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A guardian of language interprets the triumph of the right

In ``Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show" (PublicAffairs, $26), linguist Geoffrey Nunberg argues with great humor and insight that conservative strategists in the United States have hijacked everyday language, re defining words such as ``values," ``liberal," and ``freedom," to ensure that the vocabulary of political debate -- and of ordinary conversation -- now tilts to the right.

The author, whose previous books include ``Going Nucular" and ``The Way We Talk Now," teaches at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley. He spoke from his home in California.

Q: How did the right pull off this linguistic coup?

A: One factor certainly is the right's ability to stay on message while the left is all over the place. Another is the invention of new formats such as talk radio and political talk shows. The right has also understood the importance of having an emotional narrative that weaves its positions together while the left has been skittish about emotional appeals.

Q: What role do talk shows play?

A: They actually teach us how to converse. They provide a model for talking about politics or sports that you then hear people using when they're sitting around in a bar or at the office.

Q: Is all political language designed to bypass reason?

A: Well, most politicians have nothing against reason, but they won't go out of their way to visit it.

Walter Lippman n said that political discourse is necessarily symbolic because the facts exceed our curiosity. We can't master the economic intricacies of Social Security or the estate tax or much of the background to foreign policy, so our interest in these matters has to proceed symbolically. And there's a kind of cognitive efficiency to that.

Q: Words merely enhance images, then?

A: Certainly the best political language, from the left or right, is very evocative. The way the right has skillfully exploited brands and products, turning liberals into latte-drinking Volvo drivers and so on, is effective because it is so concrete and colloquial. As it happens, Republicans buy more brie than Democrats. But the right can still use brie to stand in for a stereotype of liberals: soft, pale, runny, and French.

Q: You don't mention Goebbels or PR pioneer Edward Bernays.

A: People often evoke the specter of totalitarian thought control, in particular Orwell's ``1984," when they talk about political language today. But in an odd way that's the wrong model. The thought control we associate with Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia is quite different now. These techniques wear a friendlier face in the modern world. They don't require an indifferent or inattentive public but rather thrive on the sophistication that people think they have about political language.

Q: So we are gullible sophisticates?

A: Right. If Orwell's Winston Smith were reanimated and stuck in the communications department of a Fortune 500 company, the thing that would most astonish him would be that employees had Dilbert cartoons on the walls and were making fun of the language even as they were coining it. Paradoxically, this sophistication puts people off their guard and makes them more susceptible to this kind of manipulation.

Q: Is American a divided country?

A: This talk of a nation more divided than ever is overdrawn and misleading. Whether you look at political attitudes, consumer habits, or culture, the nation is actually more unified than at any time in recent history, apart from the political classes and the journalists who find the red-blue distinction a useful way to liven up talk shows.

Q: Why do you think the time is right for a new Democratic populism?

A: For one thing, that populism will be based on economic realities. Right now the middle class in its anxiety has more in common with the working class than at any time in the recent past. They share worries about Social Security, pensions, health-care costs, how to pay for education -- anxieties that all Americans have, except for the few who don't bother to check the price of gas.

Q: Who are the Democrats' best storytellers?

A: Certainly Clinton was a great storyteller. Or you think of John Edwards or Barack Obama. But the important thing to realize about the Republicans is that they've come up with a story that anyone can tell. The skill of a Reagan isn't crucial. Figures like Bill Frist and Sam Brownback may have negative charisma, but they can effectively tell this story about Middle Americans whose personal morality, religious principles, and patriotism are constantly mocked by the out-of-touch coastal elites. What matters is the song, not the singers.

Q: What word or phrase is currently driving you crazy?

A: ``Cut and run." It seems to typify the Democrats' problem. Their instinct is to respond with another expression that has the same syntax, like ``Lie and die." But every time they say that, ``Cut and run" comes to mind. As with ``values" and the rest, the Democrats echoing the Republicans' language reinforces it. What Democrats have to do is change the focus, and with language that has its own emotional power. You know what I would say? ``How many truckloads of dog tags are you willing to spend in this place?"

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached via e-mail at

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