David L. Nevins: Learning to recognize political rhetoric

From the commentary: "Every tribe has its own words, basically, and it becomes more and more difficult to have conversations across tribal fault lines if we can't even agree on the terminology."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 7, known as the “Stop Woke” bill, in Hialeah Gardens, Florida, on April 22, 2022.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 7, known as the “Stop Woke” bill, in Hialeah Gardens, Florida, on April 22, 2022.
(Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/TNS)

When I think about the tactics of the Democrat and Republican parties, I am reminded of lyrics from the Buffalo Springfield song 50 years ago:

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Unfortunately, what is happening in politics in America is all too clear and both sides are wrong as they feed into the political circus instead of focusing on healthy governance.


This all would be funny if not for the serious implications. The dysfunction is clearly manifested by red meat rhetoric that politicians throw out to their base to score political points, rather than attempting to govern. It is so much easier for them to make statements that generate a strong emotional response from voters instead of intelligently debating the difficult choices our country faces.

And unfortunately this ploy works!

I watch with amazement as demagogy on both sides continues unimpeded and wonder how this can be until I realize that the $14 billion spent in the 2020 election cycle just feeds more division, disinformation and dysfunction. Our democracy is in crisis and the promise of healthy self-governance seems further and further away.

If you watch Fox News you’ll be inundated with pundits blasting intellectual elites, the deep state, socialist democrats, illegal aliens and, of course, cancel culture. Switch channels on the same day and tune in to MSNBC and you would think that you are living in a completely different universe. Terms such as corruption on Wall Street, big oil, police brutality and crony capitalism are tossed around without any thought to providing a deeper analysis.

Dietram Schuefele, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, described the rhetoric aptly when he said:

"Every tribe has its own words, basically, and it becomes more and more difficult to have conversations across tribal fault lines if we can't even agree on the terminology."

Unfortunately, the nuances in language are a part of the science of politics. Both parties spend millions of dollars gathering focus groups to learn which messaging and language engages them emotionally. To cite two examples, the term “exploring for energy” is a much gentler term than “drilling for oil” and might appeal to Democrats more, while the term “illegal aliens” arouses emotions different from “undocumented workers” and thus more likely to be used by Republicans. Similarly the terms “death tax” versus “estate tax” arouses different emotions … and the list goes on and on.

The phenomenon of code words is especially apparent with the new Republican code word du jour to incite emotions and cater to their base. The term "woke" is used to disparage and dismiss anything related to a civil discussion on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.


Merriam-Webster in 2017 defined "woke" as: "aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)."

Rather than discuss the important nuances of diversity and inclusion with the desire to create some level of social cohesion, let’s just coin a phrase that appeals to our tribe. Let everything we don’t like be “woke.” It is now creeping into the lexicon amid the backlash against ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) as corporations apply non-financial factors as a part of their analysis in determining their investment strategies and growth opportunities. If a company chooses to consider climate change, lack of diversity or other social issues as part of their investment strategy, let's not have a serious debate; instead let's just appeal to the emotions of the electorate and call it “woke capitalism.”

In this context, the Senate recently voted to overturn a Labor Department rule that permits fiduciary retirement fund managers to consider environmental, social and corporate governance, or ESG, factors in their investment decisions. Rather than debate the merits of the issue, Republicans repeat the mantra of their new code word “woke capitalism.” This moniker wipes away concern about the planet we leave for our descendants as irrelevant to a return on investment.

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Of course, as politicians try to reduce complex issues to simple sound bites, rationality still prevails. Despite the ESG backlash, more and more companies are taking an ESG approach to investing and doing quite well financially. Barron’s recently published the Top 100 U.S. Sustainable Companies using the methodology of ESG explaining the variety of metrics used.

As responsible citizens, it is imperative to understand the tactics used by politicians and be on the alert for the code words they use to excite and enrage us. It is our responsibility to see through this charade. If more and more of us stop listening to the rhetoric, they might change how they talk to us to create meaningful change.

David L. Nevins is co-publisher of The Fulcrum and co-founder and board chairman of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund. The Fulcrum covers what's making democracy dysfunctional and efforts to fix our governing systems. This commentary is the columnist's opinion. Send feedback to:

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