For decades now, there’s been a gap between the left’s and the right’s ability to talk populist. Liberals tend to trip over their own subtlety, uncertainty and/or ambivalence (an example of which youmaybe just read), while the right produces categorical words that stick: media elite, death tax, and of course Democrat as an adjective, emphasis on rat.
And 2010 was no different. Not all of this year’s top political buzzwords were born in 2010, but this is the year they’ve been popularized. And when it comes to rhetoric that evokes strong imagery, rouses emotion, and can roll over inconvenient facts and memories, the Red State words (many elevated into a kind of American sign language by Sarah Palin) tend to outshout the Blue ones.
BIG RED WORDS
Mamma grizzly: Grrrr! Mamma grizzlies will kill to protect their cubs or their tax cuts. Sarah Palin, or one of her writers, sensed that the newly empowered women of the Tea Party could use a brand of their own, and she found one that—with a bit-o’-Alaska in every sound bite—loops right back to the Palin brand itself.
Man-up: It one-ups the earlier pop injunction to “step up,” and it’s really what the right has been saying all along: liberal males are homos, eunuchs, and girlie men, they’re weak on national security and handmaidens to the Nanny State. Thus, Sharron Angle tried to castrate Harry Reid, Palin challenged non-Tea Party Republicans, and Christine O’Donnell, with her “get your man pants on ” variation, gay-baited Mike Castle.
And it’s not just how Mamma Grizzlies scold mamma boys anymore. Rand Paul hit Jack Conway with a man-up, while Joe Scarborough brought it full circle, telling other Republicans to “man up” and stop Sarah Palin.
Death panel: The star of the health care debate is back! This month Palin attacked the (already defunct) deficit commission for “implicitly endors[ing] the use of ‘death panel’-like rationing.” All the while, she and the right have ignored a real “death panel”: Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has eliminated, and now refuses to restore, Medicaid funds for life-saving organ transplants. The result? “Many doctors,” the Times reports , “say the decision amounts to a death sentence for some low-income patients…”
The Constitution!: The Constitution (the two words, not the document) is a pop hit. For a purportedly fiscally focused Tea Party averse to sounding too religious, the Constitution is the new Bible, an inspired text from which all virtue flows and before which all men must bow. But Constitution-thumping ain’t easy, especially when its Enlightenment ideas butt up against one’s unenlightened ideology. Christopher Hitchens captures the conundrum when he writes that Tea Partiers “are insane in wanting to repeal several amendments to a Constitution that they also think is unalterable because it’s divine!”
Deficit: Not a sexy word, and deficit reduction has historically been a low priority among voters. But, remarkably, conservatives shoved deficit to the tip of everyone’s tongues just in time for the midterm elections. As Frank Rich wrote , by “[r]epeating it constantly—as McConnell and John Boehner do, brilliantly…. deficit reduction did jump to first place in Nov. 2 exit polls  as voters’ highest priority for the next Congress.” They “turned the deficit into a catchall synonym for America’s entire economic health.” But now that Republicans have their coveted tax-cuts-for-billionaires deal, which will further explode the deficit, it’s “Deficit? What deficit?” That’s the marvel of GOP pop: A word can be injected with urgent emotion one day and vacuumed out the next.
Tax cuts for all Americans: Sounds inclusive, sounds fair, sounds, in fact, so all-American that when one poll asked , “Do you favor extending tax cuts for all Americans?” people overwhelmingly said, Yes, 56 percent to 29 percent. Yet when another poll asked whether people supported "Eliminat[ing] tax cuts the wealthiest Americans have received in recent years," the results flipped, 59 percent in favor, 38 percent opposed. Like elections, locutions have consequences.
Compromise: Both sides have problems with compromise, but Speaker of the House-elect John Boehner says, “I reject the word” itself. On 60 Minutes , Lesley Stahl could make Boehner cry, but she couldn’t make him say compromise. (Stahl: “But governing means compromising.” Boehner: “It means working together.” Stahl: “It also means compromising.” Boehner: “It means finding common ground.”) He finally explained that “When you say the word ‘compromise,’ a lot of Americans look up and go, ‘Uh-oh, they’re gonna sell me out.’ ” Translation: He can’t man-up to the Tea Party.
