The Problem With Language and the Current GOP Debate

UPDATE: Ed Feulner, President of the Heritage Foundation, has an interesting post up at the Next Right that address the problems with language from a different perspective.

As my poor friends can attest I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the future of the Republican Party lately.

As I watch the ongoing debate that is spawned by the proposals from the growing litany of voices offering their solutions to the party’s woes I grow increasingly frustrated by the role language is playing in making it difficult for the various coalitions that comprise the GOP to come to some kind of consensus on how we should move forward.

There is a reason why “communication” professionals have become, and will continue to be, an important part of our society’s landscape. Each of us interprets messages contextually, based on our perception of the world around us, the messages vehicle and our own experiences.

This dynamic is a large part of the problem with the current intra-party debate.

One word is particularly responsible for these problems: ideology.

As I mentioned before, David Brooks recently penned an editorial that sought to categorize the two camps of thought currently emerging with the GOP. It’s not perfect but its broad generalities make discussions like this one much easier so for simplicity’s sake I will continue to use his Traditionalist and Reformer groupings. If you haven’t read his article yet give it a quick look before continuing.

I plan on putting together some thoughts about the biggest areas of disagreement I have with the Traditionalists later. For now I will just say that one of their biggest problems is that the phrasing they are using to defend the party’s core ideologies is from a different era with different problems. As such, what many Traditionalists mean when they invoke certain phrases and what voters hear are very different things.

Reformers recognize the need to reformulate our ideological expressions to address the problems of today. The problem is that much of the language they use to make their case is interpreted very differently by the party’s base – a segment of the party that largely comprises the Traditionalist camp.

The problem the Traditionalists have is that they are failing to delineate between ideology and the application of ideology.

Although I identify more strongly with the Reformers I strongly agree with Traditionalists when they say that voters are largely supportive of much of our core ideology. The GOP’s messages of limited, fiscally responsible government, lower taxes and a strong defense have gained broad enough acceptance to force noticeable shifts in the policies of today’s Democrats. Our failure to remain true to these ideals has certainly played a role in our losses.

I also believe that the GOP has relied on decades-old applications of those values. Here is where we have a problem.

Instead of arguing that we must update the application of our ideology to address the problems that most concern voters today the Reformers simply say “we need to modernize our ideology.”

Traditionalists hear Reformers say “we need to modernize our party’s ideology” and they bristle. What they hear is “We need to CHANGE our ideology.” What Reformers actually mean is “we need to modernize the way in which we apply our ideology to today’s problems.”

I am certainly over-simplifying the issue here but if we are to show the American people that we have heard the message that they have sent, with increasing volume, over the passed two elections, those vying for control of the heart of the party must pay heed to the importance of language.

If we do not, the leaders with the ability to renew the GOP’s ability to proactively provide solutions to today’s problems will fail to earn the support of the party faithful and we will be stuck making our case with phrases and arguments that will not resonate with voters.

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