The two frontrunners for the White House in 2024 are tied in a hypothetical rematch. Congress is paralyzed. Every big election seems to be decided by razor-thin margins.
By almost any measure, the struggle for political dominance in the US seems deadlocked between Republicans and Democrats. At times, the two parties resemble a pair of punch-drunk boxers, slugging away at one another in a contest that neither can end.
But there is one political battleground where Republicans triumph virtually every time — and control of this arena could determine who wins the White House in 2024.
Republicans are masters of verbal jiu-jitsu. It’s a form of linguistic combat in which the practitioner takes a political phrase or concept popularized by their opponent and gradually turns into an unusable slur. Like the Japanese martial art known as jiu-jitsu, its devotees avoid taking opposing arguments head on and instead redirect their opponents’ momentum to beat them.
If this sounds abstract, consider the evolution of “ woke.” The word is defined as being “actively aware of social injustice.” But it has been transformed into a contemporary scourge, one that a politician compared to a “virus more dangerous than any pandemic, hands down.”
Mention almost any touchstone phrase adopted by the left in recent years — “critical race theory,” “diversity,” “global warming,” even the word “liberal” itself — and it has been redefined or tarnished by conservatives.
Meanwhile, Republicans continue to proudly use words and pet phrases such as “family values,” “conservative” and “patriot” – no matter who or what is associated with the terms.
As candidates prep for the first 2024 GOP presidential debate Wednesday in Milwaukee, it’s a good time to ponder this question: Why are Republicans so good at this form of verbal combat, and Democrats so bad?
Part of the answer comes down to effort and discipline — Republicans devote more time to turning words into weapons and do a better job of sticking to their message, says Lindsey Cormack, a political scientist who focuses on race, gender, communications and politics at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.
“I’ve been studying their communications for 15 years and it sort of blows me away because I think Democrats are good at doing plenty of things, but they really dropped the ball on the communications piece a lot,” Cormack says.
Cormack says conservatives have built a think-tank ecosystem of linguists and focus groups to test words and phrases for political battle. Democrats do some of the same, but with not the same level of commitment, she says.
“They (conservatives) think about what words resonate, what words cue other sorts of thoughts or what sort of images come to mind with people when they’re hearing messages,” Cormack says. “They seem to have more invested in that, and they have more people who write about that sort of work and linguists who do these sorts of things for them.”
How conservatives flipped the script on race
Verbal jiu-jitsu is not new in American politics. Conservatives have long employed it on racial issues. During the civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s, conservatives in both the Democratic and Republican parties often used a series of verbal feints that changed the direction of their opponent’s moral arguments.
They didn’t say they opposed integration; they said they were for “state’s rights.”
They didn’t say they didn’t want their children sitting next to Black or brown kids when opposing desegregation of public schools; they said they were against “forced busing.”
They didn’t say they opposed civil rights leaders’ efforts to make the US a genuine multiracial democracy; they called those leaders “communists” or “socialists.”
They flipped the script by offering new words to replace other terms that were hard to attack head-on.
Sometimes they disarmed a liberal phrase by transforming its meaning.
“Social justice warrior,” for example, didn’t start off as an insult. What’s wrong with someone fighting on behalf of the poor and exploited? Then the term was turned by conservatives and internet culture into something else: a “whiny,” self-righteous progressive who can’t take a joke.
Recent years have brought numerous headlines about another liberal term that has been dismantled by the right.
Critical race theory was once an obscure academic discipline that insisted that racism is more than individual prejudice; it’s embedded in laws, policies and institutions. But conservatives redirected the discussion and turned the term into a catchall phrase that criticizes virtually any examination of systemic racism or history that could make White people uncomfortable.
Whatever the method, this form of verbal jiu-jitsu is used for one purpose, says Robin DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility,” a popular book that spawned another popular liberal catchphrase.
“The function is to silence the conversation and to protect the status quo,” DiAngelo says. “It doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to work and get race off the table and prevent any challenges to the status quo.”
How ‘diversity’ and ‘equity’ became dirty words
Next on the hit list are two other terms favored by liberals: “diversity” and “equity,” DiAngelo says.
Those words originally meant values that were virtually universally accepted. Not many people would openly argue for exclusion or inequity.
In recent years many institutions have launched initiatives around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) to make their workplaces more fair and diverse.
Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers and Higher Education, recently told a reporter she doesn’t use the acronym DEI anymore because it’s been “weaponized.”
