Political Animal


December 06, 2012 12:38 PM Liberals, the Fiscal Thingy, and Message Discipline

By Ryan Cooper

The last several weeks of negotiations have have provided a good example of one of the left’s biggest weaknesses: message discipline. Ben Bernanke came up with the phrase “fiscal cliff,” and it stuck. This phrase is deeply misleading—indeed, it was probably deliberately exaggerated—so liberals tried to come up with a more accurate catchphrase. They tried, but failed for lack of unity. Paul Waldman called it the “austerity trap.” Chris Hayes called it the “fiscal curb.” Paul Krugman called it the “austerity bomb.” Ezra Klein, most notably, made a major push for “austerity crisis,” but even the mighty Wonkblog couldn’t get everyone to agree.

This is an easy pit for liberals to step in. We prize accuracy, we like to explore rhetoric and meaning (a tendency which in its fullest academic incarnation borders on the pathological), and we don’t respect authority that much. (Or less charitably, we think we’re all special snowflakes, who are all equally good at sloganeering, and react with knee-jerk hostility to the slightest whiff of hierarchy.)

I don’t think liberals should necessarily suppress those instincts. A tendency to quarrel in one situation might save an ally from a major mistake in a different circumstance. Furthermore, it is important for one’s catchphrases to describe things reasonably accurately. The problem is if we can’t settle on the good enough, then that means ceding the rhetorical ground to the other side, as has indeed happened with the execrable “fiscal cliff.” So here are some suggestions:

1) For the very famous, be aware of your power over the discourse, both positive and negative. If you’re describing something for the first time, take care to pick a phrase that is as accurate and catchy as possible. If someone else has already picked one, strongly consider adopting it yourself. It should have a major error for you to consider coining a new one, not least because you are likely to quash the previous phrase while failing to insert your own.

2) Discussion is good, but not too much. Trying to capture every tiny semantic quibble in a phrase takes too long and leaves the way clear for others to gain ground. Any of the above substitutes for “fiscal cliff” would have been a vast improvement. I think the way Ezra Klein handled it on Wonkblog was pretty good.

Again, I’m not saying the left needs to start Frank Luntz-ing everything in sight. I’m saying that the power of rhetoric is strong, especially with these sorts of high-stakes negotiations, and liberals need to recognize that using that power will require a bit of followership, something which might be uncomfortable. Because the alternative is to allow the empty suits at CNN to be steamrollered by brute repetition.


Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • T2 on December 06, 2012 12:25 PM:

    good idea, Ryan. But when Liberals start following talking points with the lock-step of their GOP opposition, well....I'll believe it when I see it.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on December 06, 2012 12:39 PM:

    Bingo, I think you nailed about the anti-hierarchical nature and the overthinking everything.

  • Mad_nVt on December 06, 2012 12:43 PM:

    Hey Ryan. Very good.

    Names have consequences.

    Having control of your own language is important.

    Meanwhile, note that the word "Obamacare" has a kind of magic that "Affordable Care Act" never would have.

  • SteveT on December 06, 2012 1:12 PM:

    There's another cause for liberal disunity -- we love to show how smart we are.

    Sen. John Kerry is a good example. He never uses ten words to get a message across when he can use 20, 50 or 100.

    So it's almost too much to expect a liberal to pass up the opportunity to coin a new phrase and show how profound they are instead using someone else's phrase that's already part of the discussion.

  • Anonymous on December 06, 2012 2:46 PM:

    Yep. I agree. I for instance advocate the term "Useless Drones Tax" for the estate tax. The conservative "Death tax" needs to be countered. "Useless drones" is a good starter. Also "Welfare Drone Tax" would be good.

  • LiberallyConservative on December 07, 2012 6:43 AM:

    Very funny, that was the best joke I've heard. You conservatives are so eloquent with you words you almost made me feel stupid...almost. Sorry folks but it didn't work this time.

  • emma on December 07, 2012 8:22 AM:

    Thank you Ryan for continuing to point out that the words we choose to use do matter. Whenever I hear the term "fiscal cliff" my Pavlovian response is "it's not a cliff".

    I have picked up some terms from others on the web. Privatize has become piratize, a voucher is a coupon and an entitlement is an earned benefit. Also, Heritage and AEI are stink tanks.

    My wish is that we would all call Liberty University, Jerry Falwell U. and Regent, the Pat Robertson School.