Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Lost Magic of the "L" Word

I've been looking for opportunities to use my research on the Workingmen's movement of the 1820's and 1830's to reflect on contemporary politics and it looks like I've found something.

The issue is political names.

The Philadelphia Mechanics Free Press reprinted an 1830 article from the New York Workingmen's Advocate on the contest of names between political parties.
There is no mode, perhaps, in which the people are more imposed upon, than in the adroit use which demagogues and intriguing politicians make of party names. A number of aspiring men are seeking for influence, for office, and for power. They cannot all obtain their ends; they therefore become divided, and separately combined. Now commences the contest of hard names, between the two cabals. If one can dub the other with an odious name, and by any means so manage it, as to cause the name to take (emphasis in text) with the people, an important advantage is gained; there is a prospect then of deterring the people from supporting those who have been decried, and rendered suspicious "by the magic of a name."
In contemporary terms, the application of "odious names" to an opponent is an element of wedge politics designed to deter "the people who have been decried, and rendered suspicious "by the magic of a name."

One of the extremely interesting developments in contemporary politics is that the right can no longer employ the term "liberal" as a magically odious term for the Democrats. Limbaugh and some of the talk radio types still use the "L" word and it still gets a rise out of his loyal listeners. But referring to the Democrats as liberals no longer serves as a tool for "deterring the people from supporting" the Democratic Party or the Obama administration. In fact, Republican politicians seem to have refrained from using the L word as a criticism of Obama or his policies. The Republicans talked about the stimulus package as a "spending program" and "generational theft." Likewise, they analogized the stimulus package to Jesus and criticized the lack of debate in passing the legislation.

But the GOP either didn't try very hard to deride the stimulus package as a liberal program or avoided the name altogether.

But why?

Of course, Republican use of the "L" word was itself a complex phenomenon. So, the lost magic of the L word is also complex. From the late 70's onward, the Republican Party was able to project a strongly unified message through its officeholders, political operatives, the conservative media apparatus, and sympathetic figures in the mainstream media. But the Republicans have lost that unified capacity to promote "hard names" in the post-Bush era (more attention needs to be paid to the difficulties for the GOP that have been posed by the end of George Bush's second term).

There's also the matter of audience. The Republicans were able to attach the "L word" to the Democrats partly because of the residue of resentment over civil rights, the anti-war activism, feminism, gay rights, and other causes from the 1960's and 1970's. The "L word" was short-hand for the Democratic Party's association with "them" and it hurt the Democrats.

But the groups that used to be "them" have become "us" as well as them. That's especially the case with the election of the first African-American president, the tenacious campaign of Hillary Clinton as the first "feminist" candidate for the highest office, and the growing acceptance of gay rights among all segments of the American population but especially the young.

In this context, conservative use of the "L-word" became vaguely associated with "bigotry" and the magic of the word started working against the right rather than the left.

Moreover, the rise of liberal media outlets like DailyKos, HuffPost, the Daily Show, and Stephen Colbert enabled the left to rebrand themselves as "progressives" and they've been able to make it stick.

Now, it's the liberal/left that has a unified message and has been able to create some magic for names like "incompetent," "bigot," "idiot," and "delusional" that we like to apply to the right. I'd like to see "freak show" applied to the conservative movement, but haven't had any luck in getting it accepted.

It's a sign of how far the Republicans and the right have fallen that they can't even name themselves let alone the Democrats.

No comments: