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Now that the inaugural carnival has closed, it is time for the political Right to acknowledge the truth about the 2000 election. It was, if not an unmitigated disaster, a disaster only slightly mitigated. For the third time in a row, Republicans lost strength in the House. They lost proportionately far more in the Senate. They lost a statehouse. And, as the Democrats will thoughtfully remind them at every clash, they lost the popular vote for the White House. Their defeat is all the more ironic given the growing acceptance of ideas — such as reducing the role of government, relying on market forces, maintaining a muscular foreign policy — traditionally associated with Republicans. What accounts for this electoral decline in the face of ideological ascendancy? At least part of the explanation may lie in the Democrats’ continued hegemony over language. The Republicans — the party of Buckley, Will and Safire — consistently lose the battle for nomenclature to their rivals. That loss, in turn, makes them tentative and unsure. There is a history to this. In the ’60s, the most divisive issue was Vietnam. The public was split between maintaining a military presence there to oppose communism and disengaging. There were good arguments on both sides. The advocates of disengagement, however, held a major advantage. They were known, even by their opponents, as the “Peace Movement.” Now no serious observer believed that American withdrawal from Southeast Asia would bring peace. Withdrawal would only mean accelerated warfare followed by communist victory. But in the wrenching debates of that turbulent time, those in favor of “peace” held the moral high ground. After all, if one opposed “peace,” one must favor “war.” Not a very tenable position. A generation later, Republicans are still slow off the mark in seizing the tactical advantages that language bestows. “Affirmative action” is a prime example. Most Americans agree that racial division remains one of the nation’s enduring problems. Most Americans also agree that it is counterproductive to treat the disease of racism with the prescription of racial preferences. Yet the Democrats consistently seize the moral high ground by wrapping the unpopular notion of racial preferences in the cloak of “affirmative action.” After all, if race remains a problem, who could oppose acting affirmatively to address it? What are the alternatives? “Negative action”? “Affirmative inaction”? Every poll and referendum on this issue shows that Republicans hold the winning hand. Yet they are so intimidated by the mystique of “affirmative action,” and so afraid to call a racial preference a racial preference, that they habitually fumble. The most recent embarrassment was in the third presidential debate, when Al Gore challenged George Bush on the issue, and Bush, terrified of appearing uncompassionate, muttered something about “affirmative access.” When Gore pressed for a definition, Bush could not respond. It was an embarrassing moment, and an illustration of the power of language in politics. Another example is “bilingual education.” In California, “bilingual education” has meant confining mainly immigrant children in Spanish-speaking classes, severely limiting their exposure to English. Theoretically, the children’s “bilingual education” was supposed to be temporary, lasting until they were ready for education in regular English-language classrooms. But until the passage of Prop. 227, only about 6 percent of the affected children graduated each year to English-speaking classes. The rest remained trapped in their Spanish-only world, with recess and homeroom providing their only exposure to English. Little wonder that the vast majority of Hispanic parents opposed “bilingual education” and wanted their children taught in English-speaking classes. The real wonder was why such an obviously flawed system remained resistant to change for so long, and why Republican leaders, including California’s former Gov. Pete Wilson and Attorney General Dan Lungren, were afraid to oppose it. The reason rests in large measure in nomenclature. “Bilingual education” literally means teaching two languages. What rational person could oppose children learning a second language? The implied answer: only racists and xenophobes. Had “bilingual education” been correctly labeled — as “English exclusion” — it would have been scrapped much earlier. Examples abound of language conscripted to serve political goals. “Diversity” means the lockstep adherence by people of different cosmetic characteristics to the same political agenda. Clinton’s cabinet did not include a single person who opposed abortion rights, or “affirmative action.” But because they were of different races and genders, Clinton could boast that his cabinet was “diverse.” Ironically, the cabinet designees of George W. Bush do have divergent views on both those issues. But that fact has nothing to do with whether his cabinet will ever win the accolade “diverse.” “Sensitivity” means special regard for the feelings of the favored. Contrary to expectations, sensitivity is not a race or gender-driven concept. Rather, it is a political concept. Calling Ward Connerly an Uncle Tom does not demonstrate a lack of sensitivity. Neither does ridiculing Linda Tripp’s figure or Katherine Harris’ face. Connerly may be black, and Tripp and Harris women, but their political roles deny them the protection otherwise granted women and minorities. One can insult such people without fear of being sentenced to “sensitivity training.” And insulting the Catholic Church is not only permitted under the law of sensitivity, it actually carries a certain cachet among the cultural elite. The lesson in all this for the new Bush administration is that once they decide on a program, they must guard its lexicon as assiduously as they advance its substance. To take one example, right now millions of Californians are freezing in the dark, but even they will not support the Bush administration effort to allow more drilling in Alaska as long as the issue is over “conservation.” But if the issue is “protecting jobs” or “warming homes,” the effort may succeed. Interestingly, the only branch of the Republican Party that seems to have learned to use language as a weapon is the Christian Right. In the battle over abortion, one side labeled the issue one of “choice.” Choice, like peace, is difficult to oppose. What’s the alternative? Coercion? The Christian Right did not allow their opponents to play that game. They launched their own language offensive, and proclaimed themselves “pro-life.” Now what’s the alternative to that? A successful politician once told me that if given the choice between substance and procedure, always choose procedure. He believed that those who control procedure ultimately have the power to do whatever they want. He might be right. Procedure might trump substance. But language trumps them both. Lawrence J. Siskind, of San Francisco’s Harvey Siskind Jacobs, specializes in intellectual property law. He can be reached at [email protected]

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