Postmodern Conservative

Conservatives and the English Language

Trump speaks English and his “conservative” opponents often do not – and that is a big reason why he is the nominee and a conventional conservative isn’t. People know what Trump wants (or at least what he has proposed.) A normal person has no idea what a conventional conservative politician wants – other than perhaps to cut taxes and regulation on business.  This isn’t just because people have heard more from Trump.  It is also because what they have heard from conservatives hasn’t made much sense.

The best observation that Martin Gurri made about Trump wasn’t even about Trump.  Gurri wrote that:

According to media agenda-setting research, volume of discussion about a topic must climb above a specific awareness threshold before it can enter the consciousness of the public.  Below that level the topic simply doesn’t exist.  The charts show Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Trump’s chief opponents, drowning deep below the awareness threshold.  They and their messages were largely nonexistent to the public.

But it wasn’t just that Trump’s opponents went unheard.  Cruz had big wins in Iowa and Wisconsin.  Those wins gave him media coverage and an opportunity to make a public impression.  Cruz had amassed enough money that he could have used commercials to drive his message in key markets. 

And yet, Cruz’s message stayed “below the awareness threshold.”  Part of the problem (though there are many parts of the problem) is the language that conservatives have used to communicate with the public.  Trump is (sometimes) perfectly clear. If you like him or hate him, you know that he wants to build a border wall and ban Muslim immigration.  Conservative politicians have developed rhetorical habits that make them incomprehensible to the average person. 

Take the phrase “culture of life.”  It isn’t just meant to be poetic.  It is meant to signal to pro-life activists that the candidate opposes abortion while being obscure (though pleasant-sounding) to everyone else. Throwing “culture of life” into a speech allows a politician to imply a political commitment while making it difficult for opponents to create soundbites that will be used against them in the court of public opinion.

This has infected the rhetorical style of conservative Republicans.  Religious liberty means giving people of faith the benefit of the doubt when government regulations conflict with deeply held beliefs.  Growth means lower taxes (usually on the rich.) All of these phrases signal something to an activist community, but they add up to gibberish when they are strung together for a general audience. 

In this, today’s conservative politicians have become the opposite of Reagan.  Reagan would have told the story of the Little Sisters of the Poor rather than relying on stale phrases.  It would have been the story of women who dedicated their lives to helping the indigent and the lonely.  It would have been about how arrogant and malicious politicians and bureaucrats were trying to force these nuns to choose between helping the poor and living by their faith – and how this conflict was totally unnecessary and created by bullying politicians.     

Reagan was an avid collector of stories that illustrated his beliefs.  It is those stories that that give issues their salience.  Whether the issue is abortion, or health care, or immigration, it is those stories that make people understand, and then care.  If they don’t hear it from Ted Cruz, who are they going to hear it from? Katie Couric?

This was especially frustrating coming from Ted Cruz.  I say this as an unconflicted Cruz voter.  Cruz should have been the best at this.  Cruz’s Supreme Court arguments were all about talking.  Being a senator is all about talking (at least the way Cruz does it.)  Cruz’s debate championships were all about talking. 

Then Cruz would begin big victory speeches with baffling digressions about his personal life, or with agonizing recitals of campaign minutiae.  He would eventually (far too late) turn to issues that might actually impact people’s lives. Cruz then spoke about those issues in a language that was partly designed to speed up communication among political obsessives, and partly designed to exclude the persuadable from understanding.  Even as I rooted for Cruz, I felt like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp fiction:

English? Do you speak it?!?  Say “full spectrum of the Republican Party” again! Say it again! I dare you. I double dare you

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