The right’s clever hold on rhetoric

I find little to praise in the US right, but one thing I must give it grudging credit for is its masterful control of rhetoric, which at times seems far superior to that of the left. There are a number of reasons for that rhetorical domination, and they bear exploration, as words win wars, and the left knows this as much as the right even as it struggles to come up with the kind of brilliant campaigns the right does. Like its causes or not, the right can whip up a crowd and drive that crowd into action in a way that’s almost startling, and, dare I say it, inspiring — in a grotesque kind of way.

Two particular examples comes to mind, because they share a number of things in common: The labeling of being anti-choice as ‘pro-life’ and the classification of legislation that weakens unions — and worker rights — as ‘right to work’ laws. Both terms are highly misleading, and they’re meant to be, as the right is extremely skilled at misdirection. The goal in both cases is not just to create a rallying point for these causes, but to win over the unwary, who may unwittingly support these causes without really realising what they’re committing to, blissfully unaware that they could be harming themselves or even endorsing something that goes against their values.

Upon the surface, the idea of a ‘pro-life’ movement sounds like a positive thing, as who would want to be against life? In the context of pregnancy, supporting the life and welfare of the parent, including both physical and emotional wellbeing, is a natural desire — but the issue lies in the classification of the foetus as a human life, to the exclusion of the welfare of the person carrying it. When people talking about being ‘pro-life,’ they don’t mean in the larger sense of the word: They don’t support the welfare of actual human beings living in the world who need access to health care, social supports, and more. They often support the death penalty, which is about as anti-life as one can get.

Yet, they’ve appropriated a term that serves them fantastically well from a rhetorical standpoint by forcing the left to go on the offensive, as they’re forced to counter the term with one of their own, and ‘pro-choice’ frankly doesn’t have the same ring as ‘pro-life’ even if it’s highly descriptive. The origins of the ‘pro-life’ movement lie in the 1960s, while the actual term arose in the wake of Roe v Wade. Agitators fearing a shift in social attitudes with the legalisation of abortion in the United States went into overdrive when it came to developing tools for campaigning and they were extremely singleminded, focusing on abortion to the exclusion of all else. Unlike pro-choice organisations, which consider a spectrum of issues because they believe that pregnant people should be treated like human beings instead of incubators, ‘pro-life’ groups could afford to just look at one thing: The foetus.

‘Right to work’ laws are similarly brilliantly crafted. These laws make it sound as though they protect employees from the nefarious deeds of unions by ensuring that they can work everywhere (thus reiterating the notion that all union shops are closed, requiring everyone to belong to the union to retain employment) and without fear of being fired. This is, of course, nonsense, but it certainly sounds nice to everyone who reflexively thinks that of course people should have a right to work everywhere without fear of being penalized; ‘right to work’ sounds like a distillation of anti-discrimination laws, a protection against being unfairly fired, demoted, or otherwise punished in a workplace that treats some employees better than others.

What these laws actually do, however, is weaken bargaining power for unions — those same unions that negotiate better pay, working conditions, benefits, and more for employees, regardless as to whether they belong in a union. Open shops don’t pay two different rates to union and nonunion employees, instead extending the terms negotiated under the collective bargaining agreement to all employees. Thus, people who choose not to join the union — and miss out on benefits like affordable health care, discounted lending rates, and more — can still reap a major benefit. However, these workers are required to pay fees, known as a union security cause, to help the union bear the costs of negotiating.

In a right to work state, however, people can get hired in a union shop, access the benefits of collective bargaining, and not pay a cent. They get everything the union has to offer, without actually having to contribute in any meaningful way. This is utterly unfair, but it’s a movement growing across the US as state legislatures pass right to work laws and lawmakers in other regions are pressured by industry lobbyists that want to weaken unions by decimating their funding.

This kind of rhetoric has real consequences, and sometimes it feels like the left is always playing catchup rather than getting ahead on these issues. Part of that is due to the nuance and complexity of many political issues on the left, something that makes it hard to come up with a single distinctive catchphrase or term to encompass a large sociopolitical concept, and some of it comes from a tendency towards jargon that leads to specialised terminology some people don’t understand, making conversations inaccessible to those who aren’t familiar with the world under discussion. But some of this is also the result of strategic shortfalls, and that’s an issue the left needs to take on to be successful.

Hashtags alone aren’t going to cut it.

Image: Rosary, Elvert Barnes, Flickr