Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show, by Geoffrey Nunberg.
U.C. Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg charges that conservatives have taken control of our political rhetoric. Not through control of popular literature, television, cinema, and America's universities, mind you, but through message discipline and think tanks. Conservatives, so the claim goes, have appropriated words and phrases such as "values" and "elites," and charged them with meanings that suit their political ends. As the author explains early on, since the Nixon years "the decisive factor in American politics has been voters' apparent willingness to subordinate substantive interests to symbolic ones." (If this were really the case, of course, then Nunberg's complaint would be with the democratic process, not with rhetoric.)
Democrats and liberals, the book argues, "can't regain their political ascendancy except by either reclaiming the basic political vocabulary or replacing it with a new one." But consider the word "liberalism." Nunberg laments how Ronald Reagan so demonized liberalism that the term itself is now radioactive. Yet there is an obvious way to reclaim it: characterize the war on terrorism as a fight between (Western) liberalism and Islamic fascism. Nothing could be simpler. And nothing could be more antithetical to America's liberals, who are so compromised by cultural relativism that they can't bring themselves to make the case so starkly, let alone choose a side in the fight. The problem isn't how liberals talk, it's how they view the world.
—Jonathan V. Last
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This article appeared in the Winter 2006 issue of the Claremont Review of Books