It’s the Substance Stupid!

Via kausfiles via Instapundit comes a story about the Democrats’ trying to revive their political fortunes by coming up with new names for old concepts.

“He has suggested that same-sex marriage should be referred to as “the right to marry.” Trial lawyers like vice presidential nominee John Edwards should instead be called “public protection attorneys,” and the term environmental protection, which brings to mind big government and reams of regulations, should instead be termed “poison-free communities.”

Stop laughing, they’re serious.

Some overly bright people believe that you can change how people think about something by changing the name attached to it, but as Shakespear pointed out, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The physical properties of the rose that we find attractive do not change just because we change the collection of phonemes used to symbolize the plant. No matter what melodious name you give it, nobody is going to stick his nose in a carrion flower more than once, and the odds of its playing a widespread role in any human romantic courtship are just about zero.

Marketing types know that clever renaming only buys you something when the competition is on the margins of a product’s value. If two competing products are substantially the same functionally, you can gain a market edge by putting a little spin, with some clever phrasing, on how people think about your product, but if the products differ functionally then you can’t.

The Democrats and leftists in general still can’t seem to figure this out. They keep insisting that they’re losing because those stiff-white-guys-who-never-had-a-creative-thought-in-their-lives who run the Republican Party suddenly turned into the Andy Warhols of political marketing! If never seems to occur to them that people don’t buy into their solutions because they have lost confidence in the ability to deliver social good with huge, centrally-managed government programs. The Democrats lose on substance, not marketing.

The attitude of the Left today reminds me of a scene in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

CHAIRMAN: Yes, and, and, and the wheel. What about this wheel thingy? Sounds a terribly interesting project to me.

MARKETING GIRL: Er, yeah, well we’re having a little, er, difficulty here…

FORD: Difficulty?! It’s the single simplest machine in the entire universe!

MARKETING GIRL: Well alright mister wise guy, if you’re so clever you tell us what colour it should be!

Remember, it’s the substance stupid. First make it round, then make it roll and then worry about what to call it.

9 thoughts on “It’s the Substance Stupid!”

  1. When the Left took over the word “liberal” to make themselves more acceptable… the word “liberal” became bad.

    When they took over the word “progressive”… the word “progressive” became bad.

    What’s next? They take over the word “normal”?

  2. Possibly. Their latest attempt (“reality-based community”) having flopped, they’re probably casting their big brains about looking for a new one.

  3. Another example:

    Notice how “gun control” has become “gun safety”. Funny, it still looks like a ban to me.

    The fact that the NRA beat them there by preaching and teaching gun safety (w/o quote marks) decades ago helps deflate the arguement too.

  4. Yes, the democrats are flailing for answers. They fell for the “image is everything” nonsense from the Clintonistas, and like Marie Antoinette forgot that one can’t eat an image. But voters know what’s real and what’s illusion.

    No wonder leftists are so rabid about Fox News, talk radio, and blogs. They can’t control them like they’ve controlled most of the MSM for the past 50 years. Even the universities are starting to grow insurgencies against lefty-fascist oppression on campus.

  5. Marketing does play a role in modern politics. Remember the presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon? The winner of the debate was dependent on whether you polled radio listeners or TV viewers.

    This kind of packaging or framing of issues is integral. And we see it on both sides. To point out some examples from recent Republican efforts;
    – Instead of the ‘estate tax’ its now the ‘death tax’
    – We don’t refer to ‘global warming’ now but ‘climate change’
    – The Healthy Forest Initiative

    Anyway, I don’t disagree that Dems are losing on substance but to say that marketing plays no role is incorrect.

  6. Eric,

    I didn’t say that marketing plays no role but rather that it functions on the margins. The Kennedy-Nixon election was a functional tie with the winner decided by votes turned up at the last minute by Daley’s Chicago machine.

    Marketing is very important in politics but not the most important factor. The Democrats do seem to have completely lost sight of this to the point where they believe that marketing is effectively the only factor.

  7. Remember, though, what George Orwell said in “Politics and the English Language”: corrupt language produces corrupt thought. If the left can succeed in this little renaming strategy, they may well manage to make political gains at least in some quarters. If you only have a positive-sounding name for something, eventually it becomes difficult to think of it in negative ways even if it is a negative thing. Controlling language can be a way of controlling thought.

  8. The problem for Democrats is that they no longer control the language outright. They’re used to being able to control thought by controlling language in the media (see: “choice”) but now that talk radio and the blogosphere have really taken off, alternative terminology is used by a large part of the population, and pretty much everyone hears both sets of terminology.

    In other words, while in the past you might “only have a positive-sounding name for something”, now you have one positive and one negative name for the same thing, which pushes the debate back to one of substance. How well each name matches reality will determine how popular each name gets among the politically neutral and what average people think about the issue. Substance now determines the language the average citizen uses, rather than language determining their perception of substance.

    Another nice thing about having both sets of terminology out there for average people to evaluate is that it allows them to draw conclusions about how trustworthy each side’s language is. If they continually hear Democrats try to spin certain issues too far, they’re going to instinctively treat any new Democrat terminology as spin. They’re going to begin to distrust Democrats every time their lips move. It’s already starting with some people — they instinctively distrust the language Democrats use.

    As long as the left doesn’t realize they’ve lost their monopoly on language, they’ll continue to lose people’s trust, and people will continue to see right through the rhetoric. This is, altogether, a positive development…

  9. While I agree with your sentiments regarding substance, Shannon, there is ample evidence of lanuage being used to either clarify or obfuscate political issues (one of your post-ers mentions the hijacking of the word ‘liberal’ above). Recently PBS Frontline ran an excellent show called ‘The Persuaders’ that featured the work of political consultant Frank Luntz
    who, thankfully, has worked with Republicans to use language to clarify issues like the Estate Tax (now more clearly Death Tax) for the general public.
    Sounds like the Dems are trying to learn a lesson and find a way to use language to obfuscate instead of clarify…

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