Presidential Election 2004
The Language of Politics:
Taxes, Trees & National Security
By Alan Shapiro
To the Teacher:
As George Orwell demonstrated in his book 1984 and in his 1946 essay on "Politics and the English Language," the language of politics can be sobering, even frightening, to contemplate. But examining this language is critical for citizens in a democracy.
The current presidential campaign offers many opportunities to consider the language of politics, including artfully chosen words, unsupported conclusions, unexamined metaphors and symbols, and arguments that avoid inconvenient facts and inconvenient events.
The three readings in these materials aim to raise such issues for critical study.
The Language of Taxes
The public expects presidential candidates to offer programs that promise to make life better and safer for Americans. People are not surprised when those candidates then contradict each other, make claims and counter-claims, and use language that may be cliche-ridden. But all citizens who take their votes seriously must ask some questions about the worth, the logic, and the likelihood for enactment of any suggested program. They need to question and to consider the factual basis for a candidate's claim, the language used by the candidate, the value of a candidate's opinion, the experience a candidate brings to a subject. Eventually, they need to make the best judgment they can based on such considerations.
Politicians running for public officeóand certainly those running for the presidencyóchoose their words carefully. Even in seemingly extemporaneous speeches they usually use practiced and polished language. They know their opponents or perhaps a newspaper or TV analyst will seize on any slip-up and hammer at it in ways that will make them uncomfortable.
They know, too, that almost any American will respond favorably to such words as "peace," "democracy," and "freedom." They know about and are likely to appeal to people's interests in a particular areaóthey'll tout ethanol (corn-based fuel) when talking to corn farmers in Iowa and Nebraska, guns when addressing hunters in Texas or Wyoming.
Politicians also know that certain issuesótaxes, for exampleóconcern almost all Americans. So, not surprisingly, presidential candidates George Bush and John Kerry speak frequently about them. Here is a sample of what each candidate has to say about taxes.
"This nation is on the path to progress, and we will not turn back. To sustain this economic growth, we need to keep taxes low. Higher taxes right now would undermine growth and destroy jobs. To help grow the American economy and create more jobs, I have a better idea than raising taxes. We need to make the tax relief permanent." (Bush, 7/14/04, Ashwaubenon, Wisconsin)
As president and as a candidate to be reelected president, Bush will be judged by many American voters on how well they think the economy has done during his administration and, in particular, on how well they themselves are doing and are likely to do if he continues as president. Bush asserts that the nation is doing better economically and that this is due to his major "tax relief" programsóbut he offers no proof of these assertions.
Linguist George Lakoff maintains that a clever politician creates a "frame," a conceptual framework or lens through which he or she wants voters to see an issue. For Lakoff, the "relief" in the term "tax relief" is such a frame, for it highlights the idea that taxes cause distress and pain. In short, "there is an affliction, an afflicted party who's harmed by this, a reliever who takes away this affliction. And if anybody tries to stop them, they're a bad guy. You add 'tax' to that, and you get taxation is an affliction. And if the Democrats oppose the president's tax relief plan, they're bad guys...."So the words 'tax relief' go out to every radio station, every TV station, every newspaper, day after day after day. Soon, everybody's thinking tax relief with the idea that taxation is an affliction unconsciously, automatically....And then the words become part of normal everyday language, and the conservative frame becomes part of the way you think about it." (NOW with Bill Moyers, 7/23/04)
"George Bush wants to defend giving a tax cut that's permanent to people who earn more than $200,000 a year. I'm fighting to roll back George Bush's unaffordable tax cut for the wealthy and invest it in health care, education, job creation and to build America again." (Kerry, 7/15/04, Charleston, West Virginia)
Kerry asserts that the Bush program of permanent tax cuts is for the wealthy but, like Bush, does not offer evidence for his claim. He would roll back the tax cut for the rich and put that money into social programs "to build America again." In the latter phrase Kerry contradicts Bush and suggests strongly that the country has not been progressing, has not been experiencing the kind of economic growth the country needs. Like Bush, he appeals to ordinary taxpayers. But Kerry doesn't use the term "tax relief" and appeals to the 98 percent of voters who don't earn more than $200,000 a year.
In this way, Kerry tries to make himself the champion of the ordinary person who isn't wealthy, who may not have health care, who may not be satisfied with the public schools, or who lost a job or was forced to take a lower paying one. America is this taxpayer's country, too, and "to build America again" may sound very good to this ordinary person.
- According to Lakoff, how and why has Bush "framed" the tax issue?
- From Bush's point of view why is the frame "tax relief" better than the frame "tax cuts"?
- Why might John Kerry refrain from discussing "tax relief"?
- Bush uses the common symbol of a path and the metaphor of a journey to convey the idea that the country is moving forward toward the goal of economic progress. To reach that goal it must not turn around. According to Bush's argument, what action is necessary to keep the country moving forward? What action would turn the country back?
- Kerry uses a different symbol, one of construction, and a metaphor of building something to emphasize the need "to build America again." According to him, what action is necessary to build America? What benefits could come if we "build America again"? Why?
