The war of words

I think that words and ideas are fundamental to build social consent and win elections. I found an interesting article by Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post online edition.

Parsing the Polls: Choosing the Right (or Left) Words
Words — and the images they provoke — matter in politics. Whether it’s the back and forth between two candidates in a particular race or a long-term linguistic struggle between the two national parties, choosing the right words to describe yourself and your opponent is as crucial to winning and losing as your issue positions or the amount of money you can raise.

Take the word “liberal” for example. Thanks in large part to the work of conservative operatives and politicians who reached an apex in the 1980s, “liberal” has gone from simply a descriptive term to a pejorative one. Democrats — especially those in the South, Plains and Rocky Mountains — bristle at being described as a “liberal” either because of the negative connotations it evokes among voters, or because they assert that the term doesn’t accurately describe their political philosophy. Some of these Democrats who might be accurately described as “liberal”, have taken to referring to themselves as “progressive” or “populist” in recent years, which are generally considered less loaded terms in the political debate.

A new Gallup survey, conducted at the end of November of a national sample of 1,003 adults, sheds light on how familiar people are with terms like “liberal”, “conservative” and “progressive” and what each of those words mean to them.

Let’s parse the polls!

It’s immediately apparent from the Gallup poll that “liberal” and “conservative” remain the best known terms to describe a person’s political ideology. Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed said they were “very familiar” with the word “conservative” in a political context; 58 percent said they were “very familiar” with the term “liberal”. Just eight percent of voters said they were either “not too familiar” or “not familiar at all” with the term “conservative,” while 10 percent said the same about the word “liberal.”

Other terms regularly used within the political debate were less familiar to the Gallup sample. Just 22 percent described themselves as “very familiar” with the word “progressive,” 20 percent called themselves “very familiar” with “libertarian” and a mere 12 percent said they knew the term “populist” well.

Asked to name which words fits their political thinking best, “conservative” ruled the roost with 54 percent saying it applied to them. Contrast that with the 34 percent who said “liberal” was an apt description of their political philosophy and you quickly see the image problem Democrats have struggled with in recent elections.

Even in the national exit poll conducted in this year’s midterms, just 20 percent of the sample identified themselves as “liberals” — twelve percent fewer than called themselves “conservatives.” Self-identifying moderates made up nearly half — 47 percent — of the sample. (In the Gallup survey, 53 percent said the term “moderate” applied to them while 40 percent said it did not.) When asked their party identification, however, 38 percent said Democrat compared to 36 percent who said Republican and 26 percent who called themselves independents. That means that many Democrats no longer see themselves as liberals and choose to identify their ideology as moderate or even conservative while still retaining their Democratic party affiliation.

People in the Gallup poll largely avoided using lesser-known political terms to describe themselves. Twenty-eight percent said “progressive” described their political thinking as compared to 10 percent who said the same of “libertarian” and seven percent who said “populist” applied to them. Roughly one-in-five individuals in the survey said they didn’t know enough about the meaning of “progressive” or “libertarian” to make a judgement about its applicability to them; 28 percent said they were too unfamiliar with “populist” to pass judgement on whether it fit their political thinking.

The results of the Gallup survey should give Democrats pause even amid the ongoing celebration following their gains on Nov. 7. The terms that frame the political debate in this country remain skewed toward Republicans — “liberal” remains a dirty word, “conservative” an acceptable one. Whether or not “liberal” or “conservative” can or should be automatically applied to either party is debatable, but the fact remains that many voters associate conservatism with the GOP and liberalism with the Democratic Party.

Over the decades these labels and the movements to which they are applied have risen and fallen in popularity. Many 1940s New Dealers were proud to be known as liberals. “Conservative” was not at all a popular term before the rise of Barry Goldwater in the the late 1960s. By the late 1980s Reagan Republicans had succeeded in making “conservative” a proud banner, while “liberal” became more and more radioactive (think George H.W. Bush and the “L” word in the 1988 campaign).

So given the stark numbers in this Gallup poll, which are backed up by recent national exit polling, Democrats seem to be at a linguistic crossroads: Either they work to rehabilitate the meaning of “liberal” or scrap it entirely in favor of a lesser-known (and therefore less politically potent) terms like “populist” or “progressive”.

Which rhetorical road the party chooses to take over the next weeks and months — and how rocky that road turns out to be — should serve as one of the leading indicators of the sustainability of Democrats’ congressional majorities in 2008 and beyond.


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