issues

What We Talk About When We Talk About Political Correctness

Katy Steinmetz is a TIME correspondent based in San Francisco.

Are they just words?

During the vice-presidential debate on Oct. 4, as Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence tussled over immigration plans, one of the candidates said the words criminal aliens seven times. The other described immigrants who had come to the U.S. illegally as “people … who are here without documents.” Can you guess who said which?

Sure. Political language is packed with code words, sometimes known as dog whistles. “The idea,” says socio­linguist Ben Zimmer, “is it’s speaking to a particular audience that’s supposed to pick up on a frequency that others won’t hear.” Often these terms say not much on the surface, but underneath attempt to speak to the real issue at stake.

When Pence hammers on about “criminal aliens,” the immigration debate is about safety. When Kaine avoids uttering “illegal,” the debate is about humanity (aren’t we a welcoming nation of immigrants?). Earlier this year, Republicans quickly called the Orlando attack an act of “Islamic terrorism” (a national-­security issue), while many Democrats called it a “mass shooting” (a gun issue). When Donald Trump emphasizes “law and order,” as Richard Nixon did in 1968, that plays on anxieties about race relations for some voters. Hillary Clinton’s 1996 comment about gangs of kids being “superpredators” has been viewed as a slight to the black community.

Earlier this year, a group of economists analyzed congressional records and found that from 1870 to 1990, the odds of correctly identifying a politician’s party by language was 50-50. By 2010, the odds were 83%. The turning point was 1994, says Stanford’s Matthew Gentzkow, which brought the Republicans’ Contract With America and the rise of strategists like Frank Luntz, who set the bar by rebranding estate taxes as death taxes. (You can read Luntz elsewhere in this package.) Changes in technology meant that virtually anything a politician said on the Capitol floor could be recorded, so messaging had to be consistent. Says Gentzkow: “There was this innovation in using language very strategically and very deliberately.”

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