Language for a Change

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

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.

Third, tell stories, parables really, that evoke people’s sense
of what is right and wrong. Progressive parables include the

Rot at the top

The classic populist tale holds that those with the most power
and privilege have betrayed the larger community. Pervasive
corporate wrongdoing (think Enron and WorldCom) — as well as
practices that are legal but harmful, such as moving operations
offshore to escape taxes in this country — fit under the powerful
banner of ‘rot at the top,’ a phrase popularized by former labor
secretary Robert Reich in the 1980s.

Virtue unrewarded

The flip side of unpunished wrongdoing by big shots is
unrewarded contributions and responsibility by regular people. When
Bill Clinton talked about people ‘who work hard and play by the
rules,’ he appealed to the widely held belief that people who hold
down jobs, pay their taxes, live within the law, and do right by
their community are not getting the respect and rewards they have
earned. That’s why slogans like ‘Make work pay’ win wide support
for living-wage ordinances, union organizing drives, and programs
that help people move from welfare to employment.

The caring community

Americans devoutly believe in helping each other and sharing
life’s benefits and burdens. For all our individualism, we know we
can’t make it without a community behind us. In difficult times,
such as the post-9/11 world, Americans want everyone to contribute,
especially those with the most advantages. Progressives can use
rhetorical jujitsu against President Bush: If our nation really is
besieged, then how can we justify new benefits for the wealthy and
new burdens on the rest of us?

The people rising

Our nation’s primal story is the American Revolution: citizens
standing up, peaceably at first, to demand the right to govern
themselves. From the Proposition 13 tax rebellion of the 1970s to
the current property rights movement and the recent recall election
in California, conservatives have presented themselves as
modern-day Minutemen. But progressives were equally successful
evoking America’s insurgent past during the ’60s and ’70s with the
civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the peace
movement. All successful movements, whether of the left, right, or
center, cast their causes as something larger than the redress of
specific grievances.

Speaking everyday language, appealing to common values, and
developing populist parables — that’s how progressives can
communicate to our fellow citizens, not just with each other, and
persuade all Americans to follow their best instincts and further
their best interests.

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for President Bill
Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is currently a visiting fellow
at the Economic Policy Institute and is author of
American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties (Thunder’s
Mouth, 1992). From the progressive biweekly
In These Times
(Nov. 17, 2003). Subscriptions: $36.95/yr. (52 issues) from
2040 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60647.

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