Want to know why progressives keep losing elections even though the majority of Americans support progressive positions?
Read Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln and Lady Gaga, by Joseph Romm. It is a fascinating study of the neglected art of rhetoric.
If words are the bricks of speeches, rhetoric is the mortar and the scaffolding that converts them into something powerful, memorable and capable of moving masses and standing for ages untold.
Rhetoric, as Romm points out, explains how Churchill rallied a small island nation to stand alone in the breach of history against an evil tide.
It explains how Lincoln healed a nation.
It explains why the words of a poor carpenter spoken some 2000 years ago, still resonate today.
It explains why the King Jame’s bible, compiled by more than four dozen translators and a dozen writers, reads seamlessly and is the source of so many of the world’s most common figures of speech.
It explains why a 16th Century middle class kid from a middle-sized city grew up to write plays that will be quoted and watched for as long as we exist.
Rhetoric also explains why Lady Gaga has some 20 million Twitter followers, and why her lyrics appeal across generations.
And Joe Romm’s Language Intelligence explains rhetoric.
Taking the reader on journey covering 25 centuries of knowledge, Romm breathes life into language. The book itself is a joy to read, because the author practices what he preaches.
But if Language Intelligence explains why progressives lose, it also tells us why conservatives are doing so well.
The practice of rhetoric is simple, but not easy. This is only a partial recipe, but here are the main ingredients:
- Use short words;
- Repeat, repeat, repeat – “if you don’t repeat, you can’t compete;”
- Use key figures of speech, especially metaphors.
Republicans have mastered these, and have been using them for years. It’s become almost a staple of John Stewart to show clips of talking points working their way around the conservative political circles and into the conservative media, and finally into the broader culture. Talk about repetition: the entire rightwing establishment regularly rings out in unison in a 24 hour chorus leaving indelible echoes reverberating in our collective national ears.
The talking points often emanate from Frank Luntz – Republican consultant and creator of such deceptive phrases as “death tax,” “Healthy forest Initiative,” and “The Clear Skies Initiative.”
If the conservatives have been effective in using language to move people, the progressives have been failures.
For example, when is the last time you heard anything about the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ Budget For All? – or the Congressional Progressive Caucus, for that matter?
Chances are good that you haven’t heard a thing about either since March of this year when the Caucus released it’s budget. This despite the fact that it would eliminate the deficit decades before Ryan’s proposal would, using measures that are popular with the vast majority of Americans.
Or consider climate change – using effective language, a lot of money, and techniques honed by the tobacco industry, a couple of self-interested companies and rich sleaze bags have been able to fight the entire scientific community to a standstill when it comes to actually doing anything about global warming.
It didn’t help that scientists are notoriously bad communicators.
OK. Now how about the Ryan Budget?
Chances are, you’ve been hearing about it on a regular basis. And chances are just as good that everything you’ve heard about it has either been misleading or a repetition of empty right wing platitudes.
Despite all the hoopla in the news, if you’re an average American relying on the mainstream media, you probably don’t know the Ryan Budget slashes taxes for the rich and corporations, while actually raising taxes on low and moderate income Americans. You probably don’t know it eliminates Medicare, eviscerates Medicaid, and lays the groundwork for ending Social Security. You probably don’t know it relies on fuzzy savings no one believes are there to achieve a balanced budget, and even at that it effectively eliminates virtually all government functions other than Defense.
A big part of the reason progressives fail is that they lack language intelligence. Yes the media, is owned by plutocrats. Yes, the money machine owns politics. All the more reason to learn how to communicate. To go around the middle men (and yes, most are men) who censure the news and construct a powerful message that appeals directly to the people. A message capable of blasting through the corridors of power, smashing down the walls of the wealthy, and penetrating into the homes and hallways of everyday people.
Romm’s book comes at an ideal time. With the selection of Paul Ryan as Romney’s running mate, the choices facing voters should be stark and clear.
Obama is often cited as a skilled rhetorician, and he has given three memorable speeches: his address to the 2004 Democratic Convention, his speech on race, and his inaugural address. But for the most part, since being elected, he’s failed to communicate effectively.
While Language Intelligence is a book that can help anyone who wants to communicate better – which is to say everyone – it is not hyperbole to say that the future direction of our country depends upon progressives reading and heeding its message.
And that goes double for you, Mr. Obama.