Liberals and conservatives need to learn each other’s language

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.

About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.


  1. Lagomorph

    The problem goes beyond not understanding the other side’s code words (or “dog whistles,” in the current vogue expression), although that is important. There is a lot of intentional misrepresentation and selective editing of what people say, even when the speaker’s meaning is clearly evident and plainly spoken (i.e. not in code). Mr. Evenson rightfully defends Romney’s “fire people” statement, one prominent example. But the GOP made a deliberate misreading of Obama’s “you didn’t build that” remark the central theme of one night of its convention. Any fair reading of Obama’s statement in context would know that the antecedent to “that” was the conditions (infrastructure, education, etc.) that made the enterprise possible, not the enterprise itself. Similarly, Debbie Wasserman Schulz’s comment about Ann Romney having “never worked a day in her life” was wildly misconstrued as a denigration of stay-at-home moms, when it was clear the intended meaning was compensated employment in the workplace outside of the home. Are these deliberate misinterpretations done because the critics have no valid response to the speaker’s actual point?

  2. Stephen Kent Ehat

    Nephi saw our day (2 Nephi 28:8), saying we’d “take the advantage of one because of his words” and seek to “dig a pit for thy neighbor,” thinking “there is no harm in this.” And he told us it is wrong: “And the ablood of the saints shall cry from the ground against them.” (Verse 10.)

    However, the concern about taking advantage of what people say (using their words to portray them in a false light), can easily be confused with taking their words for what they actually do say (which is, apart from actions, the one other window to what they think). How many of us remember what Nancy Pelosi may have said in urging passage of the Affordable Care Act? (Essentially: You’ve got to enact it before you know what’s in it.)

    Words do matter. Good article.

Leave a Reply to Stephen Kent Ehat Cancel reply encourages a civil dialogue among its readers. We welcome your thoughtful comments.