With 2016 looming on the horizon and midterm elections mere months away, eyes are turned toward the candidates, the policies, the debates, the controversies, and all the hoopla that goes with politics in America. However, the core of the political system and the issues that decides who gets to sit in the catbird seat for this or any other election cycle isn’t the nitty-gritty of politics and policy but the language used to get whoever eventually wins across the finish line. It’s less a clash of ideas and issues than a clash of symbols that decides political futures.
Symbols are the way we communicate and sometimes miscommunicate. Although we may speak a common language, we don’t always agree on the meaning of that language. Take, for example, the word “mother.” We know what a mother is; we know what the word means. It’s a word we use from infancy, and it’s even taken on iconic status such as “mom and apple pie” to denote all that is good and American. But let’s assume your mother was a monster who beat you, neglected you, abandoned you, belittled you, and generally made your life miserable. When you hear the word mother, are you going to react positively? Or is there going to be a tinge of anger, or perhaps even hate, writhe up from your soul? You know what a mother is and you can agree on the dictionary definition with your next door neighbor who had a storybook childhood with a loving mother. However, your emotional response is entirely different. The neighbor thinks of love. You think of anger. Same word, same meaning, different reaction.
The late Kenneth Burke, drama critic and essayist, said that literature can be better understood if one understands the symbols used and what those symbols mean, not to the reader or the audience but, to the author. He suggested creating a “symbolist dictionary” to truly understand the meaning of any literary work or the meaning of language and ideology in the larger world. He said language doesn’t just reflect reality but also helps select and deflect reality. To put it in a simpler form, imagine Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” not as an aberration but as the way we actually communicate and debate.
So as the political season is upon us, let’s take a moment to create our own symbolist dictionary of left and right, conservative and liberal, Democrat and Republican. Anyone can play along. All it takes is a few days’ worth of opinion pieces, news articles, quotes, and speeches; and, voila, you have your own handy guide to where politicians stand on almost every issue without all the drudgery of actually going through their voting record or policy statements or wading through bland political websites that offer little information but are filled with popups asking for money.
Let’s start with the right because, let’s face it, conservatives have been masters at language jujitsu for years. Calling the estate tax a death tax and labeling the Affordable Care Act Obamacare were masterful strokes of not only capturing attention but changing the terms of the debate. How could anybody support a tax on death? And arguing in favor of the ACA is actually supporting Obama and his government-run healthcare scheme.
Currently, some of the buzzwords on right-leaning websites, in opinion pieces and, most importantly, on online comment boards include: tea party, constitutional candidate, patriot, liberty-loving, and small government.
While each of those words have meaning in themselves and can stand alone, they are also shorthand for a larger political philosophy and set of beliefs. Tea party, which is actually TEA (Taxed Enough Already) party, denotes someone who believes in lower taxes and small government but who also most likely is, but not necessarily, pro-life, anti-gun control, anti-gay marriage, doesn’t believe in manmade climate change, and probably votes Republican or independent. Constitutional candidate, patriot, liberty-loving, and small government again can stand alone but include the same conservative agenda. While different constituencies may use those words to lesser or greater degree, they share the overall conservative position and overlap. For example, a gun rights advocate may never attend a tea party rally and vice versa, but they share the common symbols and are brothers or sisters under the skin able to communicate with each other because they share those symbols. Whatever differences exist are those of policy or specific details but not the overall belief system.
For liberals buzzwords include: environment, diversity, level playing field, equal opportunity, and fair wages. Again, probably, but not necessarily, whoever uses those words is probably pro-choice, supports a progressive income tax, pro-gun control, pro-gay marriage, believes in manmade climate change, and probably votes Democratic or independent. As with conservatives, different groups within liberal or progressive circles may feel stronger about one issue more than others but overall there is a sharing of worldview and an overlap of shared symbols.
Where the conflict comes into play is when those with different sets of symbols meet in political debate or in its rawest form on online comment boards or in chat rooms. It’s not that the other side doesn’t listen; it’s that the other side doesn’t understand. The words used to debate have no meaning because the symbolic references are so far apart communication isn’t just difficult, it’s all but impossible. Take the emotionally loaded issue of gun control. Once the word “gun” is used, the debate or argument is over. For pro-gun advocates guns are tools needed for self-protection or to keep America free and that’s all there is to discuss. For anti-gun advocates guns are dangerous weapons that need to be regulated and in some instances banned. Once the symbol-laden word “gun” appears, any discussion of nuances of gun regulation or gun policy is all but impossible because of the linguistic wall created by the gun symbolism. The same holds true for all other hot-button issues, including abortion, gay marriage, and even economic issues such as taxes and minimum wage. The symbolism of the issue trumps discussion of the issue.
So as the political circus comes to town from now to 2016, I suggest compiling your own list of symbolic words and weigh them against positions and policies espoused by the candidates and parties. You’ll find it a useful quick guide to whom stands for what.
Now the tricky part is when two candidates from the same party are vying in primaries and try to get to the right or the left of the other to appeal to the base. In that case look at both the symbols used and the number of times they’re used. See how many times in a single speech a candidate uses “liberty” or “equality.” Look at the websites and do a number count of symbol-laden words. That may not tell you which candidate is the most conservative or most liberal but it will tell you which candidate understands the power of words and has the better understanding of the voter base that shares the same symbolic language. Remember, politics isn’t so much a clash of ideology and ideas but a clash of symbols