Monthly Archives: March 2011

Change the Words, Not Your Mind

Government no longer “spends your money.”  It “invests in your future.” 

 If, despite that clear distinction, you still don’t feel good about multi-trillion-dollar deficits, it’s because you must understand one of the most important techniques in the art of debate – when you’re losing, change the terms.  Successful politicians must master that art if they want to push unpopular policies.  If “illegal alien” sounds bad, change the words to “undocumented workers.”  If “estate tax” sounds OK to people who have no “estate,” call it the “death tax” and it affects everyone who might eventually die.  A simple change in terms often changes the outcome of debates, legislative votes, and even elections.

Changing the words is a long and proud tradition in the world of conservation, too.  That’s how national forest timber management became “below-cost timber sales” and “logging old growth,” the result of which was an almost complete end to active forest management (and today’s dead and dying forests).  That’s also how vast tracts of public lands became “the last great places,” which must be protected from public use.  It is a technique both sides practice regularly, but that doesn’t make it any more honest or less cynical.

One of the great examples is being played out in today’s debate over global warming.  As average global temperatures leveled off in the past decade, “global warming” became “climate change,” since that includes both warming AND cooling.  As more recent scientific research makes the causes of climate changes less certain, an increasingly skeptical public has begun to shy away from “solutions” that seem harsh, expensive, or difficult.  Thus, Congress could not muster enough votes to pass the proposed cap-and-trade bill several years in a row, and the effort now appears dead.

Not to be deterred, however, advocates have resorted once again to the tried-and-true technique of changing the terms.  It has become unpopular in a time of spiking gas prices to propose the ban on drilling for oil and gas that many environmental activists actually want.  They recognize that an end to the use of fossil fuels to power our economy is simply not achievable in the foreseeable future.  That’s why they have tried for several years to convince the public that our use of natural resources to create prosperity is evil, and that our pursuit of the good life is destroying the planet.  But we all learned about carbon dioxide in school science classes, and we certainly do not intend to stop exhaling.  That is why it is now known as a “greenhouse gas” – because “emitting” any “gas” sounds like something we should stop doing.   It is a debate such advocates are losing in the court of public opinion, for several reasons:

  •  There is a limit to how much Americans can pay for gas, heat, and electricity;
  • Many people are no longer convinced of a direct link between their use of energy and any catastrophic change in the Earth’s climate;
  • Revelations about fraudulent manipulation of scientific data has damaged the credibility of man-made global warming alarmists;
  • The economic recession has “cooled” Americans’ willingness to raise taxes, hinder businesses, and slow job creation – for any reason.

Does this mean advocates of a cap-and-trade policy will give up the effort?  Of course not.  It means they will change the terms, and that effort is well underway now.  Witness the new desire on the part of state and federal administrations across the country to adopt policies that promote “clean energy.”  What exactly is “clean energy?”  At the risk of stating the obvious, it means energy that comes from sources other than oil, gas, coal, methane, biomass, biofuels, nuclear, shale, tar sands, hydropower, or any source that requires pipelines, power lines, or other infrastructure (can we use wind and solar power without power lines?).  In a nutshell, it means we should stop using so much energy.  It means the same thing all the previous debates meant, just with different words.

Expect to hear the term “clean energy” repeated across the political landscape non-stop for the next several years.  Experts know that repetition is the key to successfully changing the terms of a debate.  As Berkeley Professor George Lakoff advises liberals, “Repetition of such articulations is the key to redefining these words…” 

The Republican “Word Doctor” Frank Luntz explains the importance of repetition: “There’s a simple rule: You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you’re absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time.”

That is why the debate of the next few years will be about “clean energy.”  It is a legitimate debate, so long as everyone knows exactly what it is really about.  Just remember, the story you are about to see is true; only the names have been changed to protect the political agenda.

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