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Republican Vocabulary: The Politics of Projection

28 Aug

You don’t have to be a psychologist to recognize projection when you see it. It’s a very simple process, especially in politics. People attribute their own behavior to their opponents. It’s a great way to camouflage one’s own motives and intentions.

It’s also the basis of the entire Republican campaign this year. And the problem is that it’s working, because the Democrats have not been at all effective at exposing it. Once you look carefully at Republican vocabulary, however, it doesn’t take much effort to see through the process and expose it for what it is. Let’s start with Mitt Romney’s four favorite words: “entitlement,” “redistribution,” and “job creators.”

Mitt loves that word “entitlement.” He says the President is “the entitlement candidate.” It’s a powerful word, because it implies that the President wants to win votes by giving people things they don’t deserve and haven’t paid for. It also plays into two not very subtle aspects of American culture. One is the cosmic American fear of paying for what someone else is getting. The other is racial animosity. Mitt’s audience knows the code, and he knows they know it. Newt Gingrich used it when he talked about the “food stamps President.” That was much too out front, however. Mitt is more subtle.

Ironically, his negative use of the word “entitlement” is also an inversion of its legal meaning, which simply denotes a right that can only be taken away by due process. Once a word becomes politicized, however, it’s not difficult to invert its original meaning if you have a receptive audience, which Mitt does. So now if you want to accuse people of taking things they’re aren’t entitled to take, or of offering things they aren’t entitled to offer, you call it an “entitlement.” Sound Orwellian? That’s because it is.

Then there is Mitt’s own behavior. Salon editor Joan Walsh recently pointed out on MSNBC that every time Mitt opens his mouth about his tax returns, “he sounds more and more entitled.” And that is precisely where the projection comes in.

Not only does Mitt feel entitled to withhold tax returns; he feels entitled to pay less than half the tax rate salaried employees pay. He also feels his corporate donors in the oil and defense industries are entitled to huge subsidies and no-bid contracts paid for with taxpayers’ dollars. And now with the Romney-Ryan budget he wants to lower his tax rate even further and raise middle-class taxes, and he feels entitled to do that.

That alone should expose the projection, but in fact it goes further. Mitt promises to repeal Obamacare, yet he hasn’t said a word about the federal health care benefits that Congress, the Executive and the Judiciary enjoy. He obviously feels the latter are entitled to what he would deny ordinary Americans. He also feels that companies shipping jobs overseas are still entitled to subsidies, while those producing goods “Made in U.S.A.” are not. So who’s the real “entitlement candidate”?

Bottom line: Mitt projects his own sense of “entitlement” onto the President, and so far the Democrats have utterly failed to expose the projection. It’s a powerful strategy, and it’s going to keep working unless and until the Democrats do expose it.

Then there’s that word “redistribution.” Mitt constantly accuses the President of redistributing wealth, implying that he takes from those who earn and gives to those who don’t. This likewise plays to the code and Mitt knows that, too. In reality, the last thirty years of Republican policy (with some Democratic complicity) have redistributed wealth to the extent that 1% of Americans now control over 40% of the nation’s wealth. And the Romney-Ryan budget would make it even worse.

In this case, the President has responded by labeling the Republican approach “Romneyhood.” While the term is gaining traction, he has nonetheless failed to locate Romney’s vocabulary within the larger, all-important context of Republican projection. Hence the overall Republican strategy remains intact and continues to have its effect.

And then, of course, Mitt’s favorite words, “job creators.” By now most people realize that every time American corporations close a factory and ship the jobs to China or elsewhere, they create jobs abroad and kill them at home. But that hasn’t derailed the Republican claim at all. They continue to accuse the President of destroying jobs via Obamacare and ignore the 4.5 million jobs the Administration has created. They also ignore their own sabotaging of the President’s proposed Jobs Act. The Republican mantra, “We create jobs; they destroy them,” is another projection, but again, no one is calling them out on the larger pattern, which thus remains both operative and effective.

