Controlling the Language of Debate

The Reasonable Left is having an interesting discussion about the fight to wrest control of the language used to describe the Social Security privitization debate. As any student of politics knows, whoever controls the language of the debate typically wins.

Josh Marshall kicked it off yesterday with this report:

I was just on Al Franken’s show a couple hours ago with Frank Luntz of all people. And in the course of the conversation I got to ask Luntz whether it was fair or appropriate for Democrats and/or journalists to refer to the president’s policy as ‘privatization’ or the private accounts he wants to create as ‘private accounts.’ (As you the TPM reader know, these were the words that Republicans and other phase-out supporters themselves came up with.) Luntz said that it is okay for Democrats to use these terms but not the press since that would mean they were taking sides in the debate. When I asked why this was so since these were words the president was using only a few weeks ago, what emerged in the course of the conversation is that it is apparently inappropriate for reporters to use a given term after the date on which the president stops using it. (A logical corrolary of this reasoning would seem to be that they must use the new term the president designates, though I don’t think Luntz said this explicitly.)

So whereas it was okay two months ago for reporters to use the term ‘private accounts’ they must now refer to them as ‘personal accounts’ because the president has now decided that that is the proper word.

In a follow-up post, he notes that some Republicans apparently did not get the memo:

Why does a seemingly good-natured fellow like National Review editor Rich Lowry want to go about denigrating the president’s Social Security plan by using swear words like “private accounts”.

Heh. It does get a mite confusing.

Mark Kleiman believes all this to be positively Orwellian,

Let me get this straight: first the Bushites were for privatizing Social Security, like the good Thatcherite wannabes they truly are. Then it turned out that “privatization” didn’t do well with focus groups, so they were for “private accounts” instead. Now that turns out to be a loser as well, so the Social Insecurity proposal is to be described as feasturing “personal accounts.”

Matt Yglesias weighs in this morning with a pragmatic view:

The only way to get the media to refer to private accounts as “private accounts” is if the media is convinced that “private accounts” is a neutral third-way term between the Bushian “personal accounts” and some other Democratic alternative term. This calls, basically, for someone at the DNC (or DSCC or AFL-CIO or MoveOn or wherever) to hire someone to do some focus groups and come up with a serviceable term that focus groups even worse than private accounts. Then you send around a memo getting all Democrats to start calling them “X accounts” while the White House calls them “personal accounts.” Then “private accounts” will look like a decent compromise and it may well get back in the stories.

It’s insane, yes, that the very term invented by proponents of private accounts is now considered to be off-limits. But that’s the game. If you want to work the refs, you’ve got to work the refs.

Indeed. The bottom line is that what we label things matters as much, if not even more, than the things themselves in debates on emotionally-charged issues. The post-FDR Democrats were masters at this, with such phrases as “Social Security,” “New Deal,” “Fair Deal,” “Great Society,” and the like. The Republicans could only holler “socialism,” which was apt enough but not a sufficient counter to “security,” “fairness,” and “greatness.” The GOP got smarter about this in recent years, notably since the rise of Newt Gingrich and company through the focus grouped Contract with America.

The abortion debate, now 30-plus years old, is one of the few where the press acceded to the wishes of both sides, calling them “Pro Life” and “Pro Choice.” Calling the latter “Pro Abortion” would spark immediate outrage, as would calling the former “Anti-Choice.”

In this Social Security debate, I don’t have any particular favorite and use “privatization,” “private accounts,” and “personal accounts” as circumstance and mood warrants. For those actually engaged in the policy struggle, though, the choice of words almost certainly matters.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Media, Political Theory, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. bryan says:

    PBS’s “Frontline” program recently ran a piece called “The Persuaders” that highlighted Luntz in one segment. Luntz shifted the debate from the “estate tax” to the “death tax.” Clearly, he’s done focus groups that determine that “personal” is more appealing to people (and more likely to convince them to go along with a plan) than “private.”

    I have to say, “personal” is a more appealing term to me.

  2. McGehee says:

    I guess “private” has somehow become a bad word. But in a day when people who not only don’t want to be on a reality TV show, but don’t even want to watch reality TV shows, are deemed weirdoes (scarcely better than Ted Kaczynski in his cabin writing manifestoes by candlelight), I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.