But political speech is not simply a feel-good addition to our politics; it is in fact central to political action. In many ways, speech is action. When Obama speaks forcefully, as he did in his second inaugural address, he enables action to follow. Changing the public political discourse also changes public understanding, leading to new demands for political action.
Words are not mere words. As the linguist Charles Fillmore discovered, words make sense only within certain conceptual frames — the mental structures that determine how we understand the world. When we hear political language, particular circuitry is activated in our brains. The more often we hear the words, the stronger that circuitry gets, until the frames become embedded in our thinking.
When it comes to politics, these frames are about morality, because in the end, all politics is moral. Political leaders make proposals because they think they are right. Conflicting policies, for all their political implications, usually come out of conflicting moral views.
That’s where American politics stands today. The ascent of extreme conservatism and the gridlock so apparent in Washington have everything to do with divergent moralities, as reflected in language and its framing. The conservative call for “tax relief” assumes that taxation is harmful and immoral, an affliction to be relieved. Tea party supporters framed Obama’s health-care plan in moral terms as a violation of freedom (“government takeover!”) and life (“death panels!”).
These ideas are placed into public discourse via a sophisticated conservative communications machine: think tanks, messaging experts,Grover Norquist’s weekly meetings at Americans for Tax Reform and across the country, training institutes, booking agencies, talk radio, Fox News, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, chambers of commerce, bloggers and the rest. This network puts those words and their frames, both political and moral, into the brains of a huge number of our citizens.
The results can be remarkable. For example, although many key provisions of the Obama health-care bill had majority backing across the country, overall support for the plan was less than 50 percent. Particular provisions — such as the rule that no one can be denied insurance coverage because of preexisting medical conditions — could be dismissed as small details, meaningless in the face of the supposed threat posed by the plan as a whole.