Once upon a time, liberals and conservatives used many of the same words and phrases to convey the same or similar meanings. Today, not so much. Like other aspects of our lives—where we live, who we befriend, and even what we eat and how we dress—how Americans speak increasingly reflects their political identities. Though we seldom fully realize it, not just our ideas, but the very words and phrases we use to express them typically come out of our mouths already distinctly colorized as red or blue, signaling to others our partisan political affiliation as clearly as if we were wearing ID badges.
The trend is almost entirely harmful. Shall we count the ways? It reinforces stereotypes. It fosters tribalism. It makes accurate disagreement, the lifeblood of democratic discourse, harder to achieve. It contributes to mutual incomprehension. It permits us (wittingly or unwittingly) to use language for the dubious purposes of virtue-signaling and in-group bonding. It replaces authentic personal expression with stylized and formulaic expression. It instantly communicates to others a colorized persona in ways that we ourselves may not fully recognize, or recognize at all. Most of all, it wars against a shared language, thus making cross-party communication, the great imperative of our era, all but impossible.
So let’s reflect on this corrosive trend and ask ourselves what, if anything, we should try to do about it. How does language colorization work? Let’s examine the phenomenon at three levels.
The first and probably simplest level is rhetorical framing—which for our purposes can be defined as selecting and constantly repeating words and phrases that make your side look good and the other side look bad. Sometimes the technique is perfectly valid. After all, there’s nothing wrong with saying what you want to say, how you want to say it. I’d put the Left’s use of “common sense gun safety” in this category.
But often enough the technique is little more than describing your opponents’ views with loaded words that your opponents themselves would never dream of using. Thus “pro-life” becomes “anti-choice,” climate change skeptics become “deniers,” favoring gun control becomes “opposing the Second Amendment,” and favoring immigration becomes support for “open borders.” In short, blues consciously select blue words and concepts to name red positions, and vice versa. A main result of this truly bipartisan technique is escalating mutual mistrust and resentment.
A second level of language colorization is rhetorical appropriation—which for our purposes can be defined as force-changing the meaning of your opponents’ words in order to attack your opponents. One highly visible current example is “fake news,” which was coined about five minutes ago mainly by liberals to mean “statements that are untrue,” but has already been almost entirely appropriated by conservatives to mean “statements that liberals like.”
Consider also “politically correct.” That infamous term emerged several decades ago on the political Left. As a young leftist myself at the time, I remember it well and used it often. Largely tongue-in-cheek, and in part a comic echo of the old Communist “party line,” “politically correct” essentially meant “consistent with our political philosophy.” But today the term is used almost exclusively by conservatives to mean in effect “crazy stuff liberals say.”
A third example is “family values.” The term emerged on the pro-family Right in the late 1970s to mean “supportive of the traditional family.” But within a decade the term had been largely (though not completely) appropriated by liberals as an epithet denoting basically “narrow-mindedness about sexuality.”
The third way in which we colorize our words today is the most subtle, interesting, and important way. Let’s call it rhetorical intuition. It’s less about political spinning or even specific words and phrases than about ethically based styles of expression and, ultimately, ways of understanding the world.
As developed by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt and others, moral foundations theory suggests that liberals are strongly committed to the foundational values of fairness (reciprocity, justice, giving others their due) and care (doing the opposite of harm). For conservatives, the spectrum of desirable values is somewhat wider. While they do embrace the values of fairness and care, conservatives also tend to place important emphases on the values of loyalty (commitment to my group, patriotism), authority (respect for proper rules and guidance), and sacredness (sanctity, purity). Moral foundations theory also suggests that both conservatives and liberals are strongly, albeit in somewhat differing ways, committed to the value of liberty (freedom, the opposite of oppression).1
It seems plausible that, in this era of polarization, the political colorization of our language stems in part from these differences in moral foundations. Let’s try out several examples.
- On fairness and care: Probably the most salient and ideologically coherent term on the political Left today is “social justice,” which unites in nearly perfect form these two values.
- On loyalty: While the term “American exceptionalism” was coined by (I suspect mainly liberal) scholars seeking to understand what might be distinctive in U.S. history, today the term is used largely by conservatives as a litmus-test phrase to affirm their patriotism while implying that their liberal opponents do not sufficiently love their country.