- If Kerry is elected president, could he with a stroke of the pen eliminate the Bush tax cuts for those earning more than $200,000 a year? If not, what would it take for them to be "rolled back"? Who would decide what to do with the savings?
What would you do to get answers to the following questions?
- Is the U.S. experiencing economic growth? To what extent, if any, is this growth a result of "tax relief"? If not, why not?
- Would higher taxes destroy jobs? If so, why? If not, why not?
- Is it true that making the Bush tax cuts permanent would primarily benefit "people who earn more than $200,000 a year"?
List student responses on the chalkboard for consideration. Which suggested steps might be helpful? Why? Which probably wouldn't? Why not?
If the teacher wishes students to pursue answers, the following websites may be useful.
Heritage Foundation - www.heritage.org
American Enterprise Institute - www.aei.org
Inequality.Org - www.inequality.org
Center on Budget and Policy Research - www.cbpp.org
The Language of Forests
President Bush signed into law what he calls his Healthy Forest Initiative on December 4, 2003. Officially, it is called the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. In campaigning for public and Congressional approval of the act, Bush said:
"On Monday, I visited the Coronado National Forest in Arizona, where wildfires recently consumed thousands of acres of forest and destroyed hundreds of homes. Nearby, I also saw forests that remained largely intact, thanks to wise forest management policy. Fire professionals and forest and park rangers agree, by thinning overgrown forests, we will reduce the risk of catastrophic fire and restore the health of forest ecosystems.
"That is the purpose of my Healthy Forest initiative. We're cutting through bureaucratic red tape to complete urgently needed forest-thinning projects. We are speeding up environmental assessments and consultations required by current law."
John Kerry's website (www.johnkerry.com) presents the following statement of Kerry's stance on this issue:
"Although the Healthy Forests Restoration Act undertakes important forest management activities, it shunts too much fire protection funding away from forest communities....[It devotes] only half of its fuel reduction dollars to protecting at-risk communities; the other fifty percent is spent on remote projects miles from communities. A Kerry-Edwards administration will ensure that a higher percentage of fuel reduction projects are carried out in areas where human life and property are at risk....[and] will increase spending for communities to a minimum of 70 percent...."
The environmental organization Natural Resources Defense Council (www.nrdc.org), has a different view of the Healthy Forest Initiative.
"After a long hard legislative fight, President Bush thrilled the timber industry by signing into law the so-called Healthy Forest Initiative. Although ostensibly a fire-prevention measure, environmentalists consider the measure...a giveaway to industry because it will make it easier for timber companies to log big trees in the name of fire prevention while doing little to reduce wildfire risks for at-risk communities....A more appropriate name for this legislation is the "Leave No Tree Behind" bill, said Amy Mall, a forest policy expert with NRDC. "The president's pen might as well be a chain saw."
"The timber industry has contributed over $14 million to political campaigns since...with 80 percent going to Republican lawmakers. President Bush has received more than $500,000."
- What does Bush say is the purpose of his Healthy Forest Initiative? Why didn't he simply name it his "Forest Initiative"?
- Why does Kerry say that he and his running mate support the Healthy Forests Restoration Act? But how do they think the act needs to be improved?
- What does the Natural Resources Defense Council say is the purpose of "the so-called Healthy Forest Initiative"? Why do you suppose it uses the term "so-called"? How do you explain the pen metaphor? Why do you suppose the NRDC includes the information about timber industry political contributions?
- Will the Healthy Forests Restoration Act restore forests to health? Why? Why not? Or are you uncertain?
- If you are uncertain, how would you go about deciding what you think about this legislation?
For group work
Divide the class into groups of four to discuss the language associated with this forest legislation. Note that Bush, Kerry, and environmentalists each create their own "frames" for viewing this legislation: "Healthy Forest Initiative" (Bush); "Healthy Forests Restoration Act" (Kerry); and "Leave No Tree Behind bill" (NRDC).
How do you account for these differences? A reporter from each group might summarize the main points of its discussion for the class.
The Language of National Security
People who are trying to argue for their point of view often use these methods:
1) Emphasize those facts and opinions that best support your argument
2) Minimize or omit altogether those facts and opinions that don't support your argument.
3) Carefully fashion your language and frame the issue in a way that casts a favorable light on your position.
Of course, there are fairer ways to present a convincing argument: You could take into account other points of view and accommodate facts and opinions that do not support your own position. But it's rare that such fair and rounded arguments take place between politicians running for office.
Below are excerpts from statements Bush and Kerry have made about national security. Please read them carefully in light of the three points above.
George Bush, Kirkwood Community College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, July 20, 2004:
"...I just want to step back and remind you all of the facts. Saddam Hussein was a sworn enemy of the United States of America. He is a person who had used weapons of mass destruction on his own people. He is a person that was allowing terrorists to exit and enter his country, and he provided safe haven for terrorist organizations.... In other words, he was a danger. Everyone knew he was danger. After all, the United Nations Security Council had said he was a danger in resolution after resolution after resolution.... They also said, disclose, disarm, or face consequences....
