A Language for Change

David Kusnet

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 were watchwords of his successful presidential campaign.

Reagan and Clinton spoke 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 recent political campaigns and public debates, conservatives have spoken American more often than progressives. Remember Arnold Schwarzenegger vs. Gray Davis, George W. Bush vs. Al Gore, and Rudy Giuliani vs. various New York City Democrats? The more conservative candidates sounded more like the regular people their policies injure or ignore.

So how can progressives speak American, too?

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 paychecks.

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 it’s government contracts for companies that break unions, then the issues include individual Americans’ rights to free speech and freedom of association. And if it’s exorbitant salaries or corrupt practices by corporate executives, then the issue is responsibility, especially the ancient truth that much is expected from those to whom much has been given. Whatever the issue, an argument that appeals to commonly held morality is more persuasive than one that’s purely technical.

Third, speak in parables—familiar stories that illustrate and inform peoples’ ideas of what is right and wrong. Progressive parables include:

Rot at the top

The classic populist parable holds that those with the most power and privilege—Washington muck-a-mucks, multimillionaire CEOs, and others with wealth and influence—have betrayed the larger community. Corporate wrongdoing at Enron and WorldCom—and practices that are legal but harmful, such as moving operations offshore to escape taxes in this country—call to mind “rot at the top,” a phrase popularized by former Labor Secretary Robert Reich in the ’80s. As does self-serving or misleading behavior by government officials or leaders from any other sector of society.

Virtue unrewarded

The flip side of unpunished wrongdoing by big shots is unrewarded 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 work hard, 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 the working poor, the middle-class taxpayer and the responsible businessperson all are sympathetic figures. And that’s why slogans like “Make work pay” win wider support for living-wage ordinances, union organizing drives and programs that help people move from welfare to employment.

The caring community

Americans believe in helping each other and sharing life’s benefits and burdens. For all our individualism, most of us don’t believe that people make it on their own; we know we need 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 jiu-jitsu against President Bush: If the 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 parable is the American Revolution: the people rising, peaceably at first, to demand the right to govern themselves. From the tax rebellions of the ’70s and ’80s to the recent recall initiative in California, conservatives have presented themselves as modern-day Minutemen. But so did progressives during the ’60s and ’70’s, particularly in the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement and the peace movement. All these successful movements, whether of the left, right or center, have cast their causes as something larger than the redress of specific grievances. Instead, they have declared that the future of democracy itself is at stake. Thus, these movements themselves become models of democracy, with tax rebels recalling the Boston Tea Party and the Civil Rights movement adopting the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence.

Today’s progressives would do well to reconnect with the small-d democratic rhetoric of the labor movement of the ’30s and the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s. Speaking American is one reason former Vermont Governor Howard Dean is running so strong a race for the Democratic presidential nomination, reaching well beyond the affluent liberals who were his initial base. In his formal announcement of his presidential candidacy and a recent speech in Boston, Dean placed his insurgency in that larger historic context. Using the litany “You have the power,” he has urged Americans to reclaim their democracy from wealthy special interests and secretive preemptive warriors.

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

Resources for progressive communications

  • Robert Reich’s Tales of a New America (Times Books, 1987) presents several populist parables, such as “rot at the top.”
  • In its September 2003 issue, titled “How the Republicans Hijack Language,” The American Prospect (www.prospect.org/print/V14-8.html) explores why conservatives have out-argued their adversaries.
  • The Institute for America’s Future publishes Straight Talk, a biennial guide to presenting progressive positions on public issues (www.ourfuture.org/projects/straight_talk/index.cfm).

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is the author of Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties (Thunder’s Mouth, 1992).
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.