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Political Buzz Words: How to Frame a Debate With Meaningless Words

From politicians, to pundits, to grassroots activists, buzz words are the pointless commercials of politics―they are used to advertise positions and frame debates, without relating to the actual topics being advertised.
OpinionFront Staff
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
It is no secret that marketing is a large part of politics. Pundits, politicians, and even grassroots activists are in many respects as skilled as Coke, Pepsi, Wal-Mart, and Apple at selling their products to their consumers. It just so happens that in politics, the products are ideas and votes, and the consumers are the voting public. The principles, however, are not much different than those that large corporations use to hawk soft drinks and electronic gadgets. A whole book could be written about political marketing, from the use of pollsters, statistics, television ads, meet-and-greets, and all the other techniques that are used to sell the political product. In fact, I'm sure whole books have been written on that topic. I don't plan on writing a book; rather, I am going to focus on a peculiar yet often used marketing technique, the political 'buzz word'.
Like advertising battles between competing companies, there is a constant buzz word battle in politics to see who can get their own buzz words to catch on. And like commercials, buzz words themselves are usually catchy, but trite; they are the skydivers in the soft drink commercial, or the random sight-gag in the car commercial―none of them have anything whatsoever to do with the product they are selling. But they work.
In the 1980s and '90s, Republicans successfully used the term 'tax and spend' against Democrats. The words themselves are silly―anyone joining the government taxes and spends. In fact, if a government does absolutely nothing else, it will do two things―collect revenue via taxes, and spend that money on government functions and services. Whether Republican or Democrat, anyone attempting to join the government is going to tax and spend. Certainly, some parties and candidates can be in favor of taxing more or taxing less, or spending more or spending less. But the buzz-word is an all-or-nothing: the Democrats tax and spend, the Republicans don't. Clearly, that is not, nor will it ever be, the case. Both parties tax and spend. They have to. The real issue is how much, and who, we tax, and on what we spend the money. It is not whether to tax and spend at all. The government does both, and always will. But the buzz word worked to frame the debate in the context of 'these guys will take your money, and these guys won't', and it worked well.
When I was in college, the campus was awash with buzz words from political activists who were fond of fighting for 'peace and justice', or 'social justice', or who liked to admonish people for not being more 'socially conscious'. Generally, all of those terms only fit within a narrow set of beliefs - usually having to do opposing the death penalty and the war in Iraq, hating Wal-Mart, or blaming the United States for AIDS. Regardless whether or not you agree with those particular stances, they are neither here nor there on justice. I am sure if you took a survey with the question, "Do you believe there should be justice?" a consensus would emerge rather quickly: almost everyone is in favor of justice. Death penalty advocates and opponents alike are in favor of justice. Wal-Mart protestors and Wal-Mart shoppers both love justice. Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush could have gotten together and agreed―justice is good! But being for or against justice doesn't have much to do with the death penalty, or Wal-Mart, or the war in Iraq. Our individual interpretations of the word 'justice' are certainly relevant. But then, I have never seen someone with a sign demanding "policies that conform to our personal opinions on the definition of social justice." It just doesn't have that ring to it.
Ditto for being 'socially conscious'. Granted, there are people who could be fairly labeled as 'unconscious' on political issues. But having a well-reasoned argument in support of, say, the death penalty isn't any less socially 'conscious' than being against the death penalty. Consciousness simply means being aware―it doesn't require a specific view. Yet, as a political buzz word, 'socially conscious' is almost never used in this manner. It has one main implication―if you agree with certain views, you are socially conscious. If you hold opposing views, your level of cognition is, well, somewhere between a person in a coma, and a corpse.
I'm not attempting to ridicule any of the specific views I talked about here: the war in Iraq, Democrats versus Republicans, or anything else. The debates themselves are perfectly valid. I merely want to highlight a few examples of how buzz words are used to frame the debate around these issues. The fact is, most people believe in justice, or freedom, or liberty, or whatever other broad-minded phrase we couch our beliefs in. All governments tax and spend, and few people are against either choice or life. But people do support or oppose the death penalty. There are debates about the the Iraq War. There are movements for and against legalized abortion.
So what's my point? My point to those who use buzz words is, as Missourians might say, 'show me'. Don't hide behind meaningless phrases that cloud the real issues. Tell me why the death penalty is so bad, or what we should spend our money on and why. For everyone else, look and listen next time you hear a political debate―are the politicians, pundits, or activists really talking about the issue at hand, or are they just showing you the equivalent of a bikini-babe in a beer commercial?
Don't get me wrong: personally, I love women in bikinis. But they don't have much to do with what beer I drink.