Language for a Change

To win, progressives need to speak with an American accent


| March / April 2004


When Ronald Reagan accepted the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, he called for 'a new consensus with all those across the land who share a community of values embodied in these words: family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom.'

Twelve years later in his acceptance speech, Democrat Bill Clinton invoked a similar set of values -- 'opportunity, responsibility, and community' -- that had been watchwords of his successful presidential campaign.

Reagan and Clinton spoke in everyday language that evoked moral values, not public policies. They were elected and re-elected against opponents who tended to speak the language of government and politics, not normal life. Not surprisingly, 'speaking American' beats speaking Bureaucratese.

In most recent political campaigns, including the 2000 presidential race, the 2002 congressional elections and last year's California recall vote, conservatives have spoken American in more convincing ways than progressives. So how can we as progressives become more fluent in talking American?

First, speak the language of everyday experience. If you're advocating an increase in the minimum wage or opposing a trade agreement that could cost American jobs, explain what it all means for a single mom struggling to support her kids on her paychecks.

Second, ask yourself what values are at stake -- and talk about those values. If you're supporting a living-wage ordinance, then the issue is the moral value the community places on hard work. If the issue is government contracts for companies that bust unions, then the discussion includes individual Americans' rights to free speech and freedom of association. And if it's exorbitant salaries or corrupt practices of corporate executives, then the issue is personal responsibility. Whatever the issue, an appeal to morality is more persuasive than one that's purely technical.