Tongue of Newt: The Political Power of Language

By Pitney, John J., Jr. | Reason, February 1999 | Go to article overview

Tongue of Newt: The Political Power of Language


Pitney, John J., Jr., Reason


Newt Gingrich may have left the Republican congressional leadership, but his spirit survives - on the Democratic side.

To understand the link, think back to 1990. At the time, Gingrich was the House Republican whip and general chairman of GOPAC, a committee for the training of Republican candidates. As the midterm congressional campaign got under way, GOPAC issued "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control," a linguistic guide for those who pleaded, "I wish I could speak like Newt."

The guide consisted of two lists, both of which grew out of focus group research. "Optimistic Positive Governing Words" such as opportunity, challenge, and commitment would help Republicans define their own vision. "Contrasting Words" such as crisis, threaten, hypocricy [sic], and ideological would help them define their opponents.

After Democrats attacked the guide as cynical and demeaning, Gingrich quickly disowned it as an aide's mistake. But in spite of their public indignation, the Democrats adopted its central idea: that language is indeed a mechanism for shaping the way people think about politics. Sometimes they openly acknowledged their intellectual debt to Gingrich. At a 1995 political retreat, Democratic senators and staff received an information packet that included the GOPAC document.

One reason the Democrats have done so well lately is that they have mastered both lists. These days, any speech by a Democratic politician will contain long stretches of "optimistic positive governing words," along with a few verbs and prepositions that give the illusion of thought. A typical passage sounds like this: "We have a precious opportunity to preserve our commitment to our families and protect the dreams of our children." Thanks to the list, speechwriters do not have to worry about order and logic. String the words together in another sequence, and they sound just as good: "Our families have precious dreams for our children, so we must preserve and protect our commitment to opportunity."

While these fuzzwords are dulling the listeners' capacity for critical thinking, the "contrasting" words are calling forth demonic images. Again, the Democrats have relied heavily on Gingrich's list, making adept use of such standards as greed, selfish, and intolerant. They've also made some additions, including mean-spirited and, of course, extremist. In the 1998 campaign, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) got away with applying the "extremist" label to GOP challenger Matt Fong, who is about as wild-eyed as Mr. Rogers. And in nearly every race, Democrats linked the Republican candidate to the king of the "extremists," Gingrich himself. As George C. Scott said in Patton: "Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!"

The political use of language involves more than the creation of positive or negative feelings. A virtuoso of the art will use wordplay to redefine the very terms of discussion. Here is where the Democrats have outdone Gingrich.

Seldom any more do they say, "We need to increase spending on federal domestic programs." Instead, they follow the lead of President Bill Clinton, who praised last fall's omnibus spending bill for making "critical investments in education and training." Not once in his statement did he use the word spend. Clever trick: "Spending" connotes loss, whereas "investment" implies the expectation of profit. Thus his words powerfully suggested that federal programs will pay for themselves - and then some - by making Americans more productive. Though the evidence points in the opposite direction, the language puts a daunting burden of proof on anyone who would balk at "investing" in workers and children. …

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