In the war of words, progressives are not doing well. Conservative activists hold the rhetorical upper hand, obfuscating their policies’ true intent and making community- stabilizing and family- strengthening achievements an up-hill slog. Why? Because we’re trying to refute their ideas with their language. In the struggle for definition, we’re not just behind, we’re somewhere between 30 and 50 years behind.
Witness HF65, the proposed Minnesota “right to work” constitutional amendment bill. It’s a case in point. This legislation undermines collective bargaining rights. It has nothing to do with work but everything to do with using the state’s power to take hard-won protections from workers. Yet, hearing the phrase “right to work” with only the words themselves for guidance, most people assume it’s a worker protection initiative.
That disconnect is no mistake. It’s a deliberate, purposeful manipulation of language attempting to mislead rather than enlighten or clarify. “Right to work” is just one example.
Language is not neutral. Words matter. And, in public policy debates, words are everything. Word choice conveys idea’s meaning even if that idea is meant to mislead the listener. Conservative policy advocates want Minnesotans to infer conservative policy frames from seemingly objective descriptions.
This is not a new idea. English writer George Orwell explored totalitarian dictatorship’s use of fear to manipulate and control people. Based on Orwell’s observations of the Stalinist-era Soviet Union, he explored physical violence’s extension into intimidation through language. Orwell’s novels 1984 and Animal Farm not only contributed to English literature, they expanded the English language. We regularly use the terms big brother, doublethink and thought police, and define attempts to exert control through use of vague language as “Orwellian.”
When I describe “right to work” as Orwellian, it’s not complimentary.
In the last century, the two great progressive moments were the 1930s and the 1960s. Economic hardship compelled the New Deal, President Roosevelt’s policy framework addressing economic depression and poverty, but also rhetorical shorthand for a newly emergent political and cultural alliance. Post-World War II economic prosperity challenged that alliance, propelling civil rights confrontations. Although conflicts started in the 1950s, we commonly associate these challenges with the 1960s. The federal policy umbrella addressing needs was called the Great Society.
Conservatives have always portrayed government as unnecessarily intrusive, fixating on elected executives who don’t toe a conservative policy line. That was as true for President Roosevelt as it is for President Obama. Minnesota conservatives, separated by 80 years, use the same language to pummel Governor Dayton that they used to oppose Governor Floyd B. Olson. It’s remarkable how little some of our fights have changed.
While opposing big government in principle, conservatives warmly embrace a conservative policy agenda promoting government as long as it’s their kind of government. They demonstrate remarkable enthusiasm for activist government sidelining, marginalizing or eliminating the opposition.
HF65 will undermine collective bargaining rights. A quick review of states with similar laws reveals lower incomes, fewer workplace benefits and a much greater likelihood of injury or death on the job than in Minnesota. While we could call this proposal the “Poorer, Sicker, Deader Worker Bill”, let’s label it “The Fewer Rights Act.”
This title is not misleading. HF65 seeks to remove rights, substantially weakening the organizational basis for collective bargaining. Without a representative group, people are effectively barred from negotiating together.
“The Fewer Rights Act” passes the Orwellian smell test. The title isn’t duplicitous or misleading. I’m telling you, flat out, that HF65 will result in fewer effective rights. Plus, maintaining the status quo –not passing the bill- doesn’t ominously extend the authoritarian state’s dark, controlling reach. It just means that both sides, labor and management, can afford to hire lawyers during contract negotiations.
Advocating progressive public policy, it’s important to use our words to describe our values and our proposals. “Right to Work” is conservative-speak for using state authority to limit opportunity. “The Fewer Rights Bill” language reframes the conservative attacks, revealing them for what they are.
The best defense is a good offense. We tell our stories in our words, communicating our values and goals. We’ve spent decades assuming that family strengthening and community stabilizing laws’ very presence was a sufficient bulwark against conservative attacks. They’re not. Conservatives policy advocates have never rested; we mustn’t stop either.
This piece originally appeared at mn2020.org.