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Can Democrats Speak English?

by bdietrich on July 6, 2017

My Democratic leanings go back as far as George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy (I was in line for the Vietnam draft until I got a high lottery number) and I voted for Hillary. But I’m alarmed that the party has not just ceded populism to the GOP (astounding in itself) but that it seems incapable of plain talk and simple ideas.

The latest occasion for exasperation was an NPR interview with Minnesota Democrat Sen. Al Franken, who is a witty comedian and able writer turned politician. When even Franken, on book tour, struggles to explain what his party stands for, and chooses fancy-pants words over fundamental angl0-saxon ones, I despair that progressives can connect with voters on a gut level.

Exhibit 1: A tape was played of Franken questioning Energy Secretary Rick Perry and calling global warming “an existential threat.” I know this phrase is a trendy cliche these days, mysteriously beloved by young journalists, but this college graduate and Harvard attendee had to look up how an existential threat is different from, well, a threat.

Turns out it means a threat to existence, or if you prefer, a threat to humans. So threat itself is inadequate to express this? Why the big word, which didn’t even exist until the early 20th Century?

If you need an adjective, learn from the master. Donald Trump, who is a genius of the dumb, would say terrible threat, or deadly threat, or serious threat, or alarming threat, or big threat, or bad threat. But Democrats have become the smart person party and have to go for the four-syllable word.

Next a caller asked about the Democrats lack of a positive message and another emailed about whether Nancy Pelosi should be dumped as House Minority Leader. Franken ducked the Pelosi question (of course) and then rambled, turning the issue of broad messaging to health care, and then explained that Democrats believe in “fixing the exchanges.”

Great bumper sticker, Mr. Communicator. Fix the exchanges. I have no idea what this means.

Why not instead, “Health care for everybody”? Period.

Don’t know exactly how to achieve that? Let voters fill in the blanks, just as great writers give room in literature for readers’ imagination. Trump certainly does in his wild litany of unfulfilled promises. In fact he DID promise health care for everybody, at a cost cheaper than now. And got elected. And has ignored his own promise. And laughed all the way to the White House. While Democrats are busy being existential.

Obviously Democrats are not-Trump. Maybe that will be enough in 2018 or 2020. Our president is a crafty, troubled, ignorant, ineffective and sly idiot.

But what else do they stand for? Oh, you mean the Clinton campaign white papers and the exhaustive Democratic Party platform? You bet I read them. Just like I read the lengthy legalese I agree to by checking “agree” when I download a software update. The fine print on drug literature, the chemical ingredients on food packaging, and every clause in my insurance policies. Yeah, right. Know em by heart.

Meanwhile Trump is using words like bad, sad, best, greatest, failing, pathetic, jobs, cheap, waste, and beautiful.

What gets more attention, his policy speeches or his Twitter feed? Why? It’s short. To quote Strunk & White: “Omit unnecessary words.”

Democrats need bumper stickers, not words coming out of German and French philosophy. They need to be able to connect with Walmart customers, not just Williams Sonoma. One of their recent tries, “A better deal,” ain’t bad, though it’s pretty vague and – once again – reactive to the GOP instead of proactive.

Bernie Sanders, who I didn’t back, is nonetheless one of their best communicators. Listen to his language.

And try to boil ideas down to something positive, simple, and in plain English. Just to get them started:

Stop climate catastrophe.

Share the wealth.

Tax the rich.

Free college tuition.

Racial harmony.

Let’s be civil.

Protect democracy.

Smart security.

Green energy jobs.

Make friends, not foes.

Everyone counts.

Let’s be fair.

We’re in this together.

Details to come, of course. But we’re in a 140-character world, now.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bob Ferris July 6, 2017 at 12:33 pm

My draft number was 344 in the year following yours. I look forward to seeing what you write.

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