Messaging Maxim #8: Don’t use the other side’s labels

Protesters opposing Arizona anti-immigrant law

Protesters opposing Arizona anti-immigrant law

Republicans and conservatives, which are curently one and the same, love to come up with short, catchy labels for things. Here’s a list of popular Republican political phrases. Those labels and phrases are always loaded, either in favor of the Republicans, against the Democrats, or both. So, if you’re a Democrat, a liberal or a progressive, why would you ever use those Republican labels, making them even more popular so they get taken up by the mainstream media and become part of our vernacular? The answer is, you shouldn’t. But plenty of Democrats, liberals and progressives are making this mistake lately. Here are a few examples of Republican-loaded phrases that Democrats, and thus the mainstream media, are using all over the place. Hopefully, these will serve as a reminder to cut it out:

“Obamacare” — this term, signifying a Big Government nanny state, was so easy to avoid, it astounds us that huge numbers of Democrats, including even President Barack Obama and the Obama White House, adopted it. Many Democrats thought they were performing some kind of jujitsu by taking the other side’s phrase and empowering themselves with it. But that’s just not the case. Opinion polls prove that Americans like their new health care coverage more when it is called something else besides “Obamacare.” Even worse, the healthcare law already had a great name created by Democrats — the “Affordable Care Act (short for its full name, the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act”). That’s what legislators and Presidential teams do — they come up with positive-sounding names for their legislation. So why on Earth would anyone come up with a nice name like Affordable Care Act and not then hammer its use all over this land?

“Right to Work” — This is one of the best-known and most insidiously phony Republican labels. Opponents of these anti-union laws attempt to discredit them by calling them “Right to Work For Less.” That’s a good effort, but not an accurate one. The first half of the phrase still implies that workers in such states have some right to work, i.e., some enhanced ability to find a job, without joining a union. But given that Republicans consistently back policies that ship American jobs overseas, drive down wages, take away job security and come up with lousy job creation numbers, the “right to work” part is simply not true. Perhaps something like “Right to Work in China” is more like it. Or, as linguist Noam Chomsky calls it, “Right to Scrounge.”

“Religious Freedom Restoration Act”Indiana is the latest state to pass a law that permits businesses to discriminate against gay Americans under the guise of “religious freedom.” This is a case where it’s super easy to replace the other side’s positive-sounding name with a more accurate name to match its meanness. How about the “Anti-Gay Discrimination Law”? That’s just off the top of our head. Surely, our side can brainstorm and come up with something effective to use, rather than repeating the other side’s fake, self-serving name.

Remember that we did come up with an appropriate alternative name for Arizona‘s hateful anti-immigrant law, S.B. 1070, which was originally (and falsely) named the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act.” S.B. 1070 required police in Arizona to determine the immigration status of people they arrested and detained when there was “reasonable suspicion” that the detainees were not in the U.S. legally. This essentially meant that the police were to profile and target brown-skinned, Hispanic or Latino-looking people. Opponents called S.B. 1070 the “Show Us Your Papers Law,” which helped focus widespread opposition to the law. While the Republican-majority U.S. Supreme Court upheld controversial parts of S.B. 1070, it struck down three-fourths of the law, and the ACLU says that such ethnic profiling laws are now held in disfavor.

Avoiding Republican-created labels is something about which we need to be both vigilant and proactive. Here’s a list of Democratic political phrases which hopefully can serve as a positive reminder and example. If you play on the other side’s rhetorical playing field that they designed and tilted in their favor, you can’t win. So make sure you tilt the field at least back toward even.

Photo by Fibonacci Blue, used under Creative Commons license.


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