I began this newsletter, in part, as a way to better understand the power of language and how our world is shaped by the specific words used to describe issues and objects, places and people. Whether I was fully aware of it at the time or not, this fascination with messaging is one of the reasons I’ve had something of an obsession with news media from a young age.
The words we use in our everyday communication prime those we’re speaking with to accept our own framing. As the subtitle of Republican strategist Frank Luntz’s 2007 book, “Words That Work,” reads, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” Luntz, of course, is best known for helping to popularize the use of terms like “death tax” (as opposed to “estate tax”), “exploring for energy” (as opposed to “drilling for oil”), and swapping out the word “domestic” with “American” at any opportunity. Bush-era efforts to privatize Social Security were framed as efforts to bolster “retirement security.” Luntz was behind Rudy Giuliani’s shift from discussing his plan to combat “crime” with his plan to beef up “public safety.”
From “Words that Work:”
For twenty-five years, since the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, Republicans had emphasized their "anti-crime” agenda with a good degree of success. But in the polling I did with the voters of New York, I discovered that the public placed a higher priority on “personal and public safety” than on “fighting crime” or even “getting tough on criminals.”
While crime and public safety may be integrally related and in some cases identical, there is an important distinction. “Fighting crime” is procedural and “getting tough on criminals” is punitive — and that’s certainly important. But “safety,” although somewhat abstract, is definitely personal, and most of all asperational — the ultimate value and the desired result of an effort to fight crime. And so Rudy Giuliani adopted not just an anti-crime message but a pro-public-safety agenda — and his success in New York City led to the reframing of the way Americans think about crime, criminals, and a safe, civil society.
“These case studies all have one thing in common: a desire to fundamentally change public opinion,” Luntz continued. “Words that work don’t just happen. They are uncovered and utilized only in cases where someone cares enough to apply the principles of effective communication to an issue or cause.”
Today’s newsletter deals with some of the moral panics that have plagued society in recent years. I plan to follow up next week with another more detailed piece for paid readers, so please consider subscribing.
Messaging matters, even if there’s not much substance to back it up.
In 2017, The New York Times published an article about the Republican plan to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act. At the time, there wasn’t actually a plan to “replace” the ACA with anything (nor would a plan emerge), but it made for effective messaging that helped Republicans retake the House in the 2010 midterms.
From the Times:
In March 2010, on the day before President Obama was to sign the Affordable Care Act into law, a group of senior Republican aides huddled in Senator Mitch McConnell’s Capitol suite to try to come up with a catchy slogan to use against it.
Many conservatives were simply advocating a vow to repeal the new law, but Republican strategists worried that pressing for repeal without an alternative could backfire. So they batted around a few ideas before Josh Holmes, then a top communications adviser to Mr. McConnell, tossed out the nicely alliterative phrase “repeal and replace.” That seemed to do the job, with its promise to get rid of the new law detested by Republicans while suggesting that something better would follow.
The phrase has shown real staying power: President-elect Donald J. Trump proudly invoked “repeal and replace” twice during his news conference on Wednesday.
“The goal was to come up with something that had durability and could be a rallying cry for Republicans basically to campaign against Obamacare,” said Mr. Holmes, now the president of Cavalry, a consulting and media firm.
The problem with the ACA is that it doesn’t do enough to make the U.S. health care system (and particularly, the health insurance industry) less of a nightmare to navigate. It did a few really helpful things like ban insurance rejections on the basis of preexisting conditions, mandate that preventive services be covered under insurance policies, etc. People generally like those provisions. To repeal the bill would be to take those away and to make things worse. To “repeal and replace,” however, allows audiences to assume that the stuff they liked about the ACA would remain in tact.
But there was never any serious plan to replace it, which is why Republicans swept into power with Trump’s victory like a dog that caught the car it was chasing. Clueless what to do next, they never actually put together a coherent health care bill that would have legitimately “replaced” the ACA. To this day, we still haven’t gotten the “tremendous health care plan” Trump promised “in two weeks” throughout his presidency. This is, and has always been, propaganda.
Moral panics are an extension of propaganda. We’re seeing it now with an endless stream of right-wing freak-outs.
The effort to “save women’s sports” by passing legislation aimed at othering trans students by limiting their ability to participate in school activities is a moral panic. Almost universally, the lawmakers making the targeting of trans kids one of their top priorities can’t even cite relevant examples of the “problem” they’re trying to address. Similarly, there’s a spate of bills making their way through state legislatures to criminalize medical treatment for trans kids. Proponents of these bills say they are needed to prevent trans kids from having surgeries performed on them even though surgery is not performed on trans children.
The goals of both types of legislation are really the same: to make it socially unacceptable for trans people to exist. This is clear because even while advocates for those bills may make arguments about how it’s just that they care so much about children and not an indication of their views on trans people, generally, they also oppose things like legal protections in employment, public accommodations, housing, and health care for trans adults. It’s not about sports.
This is a good video:
In the early-to-mid 2010s, right-wing media invented a moral panic about “creeping Sharia,” or the idea that the left was trying to swap out the U.S. Constitution with Muslim Sharia law. But “Sharia law” isn’t actually a legal system at all, but religious guidelines (similar to how Christians might view the 10 commandments).
As Asifa Quraishi-Landes wrote for The Washington Post in 2016:
But sharia isn’t even “law” in the sense that we in the West understand it. And most devout Muslims who embrace sharia conceptually don’t think of it as a substitute for civil law. Sharia is not a book of statutes or judicial precedent imposed by a government, and it’s not a set of regulations adjudicated in court. Rather, it is a body of Koran-based guidance that points Muslims toward living an Islamic life. It doesn’t come from the state, and it doesn’t even come in one book or a single collection of rules. Sharia is divine and philosophical.
