By David Satterlee
All politicians are aware that they need to be careful of their words. Words have the power to invoke strong emotions, which can distract from rational debate. These words, repeated over and over, confer the conviction of certainty and authority, even when they lack any basis in fact.
But, Republicans seem to have made the cynical use of emotional words (instead of the discussion of ideas and consequences) a primary focus of their message for many years. Do not misunderstand me. I will say again that all politicians use influential words. However, my premise is that Republicans seem to operate on the unabashed theory that they can make anything true by saying it often enough to the uninformed. Let’s compare some early Newt Gingrich to some contemporary Frank Luntz.
In 1994, Newt Gingrich described his goal as “reshaping the entire nation through the news media.” (New York Times, 12/14/94) His aggressive negativity fits with his philosophy that, “fights make news.” (Boston Globe, 11/20/94). In a GOPAC training tape of that era, he advised creating ‘shield issues’ to deflect criticism: “You better find a good compassion issue where, you know, you show up in the local paper holding a baby in the neonatal center, and all you’re trying to do is shield yourself from the inevitable attack.”
The 1996 GOPAC memo, “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control” went further by listing words to use to accuse Democrats and defend Republicans. It’s cover letter from Newt Gingrich explained that, “The words in that paper are tested language from a recent series of focus groups where we actually tested ideas and language.” The memo said:
As you know, one of the key points in the GOPAC tapes is that “language matters.” In the video “We Are a Majority,” language is listed as a key mechanism of control used by a majority party… As the tapes have been used in training sessions across the country and mailed to candidates, we have heard a plaintive plea: “I wish I could speak like Newt.”
That takes years of practice. But we believe that you could have a significant impact on your campaign and the way you communicate if we help a little. That is why we have created this list of words and phrases.
This list is prepared so that you might have a directory of words to use in writing literature and mail, in preparing speeches, and in producing electronic media. The words and phrases are powerful. Read them. Memorize as many as possible. And remember that, like any tool, these words will not help if they are not used.
Often we search hard for words to help us define our opponents. Sometimes we are hesitant to use contrast. Remember that creating a difference helps you. These are powerful words that can create a clear and easily understood contrast. Apply these to the opponent, their record, proposals and their party.
decay… failure (fail)… collapse(ing)… deeper… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… destroy… sick… pathetic… lie… liberal… they/them… unionized bureaucracy… “compassion” is not enough… betray… consequences… limit(s)… shallow… traitors… sensationalists… endanger… coercion… hypocrisy… radical… threaten… devour… waste… corruption… incompetent… permissive attitudes… destructive… impose… self-serving… greed… ideological… insecure… anti-(issue): flag, family, child, jobs… pessimistic… excuses… intolerant… stagnation… welfare… corrupt… selfish… insensitive… status quo… mandate(s)… taxes… spend(ing)… shame… disgrace… punish (poor…)… bizarre… cynicism… cheat… steal… abuse of power… machine… bosses… obsolete… criminal rights… red tape… patronage
Optimistic Positive Governing Words
Use the list below to help define your campaign and your vision of public service. These words can help give extra power to your message. In addition, these words help develop the positive side of the contrast you should create with your opponent, giving your community something to vote for!
share… change… opportunity… legacy… challenge… control… truth… moral… courage… reform… prosperity… crusade… movement… children… family… debate… compete… active(ly)… we/us/our… candid(ly)… humane… pristine… provide… liberty… commitment… principle(d)… unique… duty… precious… premise… care(ing)… tough… listen… learn… help… lead… vision… success… empower(ment)… citizen… activist… mobilize… conflict… light… dream… freedom… peace… rights… pioneer… proud/pride… building… preserve… pro-(issue): flag, children, environment… reform… workfare… eliminate good-time in prison… strength… choice/choose… fair… protect… confident… incentive… hard work… initiative… common sense… passionate
Frank Luntz recently wrote, “Words matter. The most powerful words have helped launch social movements and cultural revolutions. The most effective words have instigated great change in public policy. The right words at the right time can literally change history.” (Huffington Post, 3/1/11)
In “The 11 Words for 2011” he comments:
- “Uncompromising integrity.” Of all the truthiness words, none is as powerful as “integrity,” but in today’s cynical environment, even that’s not enough. People also need to feel that your integrity is absolute.
- “The simple truth” comes straight from billionaire businessman Steve Wynn, and it sets the context for a straightforward discussion that might otherwise be confusing or contentious. It’s the perfect phrase to begin and end the budget-deficit-debt debate.
- “You decide.” No, this is not paying homage to Fox News. The lesson of 2010 is that Americans want control of their lives back, and they don’t want Washington or Wall Street making their decisions for them. So add the phrase “you’re in control” and you’ve said exactly what Americans want to hear.
- “You deserve.” This comes from DNC Chairman Tim Kaine and it was first employed by him in his highly praised 2006 SOTU response. It tells voters precisely what they should expect from their politicians and their government.
