I have, tucked away somewhere, a T-shirt I acquired some years ago; it quotes Pádraig Mac Piarais, the Irish nationalist hero and reads “Tir gan teanga, tir gan anam,” or “no language, no soul.”* It references the identification of the Irish language with the Republican struggle, but it occurs to me that it also gets to the heart of the issue surrounding the perceived failure of the Democratic party to get its core message across. If, as George Lakoff** and Geoffry Nunberg*** argue, the right wing has appropriated American political language, one could say that the result has been to leave the progressive wing of Democratic party estranged from its soul – good on policy, but unable to communicate why that policy matters.
Both Lakoff and Numberg do an excellent job analyzing the mechanisms of right wing rhetoric. They are also correct that the challenge facing progressives is to justify our beliefs in a way that has emotional resonance. Neither, though, does as good a job when they try to tell us how to talk in a way that achieves that goal.
Lakoff’s formulations, as Nunberg suggests, are perhaps a little too genteely bloodless to be effective. Nunberg’s advice can be summarized crudely as an admonishment to stick with colloquial language and always go for the gut, not the head – not always as easily done as one might think. The few examples of effective progressive political speech that he singles out – John Edwards “Two Americas,” for instance – are indeed lovely, but I certainly need more and more varied examples of how we can build a political language that works.
I think I found a couple of really great examples. The first is from Madison Avenue – which is not surprising since advertisers live or die by how well they master the science of persuasion. It’s the Eminem Chrysler commercial – don’t groan, but take a look at and think it over.
The commercial is replete with muscular images, both visual and linguistic. It uses repetition of a core idea with slight variations, each of which heighten the emotional impact, leading us on step by step to the payoff. The culmination, an image of a shining, sleek and darkly powerful vehicle is fused with the powerful images of the “motor city” whose image it seeks to reinvents along with the cars manufactured there. It has a simple idea at its core – a beautiful, powerful, vehicle made in a vital, powerful city filled with joyful, powerful working people.
It expresses that idea with visual, evocative language that appeals to our senses and to our experience:
*The exact translation of the Irish is ” A country without a language, a country without a soul,” but it is often shortened as above.”
**If you are not already familiar with it, Lakoff summarizes his concept of framing in this 2002 interview.
*** Geoffry Nunberg talks about his book Talking Right on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”