Turn on Fox News on any given night, and you’ll hear pundits blasting illegal aliens, radical Islamic terrorism, and corporate regulations.
Change the channel to MSNBC, and you’ll hear talk of undocumented immigrants, jihadism, and consumer protections.
The two networks are talking about the same issues, but they’re using strikingly different terms.
At the heart of this is a struggle between conservatives and liberals over how to label just about every issue in politics. Behind the scenes, experts from both parties are busy devising and testing new ways to frame hot-button issues designed to pull voters further into their camps.
The divide has shown no signs of narrowing, and it has left observers wondering how to find common ground when even our language is polarised.
“Every tribe has its own words, basically, and it becomes more and more difficult to have conversations across tribal fault lines if we can’t even agree on the terminology,” Dietram Scheufele, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin, told Business Insider.
The ‘inflection point’
Given today’s political climate, it may seem as if the language of politics has been polarised forever, but the phenomenon is relatively new. Until the 1990s, conservatives and liberals spoke remarkably similarly, a study by a trio of researchers from Stanford, Brown, and Microsoft found in 2016.
In the study, participants were shown speeches by members of Congress from 1873 to 2016 and asked to guess whether the speech was given by a Republican or a Democrat. When the speech was given in years before the 1990s, participants correctly guessed the party only slightly more than half the time. But that figure spiked dramatically in 1994, and by 2010 participants’ guesses were correct 73% of the time.
The year 1994, the study’s inflection point, was a major moment in politics. After a rocky start to Bill Clinton’s presidency, Republicans were looking to capitalise in the midterm elections. Newt Gingrich, then the House minority whip, began the 1994 campaign by releasing the “Contract With America,” a list of 10 bills congressional Republicans pledged to pass if they regained the House majority.
The document was loaded with buzzwords influenced by President Ronald Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union address. It talked about “tax relief,” “job creation,” and “personal responsibility.” It proposed “taking back our streets” by toughening the death penalty and building more prisons, and it suggested imposing term limits on “career politicians” so they could be replaced with “citizen legislators.”
The campaign worked — Republicans routed Democrats for a 54-seat swing in the House of Representatives, giving the GOP its first majority in the House since the 1950s. Political messaging had changed.
One of the main architects of the “Contract With America” was a Republican pollster named Frank Luntz, who has been at the forefront of political messaging for 30 years. Luntz is credited inside and outside Washington, DC, with teaching a generation of Republican politicians that “it might not matter what we say so much as how we say it,” Scheufele said.
Throughout the ’90s, Luntz developed theories on political messaging and engineered countless phrases that subtly promote conservative ideals. Those ideas have since been absorbed into classes at the Leadership Institute, a conservative nonprofit that it says teaches “political technology” to prospective politicians and activists. His rhetorical tips and phrases are regularly distributed among Republican circles. (Luntz declined multiple interview requests.)
Luntz’s greatest contributions to Republican messaging can be found in “The New American Lexicon,” a playbook published annually by Luntz since the early 1990s. A leaked copy of the 2006 edition provides fascinating insight into Luntz’s rhetorical strategy. In a section titled “14 Words Never To Use,” Luntz instructs to never say “government” when one could say “Washington” instead.
“Most Americans appreciate their local government that picks up their trash, cleans their streets, and provides police and transportation services,” Luntz said. “Washington is the problem. Remind voters again and again about Washington spending, Washington waste, Washington taxation, Washington bureaucracy, Washington rules and Washington regulations.”
Luntz suggested replacing “drilling for oil” with “exploring for energy;” “undocumented workers” with “illegal aliens;” and “estate tax” with “death tax.” The substitutions often work — an April Ipsos/NPR poll found that support for abolishing the estate tax jumps to 76% from 65% when you call it the death tax.
“It was completely revolutionary,” Republican consultant Jim Dornan told Business Insider. “He detected phrases and single words that could change how people thought about the issues.”
The frame game
To understand why Luntz’s messaging has been so successful, it helps to look at one of his best-known phrases: “tax relief.”
At first glance, it seems innocuous enough. The phrase appeared in the titles of laws signed by President George W. Bush in the early 2000s, and surrogates for President Donald Trump have made extensive use of the phrase in TV appearances over the past year.
But phrases like “tax relief” are key to conservatives controlling public debate, George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at the University of California at Berkeley who some consider the Frank Luntz of the left, told Business Insider.
The phrase “tax relief” suggests that taxes are an affliction that Americans need to be rescued from, Lakoff said. Casting taxes in that light ensures that those proposing the taxes become villains, while those fighting against them become heroes. And when Democrats repeat the phrase, they play right into Republicans’ hands.
“When you argue against the other side using their language, and quoting them, then you’re helping them,” Lakoff said. “The ball is in their court, you’re playing on their field, and you’re trapped.”
Lakoff says that political messaging is all about framing, an idea he is now working to educate liberals about, decades after Luntz began to do so for conservatives. In the case of taxes, he suggests politicians liken America to a clubhouse, and taxes to how one pays his or her dues.
“It is an issue of patriotism,” Lakoff said in 2003. “Are you paying your dues, or are you trying to get something for free at the expense of your country?”
Earlier this year, Lakoff launched the Citizens’ Communication Network, a social-media network that provides suggestions for recognising Republican frames and recontextualizing the debate with progressive language.
“It’s more than just letting people know framing exists, but letting them know about the possibility of using it for the public good,” he said.
Many have criticised Luntz and Lakoff’s framing techniques as responsible for entrenching Americans in their partisan worldviews. Scheufele, the Wisconsin communications professor, has argued that the tool has robbed Americans of “honest or argument-based approaches” to fixing issues.
“It’s making solutions that otherwise wouldn’t be palatable, palatable to us by attaching it to values that we already have,” Scheufele said.
But Scheufele sees a way for conservatives and liberals to bridge their linguistic differences: by using framing in ways that can appeal to both sides’ values.
As an example, he suggets replacing “gun control” with “gun safety.” Gun safety, he says, conjures images of gun locks and children, rather than big government coming to take people’s firearms.
“Everybody believes we shouldn’t have toddlers dying from gun accidents, but a good chunk of Americans believe that we also shouldn’t change the Second Amendment,” Scheufele said. “Simply changing the language changes the interpretation.”
Likewise, Scheufele found that it’s possible to persuade conservatives to invest in green energy if you avoid talking about climate change and focus instead on “energy independence” and avoiding wars in the Middle East over oil.
“Democrats and Republicans can very much agree on that,” said Scheufele, who added that climate change had “become a divisive term for all intents and purposes.” (Ironically, it was Luntz who popularised the term climate change as a Republican alternative to “global warming.”)
Such a change is occurring in Texas, where, as Business Insider’s Rebecca Harrington reported, a growing number of conservatives are embracing environmentalism while sidestepping the polarising terminology.
Republican businessman Trammell Crow of Dallas, for instance, frames the debate in terms of one of society’s most fundamental needs.
“The best way to communicate with those minds-made-up climate deniers is not to talk about climate change but air quality,” Crow, who founded Earth Day Texas, told Business Insider.
“Temperature can take care of itself if you deal with air quality. That’s a public-health issue; that’s not an argument. Everybody believes in that.”
But successful examples like Crow’s may become increasingly difficult to find as more research goes into developing better partisan messaging on both sides of the aisle.
“It has not just raised real ethical concerns but contributed tremendously to how we have defined political identity,” Scheufele said. “Framing is designed in political campaigns to do exactly that — to make the lines more pronounced instead of less pronounced.”
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