main impasse there was the Democrats' insistence that if the government was deeply curtailing spending, some new money would need to come in. Republicans instantly branded this as a call for tax raises or tax hikes. Those words resonate much more than when Democrats say they are seeking new revenue -- tax hike has a populist ring to it, while talking about revenue smacks of enervating fiscal policy. Never mind the fact that eliminating tax breaks and cutting government spending have the same effect on deficit reduction.
On immigration, another deeply divisive issue, there is an important difference between referring to an illegal immigrant and an undocumented immigrant or an immigrant who is in the country illegally. An illegal immigrant is an absolute. It is not their actions that broke the law -- they are fundamentally and irreversibly illegal, and therefore easier to vilify and even dehumanize. The latter two formulations have a little more leniency to them, suggesting that such people are not defined only by their immigration status.
As debate over the American Jobs Act unfolds, listen carefully. The direction of the U.S. economy, as well as the outcome of the 2012 elections, could hinge on the words you hear.