Space does not permit an exhaustive list of all the other words and phrases that make up Republican strategy, but one of the most immediately dangerous is the phrase “voter fraud.” It denotes a very real phenomenon, but that phenomenon takes two forms. The first is when people do vote when they have no right to. The second, equally fraudulent in its effect, is when people who have that right are deprived of it, whether through police intimidation such as occurred in Florida in 2000, or in the various state laws now in operation in several battleground states.

In this respect, Republican-controlled state governments have not been the least bit subtle. By now, probably millions of people have seen the video of the Pennsylvania House leader saying, “Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the State of Pennsylvania; done.” More recently, in defending the abolition of weekend early voting, a long-standing tradition in Ohio especially among black voters, the chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party announced: “We shouldn’t contort [sic] the voting process to accommodate the urban – read African-American – voter-turnout machine.”

In both states, massive efforts are underway to minimize the effects of these laws. Whether those efforts will be successful only time will tell. Again, however, the attempt to perpetrate one form of voter fraud in the name of preventing the other amounts to a particularly unsubtle use of projection. Democrats have responded by renaming the state laws “voter suppression.” Like “Romneyhood,” the phrase itself is gaining traction, yet it, too, fails to expose the larger verbal pattern.

Underlying these other instances of projection is the most telling of all. Depicting the President as “angry and desperate,” Romney recently told an Ohio audience that the President should “take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago.” One need only look at the faces in Romney’s audience to see the projection at work. These people don’t merely disapprove of the President’s policies; their faces show a visceral hatred of the President himself. And Romney revels in it.

What it comes down to is this: Projection is all the Republicans have. Without it, they’re finished. In the time remaining, Democrats should be calling them out non-stop. Romney is the real entitlement and redistribution candidate, Republicans are the real job destroyers, and Republicans are the ones promoting division, anger and hate. Democrats should be saying this in communicating with their base, in TV and radio spots aimed at the uncommitted, and above all in their face-to-face debates with Republican candidates. Fair-minded media will pick it up. Time is short, so the time is now.


Obamacare? Absolutely.

6 Aug

At long last Democrats are going on the offensive. For more than two years they ran away from the word Obamacare, surrendering it to Republicans and even trying to prohibit Republicans in Congress from using it on the House floor. Self-defeating. In politics as in hockey, you don’t score goals on defense.

Finally, Democrats are waking up. Not only does the President care; the word itself, properly used, puts Romney in a box. I can see the bumper stickers now: “Obama Cares. Romney Doesn’t.”

Every Democratic candidate, every Democratic speaker, should be asking audiences, “What would Romney replace Obamacare with? Romneycare?” Think about it. Romney totally backed away from the word Romneycare during the primaries for fear of alienating the Tea Party. And now he’s stuck with that.

It’s not that he can’t reverse himself. For Mitt Romney, reversing himself is as natural as yawning. His problem is that he’s got nowhere to go. The whole country knows that Obamacare was in all important respects built upon Romneycare, including the individual mandate. So when Democrats ask if he would replace Obamacare with Romneycare, they’ll be putting him in an impossible position.

Either he has to invent “the new Romneycare” and explain how it differs from “the old Romneycare” (and he’s right about one thing — when you’re explaining, you’re losing) or he has to take back ownership of the old Romneycare and explain why he ran away from it in the first place, in which case he’ll still be explaining and still be losing.

But Democratic embracing of the word Obamacare goes even further. It should be applied to tax breaks. “Obama cares about tax breaks for you. Does Romney?” The answer is not only obvious; it immediately puts Romney on the defensive. “Obama cares about your Social Security, about protecting your Medicare, about keeping American jobs in America. Does Romney?”

Democrats should be challenging Republicans to keep using the word Obamacare. “We’re delighted that Republicans keep reminding Americans that the President cares about them. That’s why Republicans never talk about Romneycare. Because they know Mr. Romney doesn’t care.”

This is a game-changer.

Four Words That Will Decide The Election

25 Jul

ImageFour Words That Will Decide The Election

 If there is anyone out there who still doubts that framing is what this election is about, just look at the vocabularies of the contending parties. It’s already down to a non-stop battle of mantras, buzzwords, epithets and self-designations.

