Minnesota 2020 Journal: Fighting a Language War
Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie achieved a small but noteworthy victory last week. He won a round in the conservative language wars. This doesn’t happen often enough and it merits closer examination.
During the 2011 legislative session, conservative policy leaders passed a state constitutional ballot initiative defining marriage within a narrow conservative framework.
Their constitutional amendment question was “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota?" The proposed ballot title was “"Recognition of Marriage Solely Between One Man and One Woman." It would be the first line seen by voters.
Ritchie exercised his constitutional authority to create a different title. This fall, voters will first read “Limiting the Status of Marriage to Opposite Sex Couples" before considering the ballot language.
The altered title represents a sea change. Progressives have ceded language decisions to conservatives for generations. Language matters and conservatives have successfully defined key public policy issues, including some of the most elemental components of the relationship between the government and the governed, as they prefer. Minnesota is worse for the wear.
Choosing a title is choosing an interpretive frame. Nine years ago, I’d just returned from a stint living abroad. I was job hunting the week of my 40th birthday and bought a lottery ticket.
I came home and stuck the ticket on the refrigerator, announcing to my spouse that one or two headlines would shortly apply. “They’re going to read ‘Unemployed Man Wins Big’,” I said, “or, and most likely, ‘Loser Wastes a Buck’.”
Fortunately, news media doesn’t cover lottery losers, only winners. I was spared the public ignominy of acknowledging gambling on an extraordinarily unlikely outcome. Still, no one could disagree with the judgment revealed in my proposed title which is why language matters. “Loser” isn’t an objective narrative. It’s a deliberately judgmental interpretation designed to persuade the reader to adopt the same values framework.
This is how conservative policy messaging works.
Consider the American Civil War. That’s how I know it, simply as the Civil War. That’s how I learned it as a child. I didn’t have an inkling of an alternative interpretive framework until sometime in high school. Southern school children, I discovered, learned about The War Between the States. During college, clued by southern classmates, I learned about The War of Northern Aggression as the less publicly discussed but privately preferred title among wealthy, majority culture southerners.
I was outraged. I remember saying something like, “but we won the war.” My Georgia friend, sharing my view but also being a product of his state, asked, “Who’s ‘we’?”
This is where, by extension, progressives come up short in messaging because we assume that everyone is “we.” The Civil War wasn’t only a conflict fought from 1861-1865. It didn’t end with Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. It’s an on-going fight about America’s promise. Legal chattel slavery ended with the Civil War and the northern states’ military and economic victory but economic injustice continues.
Let me deconstruct the titles. “The War Between the States” seems to simply restate ‘Civil War’ but linguistically it places the former’s interpretive framework on an equal footing with the Civil War, powerfully advancing states’ dominance over the nation. “The War of Northern Aggression” assumes all of “The War Between the States” meaning but fixes the conflict’s onus completely with the northern, nonsecessional states and neatly ignores slavery’s role. This title allows the aggressor to become the victim through passive-aggressive shorthand.
Many conservative policy titles carry an Orwellian slant. They mean the opposite of what they state. This deception is deliberate, designed to confuse people as to the policy’s true intent. “The Defense of Marriage Act" has little to do with defending marriage but is deeply concerned with preserving economic protections and advantages for a narrow group of people. Last year’s HR 2018, “The Water Pollution Regulatory Authority” bill seems, by its title, simple enough but it would have gutted the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to establish clean water standards, effectively ceding them to the states.
Our side has been far less successful on this front. Being right isn’t enough. Moving Minnesota forward requires focusing on what really matters—schools, healthcare and jobs—and then repeatedly making the case for policy change. Truth, to be more effective than deception, must be regularly expressed. It’s our language; let’s take it back. Secretary Ritchie just showed us how to do it.