Talk is cheap, but it doesn’t have to be ugly

They say words are the mother’s milk of politics.

Maybe they don’t say that. But they should.

Leaders rise and fall on their words. Movements are born and struggles are won or lost on the power of words and the ideas they convey.  

A house divided against itself cannot stand … … Ask not what your country can do for you … Si, se puede … Tear down this wall … I have a dream … We have nothing to fear, but fear itself …

Of course, there isn’t much call for that kind of language in Sacramento. Not because we don’t have wonderfully articulate and talented leaders. We do. But state politics rarely lend themselves to blockbuster motivational quotes.

State politics do, however, offer plenty opportunity for dull speech and hackneyed phrases. Too often, people who convey ideas in the Capitol reach for the shopworn and the clichéd.

It’s understandable. There is comfort in the familiar. But the danger is that familiarity breeds contempt, and there’s too much of that already.

If there were a war of words going on – and there is – it would seem that the Legislature is losing it, at least if you judge by approval ratings. Part of this, of course, is the economy.  Times are tough, unemployment is up, the deficit is huge. So the Legislature and the governor take the blame.

But there’s another component. Words. Those who blame the Legislature and the governor – and let’s face it, they’re winning the public opinion war — are doing it with the simplest words, and the shortest sentences. While lawmakers talk about finding a cohesive strategy to incentivize new employment, their critics talk about the “bums in Sacramento.”

They can put big ideas in little tiny phrases. “You guys suck,” for example. You wouldn’t carve that into granite, but it does strike a chord.

Nobody knows the rhetorical formula to turn the tide of public opinion. If they did, it would already be in use. And nobody is dumb enough to lay down hard rules about how “Sacramento” should sound. As soon as someone says “never use the word ignominy,” someone else will think up a thousand sentences that need that word and nothing else.

Still, there are a few rhetorical devices that might at least deserve a long vacation:
“MAKE NO MISTAKE …” Never mind that this was a favorite of George W. Bush, it has found its way to the lips of plenty Democrats, too. It’s an inarticulate thug of a phrase that seems to suggest that the listener is prone to making mistakes, and she better not make one now.  Why would you want to alienate your audience like that?  It’s like saying, “You, the stupid one, I’m going to tell you something and you should try your best to understand it.”

“AT THIS POINT IN TIME …”  As opposed, apparently, to this point in space. It’s a pretentious phrase that makes the listener wonder whether “this point in time” is somehow different than “now.” Some people might even begin thinking about points in time, points in space, and the relationship between the two. And you’ve lost them.

“LET ME BE HONEST …” If you’re a politician … don’t ever say this. Any listener who doubts your honesty does not think it’s for lack of their permission.

“TO TELL YOU THE TRUTH …” You mean, everything you said until now was a lie? Toss this one, and forget about it.

“THERE’S SOMETHING IN HERE FOR EVERYONE TO HATE …” This one hopes to convince the other side you aren’t really railroading them. But imagine how it must sound to a regular person to hear that the best argument for a new law is that everyone thinks it stinks.

“AT THE END OF THE DAY …” There’s something sort of British upper crust about this one, and it’s not always bad. But as with heavy cream, use sparingly.

But, let me be honest, at the end of the day there is no magic bullet. Public policy is complicated and it can’t always be explained in snappy quips. Still, make no mistake at this point in time, you can at least try.

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: