The law is better for communicating. What progressives should learn from Ben Shapiro
For my money, it’s Bernie Sanders – not Ronald Reagan – who deserves the title of “Great Communicator” of American politics. Agree with him or not, Sanders is incredibly good at delivering a clear and simple message that resonates with his audience. During a recent appearance in Britain, he gave his straightforward explanation for the injustice of the current wealth distribution:
“We don’t need billionaires anymore,” said Senator Sanders. “How much money can you spend? How many houses can you own? How many islands, jets, yachts?… We don’t need three people with more wealth than the bottom half of society.”
We’ve heard that over and over again from Sanders, but it’s only recently come to a head. Young people are turning strongly against the existing distribution of wealth, America’s Democratic Socialists have grown tenfold since 2016, and much of this is a direct result of Bernie’s presidential campaigns.
Unfortunately, Bernie’s clear and direct communication style is the exception rather than the rule on the left. AOC may be great at writing viral tweets, but leftist literature is notoriously cluttered with academic and abstract words – words like “dialectic”, “neoliberalism”, “hegemony”, “materialism”, “historicism” and “essentialism”. “, as well as references to theorists like Marx, Lukacs, Adorno, Foucault and Jameson.
Left-wing language almost screams, “It’s not for you, the public; it’s for us, those who understand the theory.” Indeed, some of them may be impossible to understand without a university education. Open a leading socialist newspaper and you’ll likely find a leftist criticizing another leftist for accepting “the contingent and changing nature of ‘assembling'”, whatever that means. When social theorist Judith Butler won a bad writing award for producing particularly inscrutable prose, they (Butler uses the pronouns them/them) went wild on the pages of the New York Times, claiming that their ideas were simply too sophisticated to be expressed in the everyday English language. I commonly encounter this feeling on the left: if the writing is intelligible to ordinary people, it must be too simplistic.
But they’re wrong, and that’s why we lose.
Lately, I’ve read dozens upon dozens of right-wing books, by figures ranging from Friedrich von Hayek to Tucker Carlson, as part of research for a book of rebuttals to conservative talking points. And one of the most striking and undeniable facts is that conservatives are far better writers than their leftist counterparts. They present their ideas in clear, digestible and accessible language. They organize their arguments in such a way that people can understand them. They use memorable phrases and jokes. They have clearly read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”, with his warning against “humbug and vagueness” in political discourse.
Although I am personally horrified by the right-wing political agenda, I would rather read the prose of a reactionary than a Marxist.
Take Thomas Sowell. Sowell is a hugely successful author of popular economics books from a free market perspective. His presence is marginal in academic economics, but Sowell has attracted a sizable audience, in part because he speaks in aphorisms and pithy phrases, saying things like “What exactly is your ‘fair share’ of what someone is doing? ‘one else worked?’ and “Socialism in general has such a glaring record of failure that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it.” These are expressions that stick in the mind and are instantly intelligible to everyone.
Progressive ideas are popular, but progressives need to talk to people better. Bernie will visit any venue from Fox News to the “Joe Rogan Experience” and try to explain his point of view in a way that even a Trump supporter can buy into.
In contrast, many of my leftist colleagues seem to think that we are above having to debate our ideas or find persuasive ways to express them. I often encounter the feeling that people can’t be persuaded, so debates and arguments are futile, with the implication that it’s okay if we only talk to others in our bubble.
It’s absolutely false. Evidence shows that people can be persuaded if ideas are expressed clearly and succinctly. Conservatives get it, which is why PragerU spends millions of dollars producing quick five-minute videos that explain the right-wing stance on issues ranging from minimum wage to abortion. Compare the accessibility (and fun cartoons) of a PragerU video to the dense, theory-laden text of the New Left Review and I think you see a reason why socialists other than Bernie remain on the fringes of American political discourse.
I suspect that the left’s inability to use rhetoric effectively is a significant explanation for why Republicans maintain a strong constituency, despite the unpopularity of their ideas. Linguist George Lakoff once argued that the Democrats lost in part because they weren’t as good at “framing” as the Republicans, who used clever tricks like overhauling the estate tax in ” death tax.
Framing isn’t everything, and progressives shouldn’t become as brazen as Fox News by manipulating people through misleading propaganda. But they should get books from people like Sowell, Ben Shapiro and Mark Levin to understand why conservatives consistently win public debates and sell more copies of their books.
Bernie Sanders and Ronald Reagan don’t have much in common, but one quality they do share is their uncommon ability to boil down complicated ideas into simple, intelligible rhetoric. Progressives who want to win should take notes.
Nathan J. Robinson is the editor of Ongoing cases magazine and author of Responding to the Right: Brief Responses to 25 Conservative Arguments.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.