"And so we said, okay, fine, we'll give him one last chance....And he deceived the inspectors....See, he was a threat. He made the choice; not the United States of America. He defied the world. And I had a choice to make. Do I forget the lessons of September the 11th and hope for the best? Do I trust the word of a madman? Or do we take action to defend this country? Given that choice, I will defend America every time....
"For a while, we were marching to war; now we're marching to peace.... Afghanistan[(is] a free society.... Three years ago, Afghanistan was a troubled area run by the Taliban. Three years ago, Iraq was run by a sworn enemy of the country.... And today Iraq is run by a person who believes in the hopes and aspirations of the Iraqi people, a strong leader named Prime Minister Allawi.... A free Iraq will change the world. A free Iraq will not only make America's short-term security interests better, it will make our long-term security interests betteróbecause the way to defeat the radicals who promote terrorist activity to frighten us and drive us out of the world is to spread freedom. Free societies are peaceful societies.... In three short years because America has led with friends and allies, the world is changing for the better. The world is becoming a more free place and, therefore, the world is becoming a more peaceful place."
John Kerry, Council on Foreign Relations, New York City, December 3, 2003
"Strength of arms will always be needed. But the use of American power has always been guided by values and principles, not by might alone. Today we have an administration that has turned its back on those values and principles. We have a president who has developed and exalted a strategy of waróunilateral; preemptive; and in my view, profoundly threatening to America's place in the world and the safety and prosperity of our own society.
"Simply put, the Bush Administration has pursued the most arrogant, inept, reckless and ideological foreign policy in modern history. In the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, the world rallied to the common cause of fighting terrorism. But President Bush has squandered that moment. The coalition is now in tatters and the global war on terrorism has been set back.... Now the United Nations is divided and we are fighting an increasingly deadly guerrilla war in Iraq almost single-handedly. We have lost the good will of the world, overextended our troops, and endangered not enhanced our own security.
"I believed a year ago and I believe now that we had to hold Saddam Hussein accountable and that we needed to lead in that effort. But this Administration did it in the worse possible way without the United Nations, without our allies, without a plan to win the peace. So we are left asking: How is it possible to liberate a country, depose a ruthless dictator who at least in the past had weapons of mass destructionóand convert a preordained success into a diplomatic fiasco? How is it possible to do what the Bush administration has done in Iraqówin a great military victory and yet make America weaker?.... Intoxicated with the preeminence of American power, the administration has abandoned the fundamental tenets that guided our foreign policy for more than half a centuryóbelief in collective security and alliances, respect for international institutions and international law, multilateral engagement, and the use of force not as a first option but as a last resort."
For study and notetaking
After reading the speech excerpts closely, write down your answers to the following questions.
- Bush emphasized and repeated the words "free" and "freedom," "peace" and "peaceful" to create a frame for his point of view. What facts did he offer to support this frame? What opinions?
- Did Bush omit any significant facts or opinions that might oppose his point of view? If so, what?
- Bush declared that he faced an either/or choice: "Do I trust the word of a madman? Or do we take action to defend this country?" Were these his only choices? Why or why not? How would you define "a madman"? Does your definition fit Saddam Hussein? Why or why not?
- In contrast to Bush, John Kerry didn't offer one or two words to frame his point of view, but rather characterized the Bush administration's use of American power with a drumfire of negative words: "arrogant, inept, reckless," "lost the good will of the world," "fiasco," "make America weaker." What facts did Kerry offer to support this frame? What opinions?
- Did Kerry omit any significant facts or opinions that might oppose his point of view? If so, what?
- Kerry declared that "the use of American power has always been guided by values and principles, not by might alone." What evidence do you know of to support this opinion? To oppose it? What evidence supports Kerry's opinion, expressed in a metaphor, that the Bush administration "has turned its back on those values and principles"? What evidence conflicts with Kerry's opinion?
For Group Work
Divide the class in half. Ask one half of the class to split into groups of three students to share their analysis of the Bush excerpt (based on their notes in response to the questions above). Ask the other half to split into groups of three to discuss the Kerry excerpt.
Each student, in turn and without interruption, should discuss his/her findings. The group can then consider agreements and disagreements. Can they reach consensus on any points of disagreement? Are they uncertain about anything? What questions, if any, do they have? A reporter from each group should summarize its answers for the entire class.
- How much of a class consensus is there on each excerpt? If after a reasonable amount of discussion students continue to disagree, the class may have to agree to disagree.
- How might uncertainties be clarified? How might students' questions be answered?
Working in small groups and/or independently, assign students to clarify uncertainties and answer remaining questions with help from sources suggested by the teacher. Reports to the class and further discussion can follow.
Students may find other materials on this website helpful, including:
Language and the Iraq War
Postwar Iraq Debate
Presidential Election 2004: The Iraq Issue
Presidential Election 2004: National Security
Inaccurate Intelligence, Critical Thinking the Bush Administration, and Iraq
After reading and discussing what the candidates have to say about taxes, forests, and national security, students may want to:
- Write a letter to either Bush or Kerry expressing their views of their campaign statements. Support those views with specific details.
- Write a concise letter to their local newspaper offering an analysis of the kinds of language used by Bush and Kerry.
This essay was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of
Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We
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