  For Mitt Romney, it’s about “the entitlement society” versus “the opportunity society.” For Barack Obama, it’s about “a make-or-break moment for the middle class.” For Republican surrogates, it’s about defeating “big unions” and “Euro-socialists.” For their Democratic counterparts, it’s about resisting the onslaught of the “radical right.”

  There is a certain symmetry to it. Each side paints the other as out of touch with the American mainstream. Each accuses the other of wanting to lead the country down an unsustainable path. Each side tries to frame issues so as to ignite emotional responses that will immunize voters against whatever arguments the other side offers.

  Yet there is also a profound asymmetry at work. Whether Democrats admit it or not, Republicans have been far more effective at emotional mobilization.  Republicans have long since grasped what Democrats are still puzzling over. You choose the words that trigger the emotions. And the four words at the heart of Republican strategy this year are “entitlements,” “redistribution,” and “job creators.” Why those four? Because they load the dice most effectively against the President. To be in favor of “entitlements” is to favor giving people things to which they aren’t really entitled, such as other people’s money. To favor “redistribution” is to favor taking away what hard-working people have earned and giving it to people who don’t truly earn anything. And to tax “job creators” is to kill any hope of economic recovery.

  And how have Democrats responded? It’s a “war on women,” it’s a “war on the middle class,” it’s an attempt to “bring back the policies that got us into this mess.” That plays fine with the choir, but it’s not bringing a lot of new people into church. Why not? Because however justified as policy arguments, the first two mantras come across as insulting and the third asks people to ignore the last three and a half years. This is not the way to trigger emotional responses among the uncommitted.

  So what should Democrats be doing? Ah, the irony. While Republicans not only lionize their Dear Departed Leader but mimic his rhetorical strategy to a fault, Democrats exalt the memory of their Greatest Leader and totally ignore his rhetorical strategy. All Republicans know that Ronald Reagan’s stock in trade was denigrative language.  “Government isn’t the solution; government is the problem.” Yet how many Democrats have any idea of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s verbal strategy? From the show they’re putting on, I’d say very few to none. A history lesson for Democrats:

  Against whom did F.D.R. run in 1932? That’s easy. The ultimate conservative, Herbert Hoover. WRONG. Hoover never called himself a conservative in 1932.  Hard as it may be for Democrats to believe, throughout his career as both Secretary of Commerce and President, Hoover always called himself a “progressive” and a “liberal.”  In its review of his book American Individualism, the New York Times itself stated: “His liberalism, his progressivism, is a thing of the heart no less than of the head.” If no less an authority than the New York Times validated Hoover’s credentials as a progressive and a liberal, WHAT HAPPENED IN 1932, and how does it relate to 2012?

  Remember how Reagan took the cherished self-designation of the Democrats and turned it into a bad label, an epithet? “It’s time to . . . use the dreaded L-word; to say the policies of our opposition . . . are liberal, liberal, liberal.” And a dreaded word it has been ever since. How many Democrats are even running this year as self-styled liberals?

  Roosevelt could have done the same in 1932. He could have turned Hoover’s liberal label into a bad label, an epithet. Hoover was far more vulnerable in 1932 than were the Democrats of the 1980s. It would have been easy for F.D.R. to attack Hoover’s “liberal failures” and position himself as a “conservative,” as a restorer of traditional American values. Indeed, many historians have since analyzed the New Deal in terms of F.D.R.’s conserving, indeed saving, American capitalism. So why didn’t he go that road?

  Because he knew better.  Because he understood that his strongest emotional appeal was to challenge Hoover’s right to his own label.  This he did immediately and consistently, starting with his nomination acceptance speech in which he proclaimed the Democratic Party “the bearer of liberalism and of progress” and the “party of liberal thought, of planned action,” while attacking Hoover and the Republican leadership as “reactionary.” F.D.R. took away Hoover’s liberal label, redefined it and made it his own.  It worked so brilliantly that Hoover spent the next twelve years of his life in a vain effort to recapture his cherished liberal label. He never succeeded. Finally, after F.D.R.’s death, Hoover gave up and at age 71 started calling himself a conservative.

