Words matter, especially when they mean different things to different sets of people.
This political season is Exhibit A. To a conservative, there are few principles more bedrock than the one that says people control the government, not the other way around. To the extent government does put constraints on actions, it is only through the consent of the governed, and certain rights cannot be taken away regardless of what the majority says.
So it’s entirely understandable that they would react strongly to a video shown at the Democratic National Convention that asserted, “Government is the only thing we all belong to.”
That’s pretty much complete backwards of how it really is.
Watch the video, however, and it’s clear the narrator didn’t mean anything greater than that we are all Americans and all citizens of our respective communities, even if we go to different churches and belong to different organizations.
The wording was tone deaf, however.
You could go out on the street and ask 10 people how they feel about the statement and probably nine of them would react negatively. Word it just a little differently, however, and the results would be quite different.
The same thing applies to liberal thought. That explains why, when Mitt Romney said earlier this year he wanted consumers to have choices because, “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me,” his critics pounced.
He meant that people should be able to demand the best services available and should be free to reject one that doesn’t deliver.
My guess is a lot of Americans agree, especially when it comes to their cable company or corner grocer. But the way he phrased it not only spoke to the way liberals portray him as a wealthy venture capitalist who has fired people through reorganizations, it spoke to a basic liberal philosophy about preserving jobs despite economic realities.
In neither case did the person being quoted intend to say what opponents attribute to them. And yet it may not be entirely unfair to use their remarks in a larger context.
The words probably betray underlying assumptions. They likely do reveal greater philosophies, even if they don’t have the literal meaning critics want to pin on them.
That applies, as well, to the raucous debate Democrats had over whether potential is “God-given” and whether that should be part of the party’s platform. To some people, those words matter a lot, too.
Until both sides learn to study each other’s language and frame arguments in more palatable ways, the nation won’t be able to solve some of its most pressing problems.