I was hitchhiking around England in the spring of 1983. It happened to be the middle of an election campaign: Margaret Thatcher was running for reelection against a professor named Michael Foot, who represented what was called, with wonderful British aplomb, Labour's "Radical Tendency."
Somewhere north of London I got a ride from a lorry driver. The man looked as though he had stepped out of a Labour Party poster from the 1930s: gaunt frame, missing teeth, and wool snap-brim cap pulled down to his eyes. I expected a Labour speech but got something different.
Yes, Foot was for policies that would benefit workers: progressive taxes, social safety net, all that. Thatcher, the hardest of Tories, was against all these things. But Foot was also for unilateral nuclear disarmament, and this, plus his general demeanor, sent off an aroma that this driver could not abide. "What a twit he is," he said, in an inflection I cannot begin to duplicate, especially in print. "Ya goot ta be toooof."
You got to be tough. It's a rough world out there, and this Foot was a wimp.
I have thought of that conversation often over the years, as I have watched Democrats and progressives flounder. I think of it in particular when I hear them talk. The president's tax-cut package was "risky" and "ill-advised." Risky? Since when are we Americans afraid of risk? Ill-advised? That's the way lawyers talk, and we know how people feel about them.
Last summer, President Bush, in a typical display of armchair bravado, declared of the guerrilla fighters in Iraq, "Bring 'em on." Here's a man who avoided service in Vietnam, talking tough and leaving it to others to walk his talk. But how did the Democrats respond? The president showed "tremendous insensitivity," said Howard Dean. John Kerry called for more "thoughtfulness and statesmanship."
Worthy sentiments all. But these Democrats were letting Bush have the Clint Eastwood role while they played Marian the Librarian. Listen to Democrats and progressives these days and you often hear a neutered language that is part Ivy League policy salon, part Beltway operative, and part sensitivity training class. A favorite term of disapproval is "inappropriate," which means, essentially, ill- mannered. The left talks propriety while the right talks right and wrong.
Polls say that a lot of Americans agree with the progressive end of the spectrum. Most are concerned about such things as the environment and the commercial assault on their kids. They support public schools, and they think corporations have too much power. A recent poll of attitudes toward U.S. institutions found Americans put big business and HMOs at the bottom of their lists. The opposition to Bush ought to be doing much better than it is. Maybe something is getting lost in the translation.
What we hear probably has less to do with a checklist of issues than with style and character. Voters ask themselves, "Is this person pretty much like me? Do I hear echoes of myself -- my annoyances and irritations, my sense of right and wrong, my concerns about my family and the world?" Ronald Reagan was not the brightest bulb in some respects, but his sense of audience was exceptional, as was his ability to situate himself in the living room of the mind. Bill Clinton had these qualities too, which is why he infuriated -- and threatened -- the right so much. He was claiming space they thought was theirs.
In the political arena we generally cannot convince people of anything they do not in some sense already believe. But we just might be able to convince people that what we say is really what they think already. To do this, liberals have to understand their system of belief. They need to speak in terms that sound familiar, like what people hear in their own thoughts.
If people have reservations about affirmative action or gay curriculum in the schools, or if they oppose abortion, Democrats can't just assume that they are racists or homophobes or fanatics. If they like to hunt and keep guns, they can't assume they are incipient felons -- not if they want to talk with them about these issues. If instead they can get inside their moral universe, they just might find something they can speak to.
Progressives generally try to bridge the gap through appeals to class and economic interest: Factory workers will forget their guns, Catholics will forget about abortion, because progressives are with them on tax cuts for the rich. Sometimes that approach works. But culture can run deeper than money, especially for those who don't have a lot of money. A majority of union members today give Bush a high rating. Irony of ironies, Democrats end up in the role of advocates of narrow self-interest while Republicans strike orchestral chords of enterprise and growth. The side that panders shamelessly to the very wealthy gets to claim the polemical high ground.
In his book Moral Politics, linguist George Lakoff contends that one way to understand the language of American politics is through archetypes of the family. The political right embraces a strong-father family. It values authority, discipline, individual enterprise, and personal responsibility. The left, by contrast, favors the nurturing mother: support, assistance, care, cohesion, and the like.
This pattern plays out in many ways. Where the right regards the market as a testing place of individual character and virtue, the left regards it as a jungle in which injustice prevails and the strong or merely fortunate rule everyone else. Where the left would call psychiatrists and counselors, the right calls clergy and police. Where the right invokes traditional values and common sense, the left harkens instinctively to academia and professional expertise.
What the Democrats need is language that embodies strength on a range of issues. This is not as hard as it might seem.
Take the environment. It tends to be a hothouse of nurturing mother imagery -- Mother Earth, ecology, Gaia, and the rest -- all of which signals to many Americans that environmentalists are very different from themselves. What's wrong with balancing that with more strong-father language? For example, why don't Bush and Cheney show a little backbone and stand up to the corporate polluters? Instead of just deriding the president's Clint Eastwood fantasies, why not work some aikido on them and turn that energy to constructive ends?
The Bush tax cuts were a prime example of how Democrats tend to miss the inner moral drama of the voters they are trying to reach. They decried tax cuts for the rich. But as Lakoff points out, most Americans see nothing wrong with being rich. They would like to be that way themselves.
Then there was the Al Gore approach, which was to harp ad nauseum on the "risky" tax cuts. But this nation regards risk-takers as heroes, whether race-car drivers or entrepreneurs. Fear of risk is a wimp signal to the strong-father mind.
Lakoff argues that the left should harken more to personal responsibility and paying for what we get. Wealthy Americans get much from the government: courts, government contracts and subsidies, military protection, and the rest. Halliburton is doing quite well with its contracts in Iraq. Is it asking too much for them to give something back? Aren't we supposed to pay for what we get? Our brave men and women are risking their lives in Iraq, and what do we hear on the home front? Whining and complaining about tax burdens from the most well-off Americans, with the president leading the chorus.
In recent decades, conservatives have probed deeply into the dark arts of propaganda and spin. Liberals are not innocent in this regard, but they cannot match the sophistication of Republican operatives such as Frank Luntz and Karl Rove. I am not suggesting Orwellian constructions, such as the way the administration has turned cutting forests into a Healthy Forests Initiative. I'm suggesting only that liberals speak to what listeners hear and not just what we want to say.
Often people are further along than we think; they just see the path in different ways. Christian conservatives, for example, have been involved in the fight to get commercial influences out of the schools -- not because they hate corporations or capitalism, but because they oppose the way corporations are undermining parental authority.
It's a different way of getting to essentially the same place. There might be many such common places, if only liberals can speak in language that does not distance them from the people they need to reach.
In Washington, Democrats have been talking like Democrats but voting like Republicans -- which leaves them pretty much like Republicans. Maybe they need to learn to speak more to the Republican side of the political psyche. When truck drivers in America start calling Republicans "twits" because of their failure to stand strong for ordinary people, then we'll know we're making progress.
Jonathan Rowe is a contributing editor for Washington Monthly and YES! A Journal of Positive Futures.