 So what’s the lesson for Democrats in 2012? Do what F.D.R. did. Take away Republican vocabulary. Turn it around on them, redefine their own words as F.D.R. did eighty years ago. Entitlements? Who’s the real entitlement candidate? Who’s proposing continued, massive subsidies to big corporations from oil companies to agribusiness, subsidies to which those corporations feel they’re entitled? Who’s proposing indefinite continuation of ridiculously low tax rates for the wealthiest Americans, millionaires and billionaires who also feel entitled to them? Who’s in favor of continuing to fatten up the industrial-military complex with huge government contracts to which those corporations feel entitled? And when you frame it that way, who’s the real opportunity candidate?

  We’re not talking semantics here; we’re talking framing. We’re talking politics. We’re talking emotional mobilization. We’re talking what F.D.R. did best. He turned the vocabulary of his opponents to his own advantage and their detriment.

  The same holds true for word number two: redistribution. Who’s the real redistribution candidate? The way Republicans are using the word, they’re igniting huge emotional reactions against the idea of redistributing wealth downward. What Democrats have failed to grasp is both the necessity and the opportunity of turning that very word around on the Republicans. Romney is hugely vulnerable on the issue of redistributing wealth upward. That’s what his tax break policies are about. That’s what his spending cuts are about. That’s what his entire economic program is about. All the statistics are already there proving how dramatically the wealth has been redistributed upward ever since the Reagan era, and Romney wants to continue that. What hasn’t happened is that Democrats haven’t framed that data using Romney’s own vocabulary. Again, we’re not talking semantics; we’re talking emotional mobilization. Democrats need to take over the word redistribution, and they need to do it now.

  Finally, words three and four: job creators. Tailor-made for Democrats. What have big corporations done most effectively over the last twenty years?  Romney’s corporate supporters have been creating jobs, all right, in China, India, the Philippines, Mexico, Cambodia, Singapore, Vietnam – everywhere but the United States. At the same time, Republicans in Congress have consistently sabotaged the administration’s efforts to create jobs at home, and then blamed the President for lack of job creation. Again, the vocabulary is tailor-made for a Democratic counterattack. The Republicans are great at creating jobs outside the United States, and every time they create a job outside the United States they kill a job inside the United States. So who is the real job creator?

  And the biggest irony of all? Who said, “Don’t retreat; reload”? She was right, but what she didn’t realize is that it works both ways. Reload indeed, but with the other side’s ammunition. Democrats should not only let Republicans compete with them over the vocabulary; they should force them to. Democrats should get off the defensive and go on the offensive, using the opposition’s own weaponry. They should be making Republicans afraid even to use those words. And when Republicans start to run away, Democrats should chase after them with the same weaponry. “Republicans don’t want to talk about entitlements any more, now that the American people realize who the real entitlement candidate is. And they don’t want to talk about redistribution any more, or about job creators.” When Democrats reach that point, they’ll know they have won.

  And it not only works for the big four words; it works with other words such as “Obamacare” and “class warfare.” Again, we’re talking emotion here. Republicans have been yelling “Obamacare” since long before the Supreme Court decision, but they don’t dare talk about “Romneycare.” Well, why not? Now that the Court has rendered its decision, it’s the perfect time to turn that vocabulary around. As for “class warfare,” Democrats need to turn that around in the same way as they do the word redistribution.

  Homework for Democrats: Go through the entire list of Republican buzzwords and turn each and every one of them against the Republicans. It not only can be done; it has to be done, because if it isn’t done, the Republicans will win the framing war, and if they win the framing war, they win the election.

  But again, it’s the big four words that will be front and center for the rest of this campaign. Democrats have only two choices. They can keep running away from the ghost of Ronald Reagan and stay on the defensive, or they can finally learn from their deservedly greatest hero and do what he did so brilliantly and with such telling effect. There is no time to lose. The time to reclaim the offensive, and the vocabulary, is now.


David Green is the author of The Language of Politics in America: Shaping Political Consciousness From McKinley to Reagan (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991). He has taught at Ohio State, Cornell, and York University.


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