[lg policy] US: Why Democrats and Republicans Literally Speak Different Languages

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sat Jul 23 10:26:56 EDT 2016

 Why Democrats and Republicans Literally Speak Different Languages

The Republican National Convention proved yet again that the GOP talks
about America and U.S. policy with an entire unique vocabulary. It hasn’t
always been this way.
Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

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   - Derek Thompson <http://www.theatlantic.com/author/derek-thompson/>
   - Jul 22, 2016
   - Politics <http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/>

Subscribe to *The Atlantic*’s Politics & Policy Daily
<http://www.theatlantic.com/newsletters/politics-daily/>, a roundup of
ideas and events in American politics.

On Thursday night, Donald Trump and other speakers at the Republican
National Convention talked about “radical Islamic terrorism,” “illegal
aliens,” and “Crooked Hillary.” In a few weeks, at the Democratic National
Convention, you likely won’t hear any of these terms. The Obama
administration refuses to associate terrorism with Islam, for fear of
legitimizing it. Democrats are far more likely to talk about “immigrants”
and “undocumented workers” than aliens. And it will be quite shocking, at a
level far beyond Ted Cruz’s speech on Wednesday night, if a keynote speaker
addresses Hillary Clinton with her *nom de Trump*.

For several decades now, Republicans and Democrats have become more
polarized. There are plenty of reasons for that, including the demise of
the Southern Dixiecrats and the geographic sorting of the country into
ideologically homogenous neighborhoods. But the two major parties are
now divided
by a common language
Democrats discuss “comprehensive health reform,” “estate taxes,”
“undocumented workers,” and “tax breaks for the wealthy,” while Republicans
insist on a “Washington takeover of health care,” “death taxes,” “illegal
aliens,” and “tax reform.” When did the two major political parties create
their own vocabularies?

Around 1990. That’s according to a fascinating new paper by the economists
Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro and Microsoft Research’s Matt Taddy
<http://papers.nber.org/tmp/60512-w22423.pdf>. Americans have for decades
signaled their political clique with specific terms—as when Southerners
refer to the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression,” or Northerners
call it the “Great Rebellion.” What is different today, the researchers
said, is “the magnitude of the differences, the deliberate strategic
choices that seem to underlie them, and the expanding role of consultants,
focus groups, and polls” to entrench two separate political lexicons within
the same polity.

In the paper, they have a simple but specific definition of partisanship:
“the ease with which an observer could guess a speaker’s party based solely
on the speaker’s choice of words.” This definition of partisanship scarcely
changed between 1870 and 1990. For roughly 120 years, the probability of
correctly guessing a speaker’s party by listening to a one-minute speech
was about 52 to 55 percent, nearly random. But suddenly, in the early
1990s, rhetorical partisanship exploded.
*The Rise of Partisan Language in Congress*[image: Inline image 1]Gentzkow
et al <http://papers.nber.org/tmp/60512-w22423.pdf>

“The 1994 inflection point in our series coincides precisely with the
Republican takeover of Congress led by Newt Gingrich” and his Contract With
America, they find. Gingrich’s revolution helped to introduce and/or
popularize terms like “tax relief,” which at the time were seen as a
distinctly conservative frame, as opposed to “tax cut” (or, more partisan,
“tax giveaway”).

But the polarization of language did not stop when Gingrich left
Washington. The Contract With America kicked off a neologism arms race, a
prolonged attempt by members of both parties to coin catchy new terms for
their pet policies, particularly for taxes, immigration, and health care.
This neologism burst—defined as words and phrases first popularized after
1980—continued through the end of the 20th century and into the 21st
century. Both Republicans and Democrats became more disciplined about
defining their agendas in partisan-specific terms and getting other members
of their parties to speak the same language.
*The Rise of Partisan Neologisms*[image: Inline image 2]Gentzkow et al

Another inescapable variable here is the significant shift in media
technology. Between 1984 and 1992, the cable industry spent more than $15
billion expanding its infrastructure—the “largest private construction
project since World War II”
<http://www.calcable.org/learn/history-of-cable/>—and the number of cable
channels nearly tripled in that decade.

The diversity of media, alone, cannot explain the growing partisanship of
language. After all, in the 19th century, there were hundreds of ethnic
newspapers in the New York and New Jersey area, alone, serving socialists,
conservatives, Jews, Swedes, and Italians. But the cable revolution was
different by an order of magnitude: Each channel had the potential to reach
tens of millions of cable-subscribing voters.

C-SPAN was introduced to the House of Representatives in 1979, and C-SPAN2
joined to film the Senate in 1986. “This plausibly increased the return to
carefully crafted language, both by widening the reach of successful sound
bites, and by dialing up the cost of careless mistakes,” the researchers
write. In *The C-SPAN Revolution*, Stephen Frantzich and John Sullivan
quote Newt Gingrich as saying he would have never been the Republican
leader without C-SPAN. Fox News launched in 1996, and its success covering
the conservative movement encouraged MSNBC to shift more and more leftward
over the next decade, until finally there were two clear channels for
partisan messaging.

There is little inherently dangerous about the popularization of synonymous
terms. Millions of Americans say they drink “pop,” millions of Americans
prefer the term “coke,” and they are all wrong because the proper
terminology is “soda.” These differences hurt no one, even if their
out-of-state usage might occasionally confuse a drug-store clerk.

But the Cambrian explosion of partisan neologisms is not as anodyne as the
soda/pop divide. First, it’s not good that Republicans and Democrats see
political expedience in accentuating their separateness down to the way
they describe a reduction in taxes on households earning more than a
million dollars. It is, rather, a sign that both parties are predominantly
interested, not in converting the other side, but rather in speaking to the
converted flock.

Second, devoting all this energy to building separate lexicons creates the
impression that words are as important as policies. They are most certainly
not. Coming up with a catchy name for the Iraq War doesn’t change a single
substantive fact about its outcome. Despite what you’ve heard, harping on
the words “radical,” “Islamic,” and “terrorism” is not a foreign policy. It
is the reduction of a complex international crisis into a diction contest.

When politics devolves into a war over word choice, it is probably a sign
that all hope for a more substantive debate has already been lost.


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