Ignoring reality, Fox News and others on the right ran with this idea that “Sharia law” was a legal system. Even then, their examples of this effort to enshrine Muslim beliefs into the U.S. legal system were ridiculous. For instance, in 2013, Fox had a fit because a Minnesota YMCA set aside one hour a week to accommodate Muslim Somali-American girls’ swim practice.
HEATHER NAUERT, FOX NEWS HOST: Well the minority becoming the majority at one community pool. Sharia law is now changing everything. A YMCA in Minneapolis-St. Paul is starting a swim group for Muslim girls but special considerations have to be made to keep with their religious beliefs. Now this means during the one-hour class, the pool is being shut down, the men's locker room is being locked, and female lifeguards are being brought in. Similar classes are now starting at towns across the Midwest. We'll keep watching this story for you.
“Sharia law is now changing everything?” Come on now.
In 2015, former Rep. Allen West (R-FL) (he would later go on to become president of the Texas GOP) published a blog post headlined, “Sharia law comes to Walmart?” Here was his story.
There was a young man doing the checkout and another Walmart employee came over and put up a sign, “No alcohol products in this lane.” So being the inquisitive fella I am, I used my additional set of eyes — glasses — to see the young checkout man's name. Let me just say it was NOT “Steve.”
I pointed the sign out to Aubrey and her response was a simple question, how is it that this Muslim employee could refuse service to customers based on his religious beliefs, but Christians are being forced to participate in specific events contrary to their religious beliefs?
Boy howdy, that is one astute young lady.
Imagine that, this employee at Walmart refused to just scan a bottle or container of an alcoholic beverage — and that is acceptable. A Christian business owner declines to participate or provide service to a specific event — a gay wedding — which contradicts their faith, and the State crushes them.
The reality of the situation was that the cashier was under 21 years and old, meaning that a manager had to scan alcohol purchases. That was it. It had nothing to do with him being Muslim. It had nothing to do with “Sharia.” And hell, even if it did have something to do with the cashier’s religious beliefs, that still wouldn’t be “Sharia law.”
Newt Gingrich once called for “testing” Muslims to find out if they “believe in Sharia,” adding that those who do should be deported (Once again, consider how ridiculous it would be to tell Christians that if they “believe in the 10 commandments” that they’d be deported). Sean Hannity accused Obama of having “an affinity for, a sympathy for, an unwillingness to recognize the problems and issues of the Islamic faith, especially the practice of Sharia.” Frank Gaffney has repeatedly pushed conspiracy theories about Muslims “infiltrating” U.S. institutions as part of a plot to overthrow our legal system.
(None of the anti-Sharia activists have shown concern about the persistent efforts of Christian nationalists to actually enshrine their religious beliefs into law. Curious.)
Critical Race Theory is the latest right-wing boogeyman that has Fox News viewers worked up into a lather of rage.
Let’s start by doing something that people currently having meltdowns over Critical Race Theory never seem to do: let’s define it.
Middle Tennessee State University’s Free Speech Center has an article on the topic by Chris Demaske that was published in 2009. Demaske defines CRT as follows:
Critical race theory (CRT) is a movement that challenges the ability of conventional legal strategies to deliver social and economic justice and specifically calls for legal approaches that take into consideration race as a nexus of American life.
The movement champions many of the same concerns as the civil rights movement but places those concerns within a broader economic and historical context. It often elevates the equality principles of the Fourteenth Amendment above the liberty principles of the First Amendment.
CRT has its underpinnings in the philosophical writings of Derrick Bell in the 1970s and early 1980s. It was born out of the realization by legal scholars, lawyers, and activists that many of the advances of the civil rights era had stopped and in some circumstances were being reversed.
Early on, legal scholars, including Bell, Alan Freemen, and Richard Delgado, began developing alternative legal theories and frameworks for combating racial inequality. Their approaches combined various other theoretical positions, among them critical legal studies, critical theory, feminist theory, postmodernism, and cultural studies.
Some of the basic tenets of CRT rest on the belief that racism is a fundamental part of American society, not simply an aberration that can be easily corrected by law; that any given culture constructs its own social reality in its own self-interest, and in the United States this means that minorities’ interests are subservient to the system’s self-interest; and that the current system, built by and for white elites, will tolerate and encourage racial progress for minorities only if this promotes the majority’s self-interest.
In short: it’s something you learn about in law school if you specifically choose to take a course in CRT. It is not the same thing as corporate diversity trainings, and it is not being taught in K-12 schools.
A number of states are lining up to ban the teaching of CRT in K-12 schools despite CRT not being taught there. Once you look at the laws, specifically, however… it seems that people sounding the CRT alarm really just want to lump any and all discussion of racism and reflection on the country’s history under that label.
NBC’s Ben Collins, Tyler Kingkade, and Brandy Zadrozny have a great article about the astroturf movement to ban CRT and who is funding it. and Ben Collins
The people pushing this moral panic know that they’re misleading people, but they also know they can’t be honest about what it is they actually want: to roll back civil rights progress.
Chris Rufo, a vocal critic of CRT and driver of this movement, has said as much. Here he is on Twitter admitting that the goal is to “put all of the various cultural insanities under that broad category” and “to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’”
In other words, he knows he’s full of crap.
And when put on the spot, the Republican lawmakers trying to legislate (what they claim is) CRT out of schools can’t seem to actually define what it is they’re trying to do away with.
Over at The Daily Dot, Alex Thomas outright asked Republican members of Congress to define CRT. Their answers ranged from Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) saying that he will “reveal when it comes,” others refusing to answer the question, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) saying, “It is a Marxist ideology that conceives of society … Marxist ideology conceives of society as a battle of the classes, Critical Race Study substitutes race for class,” and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) asking Thomas to define it for him, saying, “You give me a definition and I’ll tell you if I agree with it.”