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Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising,… (2006)

by Geoffrey Nunberg

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1791112,619 (3.82)3
Geoffrey Nunberg breaks new ground with this fierce and funny narrative of how the political right has ushered in a new world order, aided unwittingly by the liberal media. Democrats are well known for their "lousy bumper stickers," as Joe Klein puts it. As liberals wade through the semantics of "social security lockbox," "single payer," and other wonky locutions, the right has become harder, meaner and better at getting out the message: the estate tax became the more menacing "death tax" and a contentious education initiative was wrapped in the comforting (and memorable) blanket of "No Child Left Behind." But Nunberg shows that the real story is more subtle than just a bumper sticker war. Conservatives' main goal wasn't to win voters over to their positions on healthcare, education, or the environment. They had a much more dramatic ambition. By changing the meaning of words like "values," "government," "liberal"; "faith," and "freedom," conservatives have shiftedthe political center of gravity of the language itself to the right. "Whatever our politics," Nunberg observes, "when we talk about politics nowadays, we can't help using language that embodies a conservative world-view."… (more)

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Nunberg's book is well-written, exhaustively researched, and (I believe) accurate. Unfortunately, though, it's incomplete - we get a diagnosis but no prescription. That's a problem. If the doctor says you've got appendicitis, he sort of owes it to you to suggest a treatment. Admittedly, Nunberg does offer a few vague-ish answers, but they're tentative and incomplete. ("The solution has to include..." is about as good as it gets.) Still, the book is worth at least a skim; the diagnosis is glum, but it also seems pretty astute.

Nunberg argues that the basic vocabulary of political discussion has been co-opted by the right; they’ve saddled ostensibly neutral terms with specific connotations that work to their advantage. Having “values” means opposing gay marriage or defending school prayer; it never means doing right by the poor. Oppressive members of the “elite” are always college professors instead of business tycoons; class is now defined in cultural (rather than economic) terms. "Liberal," once an unremarkable adjective, has become a one-word political death sentence. And so on.

Since these kinds of terms represent the fundamental, “final vocabulary” of politics, their re-definition gives conservatives an impressive home-field advantage when we sit down to debate. Liberals lack powerful shorthands like “values” and “elite,” which means we have to waste time explaining ourselves. We’re forced to make an argument, whereas conservatives can go straight for the gut.

They've succeeded mainly because they tell better and more consistent stories; those narratives supply the relevant words with their new connotations, and sheer repetition propels those connotations into our political journalism. From there, it's a straight shot into the mind of the American voter.

Of course, there's more to it than that. Nunberg's argument is nuanced, and everything is admirably illustrated and supported. He looks at nearly a dozen words / issue areas, and most of those treatments could stand alone as very fine articles or essays. A ten page conclusion, however, isn't nearly enough to tie them all together.

Read the first two chapters, I'd say, to get a sense of his argument - and then just read about whichever words tickle your fancy. ( )
  LorenIpsum | Jun 16, 2012 |
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Geoffrey Nunberg breaks new ground with this fierce and funny narrative of how the political right has ushered in a new world order, aided unwittingly by the liberal media. Democrats are well known for their "lousy bumper stickers," as Joe Klein puts it. As liberals wade through the semantics of "social security lockbox," "single payer," and other wonky locutions, the right has become harder, meaner and better at getting out the message: the estate tax became the more menacing "death tax" and a contentious education initiative was wrapped in the comforting (and memorable) blanket of "No Child Left Behind." But Nunberg shows that the real story is more subtle than just a bumper sticker war. Conservatives' main goal wasn't to win voters over to their positions on healthcare, education, or the environment. They had a much more dramatic ambition. By changing the meaning of words like "values," "government," "liberal"; "faith," and "freedom," conservatives have shiftedthe political center of gravity of the language itself to the right. "Whatever our politics," Nunberg observes, "when we talk about politics nowadays, we can't help using language that embodies a conservative world-view."

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