Republicans also have sought to reframe “equity,” which means “being fair or impartial,” by calling the word “a “mandate to discriminate.” And they have attempted to delegitimize “diversity” by expanding the term to “diversity industrial complex,” which a critic described as “a bureaucratic juggernaut running roughshod over every aspect of national life.”
“I’m going to tell you as somebody who’s been in this work for decades, there’s no diversity industrial complex,” DiAngelo says. “When an organization has a diversity program, there’s often one person up against the entire institution. And they maybe have a staff of one or two people on a minimal budget. But using language like that implies that it’s some kind of getting over on people, like it’s some kind of trick.”
When ‘global warming’ becomes ‘climate change’
Some of the most skillful practitioners of verbal jiu-jitsu are able to disarm their opponents without them knowing that they’ve given ground. As a result, liberals eventually end up using the terms favored by their conservative opponents.
The phrase “global warming” was popularized by the media and some scientists in the 1980s. It’s been virtually eliminated from public discourse by verbal jiu-jitsu. Some of that change is due to science. Some scientists believe climate change is a more accurate description of the environmental challenges facing the planet.
But it was Republicans who initially pushed for the name change, for reasons that had little to do with scientific accuracy. Instead of acknowledging the science pointing toward a looming environmental disaster, one Republican pollster offered another phrase to mute the alarm: climate change.
That term was popularized in part by Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who advised GOP politicians in the early 2000s to stop using the term “global warming” because it had “catastrophic connotations” and reframe the issue as the more benign “climate change.” (Luntz has since disavowed his efforts to cast doubt on global warming.)
Two decades later, many liberal politicians and activists continue to use the phrase “climate change, the cognitive scientist George Lakoff noted.
“The word ‘climate’ sounds nice – like palm trees or something – and the word ‘change’, well, ‘change’ just happens,” Lakoff said in an interview. “It’s not a big deal. Nothing you can do about it. Not humanly caused. So, the term itself is a right-wing position that people on the left just innocently adopted instead of saying, well, this is a climate disaster that’s approaching.”
One famous liberal fought back against verbal jiu-jitsu
Lakoff, an authority on political language and author of “Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate,” says Democrats consistently get outplayed by Republicans on the linguistic battleground because they make a false assumption about human nature.
“They assume all you have to do is tell people the facts and they will reason to the right conclusion,” he said in another interview. “This is utterly ridiculous. Thought is mainly metaphorical. The frames trump all the facts.”
Take the word liberal, which is defined as someone who is “open-minded,” “tolerant,” someone who believes in “personal freedom” and that society should change “so that money, property and power are shared more fairly.”
By the 1960s conservatives had successfully twisted liberalism’s connotations to what one commentator described as a “bureaucracy-loving, freedom-depriving, taxation-and-entitlement ideology of largesse.”
But one famous Democrat knew better. He gave a master class in defeating attempts to tarnish him with the word “liberal.”
John F. Kennedy met that perception head-on when he ran for president in 1960, in a speech at a New York hotel. Instead of dodging the label, Kennedy proudly embraced it.
“If by a ‘liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions,” he said, “someone who cares about the welfare of the people – their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties… if that is what they mean by a ‘liberal,’ then I’m proud to say I’m a liberal.”
Kennedy may have been a profile in linguistic courage, but many left-leaning people in recent decades still chose to call themselves “progressives” in subsequent decades after conservatives continued tarnishing the term.
The term, though, is making a comeback. Kennedy’s lesson endures.
Verbal jousting could help decide the 2024 race
Debates over the meaning of words and phrases may seem trivial given the high-stake political battles ahead. But the 2024 presidential election and former President Trump’s looming court battles won’t just be fought in the voting booth or in the courts – they’ll also be fought on the verbal battlefield.
If that sounds like hyperbole, consider some momentous recent political battles around the meaning of words and phrases.
Was what happened at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, an “insurrection”? Or was it what some GOP leaders have called “legitimate political discourse”?
And will words like “diversity” and “inclusion” be turned into another version of “woke” – terms so tarnished by relentless attacks that even their proponents are reluctant to use them?
Some form of verbal jiu-jitsu may determine the answers to those questions. It’s shaped the nation’s history more than many people realize.
John Blake is the author of “More Than I Imagined: What a Black Man Discovered About the White Mother He Never Knew.”