Government Takeover of Health Care: PolitiFact called this “ the Lie of the Year. ” GOP consultant Frank Luntz got Republicans to repeat it incessantly during the 2009 health care debate ("Takeovers are like coups," he explained. "They both lead to dictators and a loss of freedom”). By early 2010, Democrats had dropped the “’public option’ concept that was derided as too much government intrusion,” Politifact writes; by November, the lie “was a significant factor in the Democrats' shellacking.” The real coup, of course, was the Fox takeover of health care language. A leaked Fox News memo shows that Washington managing editor Bill Sammon ordered on-air staff to replace public option with government-run health insurance. If they absolutely couldn’t avoid the PO-word, they were to “use the qualifier ‘so-called,’ as in ‘the so-called public option.’"
This is a blue car: Haven’t heard of it? In order to “Help fight the Tea Party,” the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee is selling $5 car magnets that state, “This is a blue car.” “They’re a clever way to make sure everyone knows which side of the partisan road you travel,” says the e-mail pitch. True, claiming my bronze car is blue would be clever if other drivers recall the media’s red/blue divide, or if they can see the tiny dscc.org at the bottom (and if they know what “dscc” means). But this is a weak bridge of if’s from which to attack the Tea Party. Still, it’s better than...
Change That Matters and the Blue D logo: Rolled out for the midterm elections, the widely ridiculed DNC logo looks like Target’s, or like the Democrats are a target (which they are). The matching slogan, “Democrats: Change That Matters,” sounds like a desperate attempt to relive 2008. Sooner or later the Dems must find a bumper-sticker mission statement as clear and punchy as the Republicans’ unspoken “We cut taxes and start wars.”
Teabagger: The Tea Party lost its baggage this year. The derisive appellation, code for you-know-what, rarely appears these days. Early on, I was writing teabagger, too. But it began to sound juvenile. Teabagger’s death knell rang this fall when Jon Stewart told Rachel Maddow that her giggling teabagger references showed that MSNBC can be as biased as Fox.That may have been a case of…
False Equivalency: Politicians and the media have long painted liberal activists as being just as extreme and reckless as their conservative counterparts. But this year, spurred on in no small part by Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity, which casually equated Olbermann and Schultz with O’Reilly and Hannity, they’re getting called on it. It helps enormously that there’s a clear, concise name for the phenomenon. False equivalency is becoming the double standard of its day.
Driving the car into a ditch: One of the Dem’s few vivid metaphors and an Obama favorite, this phrase is supposed to hang responsibility for the Great Recession on the GOP. “You can't have the keys back,” Obama mocked Republicans before the midterms. “You don't know how to drive.”Some urged the Democrats to pitch the ditch nonstop, but they showed none of that McConnell-Boehner perseverance. And now that Obama has worked hand-in-hand with the GOP on deficit-engorging tax cuts, expect the ditch to be paved over.
The right side of history: Any side can claim to be the right side, but the Dems own this one. They cranked it up during the healthcare debate, and it’s now working full-time for the START treaty and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. "The important thing today is that 63 senators were on the right side of history," Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said when repeal passed. Former army lieutenant Dan Choi, who was discharged for coming out, expanded on the phrase: "We know that when you're on the right side of justice and history, you don't ever go backwards."
Sarah Palin: Sarah Palin doesn’t merely popularize political catchphrases, “Sarah Palin” is itself a pop phrase. What gives populist words their power is that we can sense a crowd, a crowd of millions, standing behind them. We hear “man-up” or “death panel,” and we immediately sense the power structure of the moment. Many of us, when we hear “Sarah Palin,” involuntarily imagine torch-carrying angry mobs.
Charles Blow wrote in the Times recently that he’s not “going to write the name Sarah Palin until she does something truly newsworthy.” He argues that the left’s “outsize and unrelenting assault on her has made her a folk hero.” He’s right, and I’m also sick of the media trumpeting her every tweet, wink, and snicker. But the more she’s out there, the more her words grate (the latest NBC/WSJ poll has her at a record 50 percent negative rating )—and the more the curtain is pulled back on the whole rightwing noise machine.
For now at least, “Sarah Palin” is the strongest pop slogan the word-weak Democrats have.
Leslie Savan is the author of Slam Dunks and No-Brainers : Pop Language in Your Life, the Media, and Like…Whatever.