- On sacredness: Conservatives are far more likely than liberals to speak of the “sanctity of human life” and the “sanctity of marriage” and to view the body metaphorically as a temple.2
More broadly, the conservative values template tends to produce a style of expression that the great sociologist David Riesman called “inner-directed.” I am what I am—let others think what they will. In contrast, the liberal values template tends to produce a style of expression that is more what Riesman called “other-directed.” I am what I am—in sensitivity to others.
This difference may help to explain why liberals frequently endorse “dialogue,”3 stress the importance of “diversity” and “inclusiveness,” and emphasize the importance of a “safe space” in which group members do not feel attacked or distressed. Their style often tends toward the invitational. Many of their sentences end with question marks. They see the value of sitting in a circle. I am what I am—in sensitivity to others.
Conservatives, by contrast, often mistrust such relationship-centered words and usually prefer alternative language. When it comes to speech, they tend to favor clear, formal, and comparatively fewer rules. They desire to speak their minds as freely as possible and are often wary of being coached on how to be more sensitive. They don’t particularly value sitting in a circle. To use an old religious term, they instead tend to respect the concept of “witness.” They explain themselves. Their style often tends toward the declarative. They often de-emphasize the emotional and the psychological aspects of conversation in favor of attempts at more formal rationalism. I am what I am—let others think what they will.
Finally, there’s the language-colorizing influence of each side’s basic attitude toward the other. I want to tread here as softly as I can, because I know I’m offering overly-broad generalizations, but I do believe that the great conservative sin in our public discourse today is anger, while the great liberal sin is condescension. I’m not sure which I think is worse, but I do see and dislike both, and each sin is reflected in its side’s style of expression. For conservatives, the sin is evidenced mainly in the harshness in the voice, the insistence, the heat. For liberals, it’s in the dulcet tone, the style that seeks graciously to educate those in need of it.
These less overt but more primary forms of colorization reveal themselves in tone, style, and body language as much or more than they do in specific words or phrases. In this sense, speaking red or blue is more dialect than lexicon. At the same time, the political messaging is clear enough. If you’re paying attention at all, the vibes can’t be missed.
A few wrinkles. The first is that, in my experience, reds tend to favor economics and religion as explanatory models of human conduct, whereas blues, particularly in recent decades, have become significantly more friendly than reds to explanatory models rooted in psychology and the other social sciences. Why this is so, and whether and how it’s connected to moral foundations, I’m not sure.
A second and likely related consideration is that, at least in my experience, blues speak bluer that reds speak red. By this I mean that blue vocabulary strikes me as more specialized, with a longer list of technical terms. Again, why this is so, I’m not sure.
A third addendum to the argument is that, as many have pointed out, both the partisan media complex and social media permit each of our political tribes to mainline intensely colorized words and phrases 24 hours a day, all of which is largely unmediated by the old journalistic standards such as editing, fact-checking, and striving (at least in theory) for some form of balance. Surely feeding on this meat all day every day deepens our problem.
To me the final wrinkle is the most surprising. All evidence notwithstanding, neither blues nor reds seem truly prepared to believe that they speak in dialect. In my experience, blues tend to understand their partisan dialect as mainly an expression of expertise, while reds tend to understand theirs as mainly a form of plain speaking.
What then, if anything, is to be done? Here’s a proposition. To get out of the mess we’re in, we don’t need to agree about politics and we don’t need a shared morality. But we do need a shared moral language. For this shared language constitutes our only pathway toward recognizing each other’s humanity and seeing what unites as well as what divides us. Today we see each other through a glass, darkly. Our aim must be to find those words which allow us to see each other face to face, in the light.
1 See Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Random House, 2012), 197-204. Deborah Tannen’s study of gender differences in speech is also relevant here. In brief, Tannen finds that men’s talk tends to focus on “hierarchy” (competition for relative power) while women’s talk tends to focus on “connection” (relative closeness or distance). Both of these dialects aim at similar goals and there is considerable overlap between the two, especially as regards family life. Perhaps Tannen’s findings, combined with moral foundations theory, suggest a way to think about politically colorized speech. One might posit that blues tend to conceptualize liberty in largely fairness-and-care terms—for example, by conceiving the good of liberty as the need to eliminate the oppression of marginalized groups. In contrast, reds tend to conceptualize liberty in more formal and individual terms—for example, by opposing racial and gender quotas in education and employment, and by opposing restrictions on individual rights such as freedom of speech or ownership of firearms. See Deborah Tannen, “He Said, She Said,” Scientific American, October 1, 2012.
2 Haidt, 174-175.