Know what I’m sayin'?

American political attitudes have shifted to the right in the past 30 years. The meanings of words such as “liberal,” “elite” and “values” have shifted as well, even in news outlets like CNN, The Washington Post or The New York Times.

Geoffrey Nunberg, a San Francisco-based writer, UC Berkeley linguist and frequent National Public Radio guest commentator, describes in convincing detail how the “Democrat” party, unable to control even the pronunciation of its name, has failed miserably at the basic job of crafting language to communicate a clear and easily understandable political vision.

The long title originally was part of the text of an anti-Howard Dean television ad produced by the conservative Club for Growth, which ran during the 2004 Iowa presidential primary. The intent of the ad was to change the subject from Dean’s message to stereotyped invective aimed at ridiculing Dean’s supporters. It was successful.

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 does not represent the first time a prominent linguist has looked at the phenomenon of the message-challenged Democrats. George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant! was accorded great media and Democratic Party buzz prior to the ’04 election. Based on his assumption that liberals and conservatives hold fundamentally different worldviews, Lakoff focused on talking-point reframing as a device for shaping more effective communication. Nunberg takes issue with this approach. He believes the construction of an entirely new narrative is needed, weaving positions together in a more coherent manner. He quotes James Carville: “They produce a narrative. We produce a litany.”

Equal parts detective and linguistics professor, Nunberg writes in a friendly, conversational tone that is entertaining, informative and well-researched—to the tune of 209 notes covering 41 pages. That’s a lot when you consider the book is only 254 pages, including annotations. The slim volume is so packed with reference material that it probably could be used as a curriculum guide. In fact, students in one of Nunberg’s political-language classes are acknowledged contributors. Thanks to Web-based database mining, imperfect as it is, the research into word or phrase usage is much more rigorous than simple anecdotal observations of language patterns. Nunberg reports, “It takes Google just half a second to report that it gets 6.8 million hits for the single phrase liberal media.”

Speaking of the “L” word, Nunberg traces the history of the word liberal from its bright beginnings in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt New Deal years through the backlash environment of the civil-rights era to its current low point, where the word “liberal” is associated with “malevolence, anarchy, elitism and irresponsibility.” As the book suggests, though, it isn’t so much that people are turned off to most actual liberal concepts; it’s just that the conservative media have been good at trashing “liberals.” They now own the word, forcing former liberals to become “progressives,” which, in Nunberg’s view, doesn’t really convey very much in terms of actual meaning.

The so-called culture war is addressed as well, with Nunberg surprisingly insisting there really is not one—not much of one anyway. He relies largely on polls and marketing trends to dispel the notion that inhabitants of red states and blue states differ significantly in social values or lifestyle. Even on issues such as gun control, women’s rights, equality of opportunity, capital punishment or whether large corporations have too much power, Nunberg claims there is not as much disagreement as we are led to believe. He further notes that there are two Harley Davidson dealerships in San Francisco while a Volvo dealer exists in Lubbock, Texas. Skol, pardner.