How The War Of Words Is Won

Word combat is everywhere – especially in politics and business. Put the right words and phrases together and you control the story, or even win the election or turn your newest product into the next sensation. There is much at stake where wordplay is concerned.

Politically, republicans are better at this than democrats. (For the record, I’m a lifelong registered independent.) Democrats tend to be policy wonks offering professorial explanations of their policy positions. Republicans are more issue- and talking-point driven, more focused on word choice. Republicans also have a knack for boiling their positions down to simple principles.

A good example if the estate tax. The republicans hate it because it falls in a big way on the rich, a key component of their voter base. So they reframed the discussion by rebranding the levy the “death tax” – the implication being that the feds even tax you for dying. An appalling, if misleading, notion to everyday people. The strategy is working. The “death tax” was temporarily killed in 2009 and is currently not in effect, though it is scheduled to make a Lazarus-like comeback in 2011. The battle will rage on.

When democrats protested big tax cuts for the rich while the middle class got modest reductions, GOP members accused their rivals of promoting “class warfare,” pitting Americans against one another. They made democrats look like troublemakers.

When assistance is extended to the poor republicans tag it “wealth redistribution,” an allusion to socialism, which some claim is the democrats’ secret agenda. Republicans have also got lots of mileage using the phrase “government takeover,” particularly since President Obama was elected and went to work on health-care reform and new regulations for the financial industry.

Not that the democrats don’t score their own points with word combat. Bob Dole’s ill-fated run for president against Bill Clinton was sunk in part by the Clinton campaign’s repetitive claims that the Dole platform included a “tax scheme” that would “blow a hole in the budget.” People don’t like schemes. It’s a pejorative word that reminds them of Ponzi schemes and other fraudulent acts of financial betrayal. No one wants to be associated with that.

While running for president, Barack Obama made allusions to John McCain’s age and potential for declining mental agility by constantly referring to McCain as “erratic,” particularly after he had flip-flopped on a couple of his positions.

Democrats also scored big when they told voters that the “limousines are circling the White House” in an attempt by the rich to get the executive branch to veto legislation that would have made incursions into their bank accounts. That was a particularly visual reference, which always adds extra power.

All of those are examples of using the language in ways that increase the blow being delivered, to convey negativity. But even more often language is obfuscated or reframed to soften the impact of an organization’s actions.

The military speaks of “collateral damage” rather than saying they accidentally “killed innocent people.” It’s simply too ugly, and too likely to turn the American populace against military action.

During the 1980s business quit using the word “fired” in favor of the more neutral “downsizing.” Then they took it a step further by calling it “rightsizing,” as if firing people was actually the right thing to do under the circumstances.

The list goes on and on. No doubt you have a few of your favorites.

The lesson is to choose your words carefully. They have power. They can spell victory or defeat.