Notice that his focus is not on integrity, truth, or reason (although these words are used), but on the ability of these words to manipulate and persuade. Spend some time with this point; savor it and use it as an illumination in a dark corner. Is a product really better because a different color makes it “new and improved?” Can you really believe that the new automated customer service phone system was installed “to serve you better?” Do you really believe all the accusations that Republican candidates threw at each other (or at our President) during the 2011/2012 GOP primary debates?
Do not misunderstand me. I will say again that all politicians use influential words. My objection is to the use of falsehoods and unsubstantiated accusations wrapped in phrases designed to trigger emotional responses IN PLACE OF persuasive rhetorical reason. This is especially onerous when the audience is predisposed to respond to calls for loyalty and obedience to authority more than to understanding and reason.
What was that? Did I just say that there is something wrong with conservative audiences? Yes and no. Research into individual and cultural development shows that all individuals and social groups mature through a predictable series of worldviews. Each worldview in this progressive dynamic of maturity embraces all previous worldviews. And each new worldview transcends and supersedes previous ones as they no longer succeed in explaining, making meaning of, and guiding decisions about life circumstances.
Earlier worldviews respond predominantly to emotions, power, and authority while later worldviews respond more to evidence, empathy, and the dynamic nuances of collective benefit. This makes it easier to recruit holders of earlier worldviews using simpler assertions that appeal to their predispositions.
In brief, individuals and cultures move through a predictable path in areas such as cognition, morality, emotions, and faith. There have been many researchers in these developmental areas. Although they may assign different stage names, they all identify systems of developmental levels. Let’s take an example:
Don Beck, in his book Spiral Dynamics, based on the research of psychologist Clare Graves, identified and described:
- SurvivalSense – Instinctive - “Express self to meet imperative physiological needs through instincts of Homo sapiens.”
- KinSpirits – Tribal - “Sacrifice to the ways of the elders and customs as one subsumed in group.” This is the level of traditional cultures.
- PowerGods – Preconventional/Egocentric - “Express self (impulsively) for what self desires without guilt and to avoid shame.” Expressed by the mentality of street gangs, Vikings, etc.
- TruthForce – Pre-Modern/Traditional - “Sacrifice self for reward to come through obedience to rightful authority in purposeful Way.” Embodied by fundamentalist religions.
- StriveDrive – Modernism - “Express self (calculatedly) to reach goals and objectives without rousing the ire of important others.” Expressed in the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.
- HumanBond – Postmodernism - “Sacrifice self-interest now in order to gain acceptance and group harmony.” Expressed in 1960s pluralism and systems theory.
- FlexFlow – Integral – “Express self for what self desires, but avoid harm to others so that all life, not just own life, will benefit.”
- GlobalView – Holistic - Sacrifice self-interest purely out of principal to achieve greater good.
Each new worldview allows individuals or communities to deal successfully with an increasingly complex world. On the other hand, each worldview is a necessary and universal, if temporary, stage in development. Each worldview serves its purpose at a particular stage, and is retained and still available to those who have acquired the ability to deal with more complex issues.
Unfortunately, people holding earlier worldviews have difficulty in understanding the reasoning and motives of those who have moved on to more-comprehensive systems of thought. Because of this, it is easy to persuasively misrepresent scientific thought to a tribal culture, or lie about the motives of someone holding a global view to someone pledging obedience to a specific leader or religion. No amount of explaining would have convinced the Victorian English colonial empire that they should “make love, not war” or organize meetings so as to be sure that everyone had a chance to express their feelings.
This same dynamic makes it easy to misrepresent liberals to conservatives. Whoops! You may be thinking that I did it again. I DID NOT SAY, “liberals good, conservatives bad.” If your worldview is working for you and you have values that move you to behave virtuously, that is a wonderful thing. In fact, you can’t become liberal without passing through a conservative phase. Been there, done that, moved on. However, there is no reason to think that this makes you better than your neighbor. Some of your neighbors are also moving on. This is all good.
At some point, some people begin to discover that their current way of thinking isn’t working for them anymore. If they struggle hard enough, it is possible to break through to a new way of thinking. When this happens, events take on new meaning, uncomfortable ideas begin to make sense, and you feel like you can see more clearly. But, you will be tempted, after several frustrating attempts to explain yourself to your old friends, to just say, “It’s complex.” They may accuse you of being a superior son-of-a-bitch and stop spending time with you. Then they will tell each other how much you hate them now. ‘sorry ‘bout that. Been there, done that, moved on.
My point is simply this: when the time comes to take a larger view…
- Be willing to give up emotional reflexes for rational evidence.
- Be willing to give up small-group loyalty for large-group tolerance.
- Be willing to defer gratification now for more important gains later.
- Be willing to give up selfishness to care about the welfare of others.
- Be willing to balance individual liberties with the common good.
- Be willing to come together in middle ground to work together to make life better for everyone.
And, don’t let dishonorable people lie to you and use you to achieve their own selfish advantage.