Liberals, the Fiscal Thingy, and Message Discipline

The last several weeks of negotiations have have provided a good example of one of the left’s biggest weaknesses: message discipline. Ben Bernanke came up with the phrase “fiscal cliff,” and it stuck. This phrase is deeply misleading—indeed, it was probably deliberately exaggerated—so liberals tried to come up with a more accurate catchphrase. They tried, but failed for lack of unity. Paul Waldman called it the “austerity trap.” Chris Hayes called it the “fiscal curb.” Paul Krugman called it the “austerity bomb.” Ezra Klein, most notably, made a major push for “austerity crisis,” but even the mighty Wonkblog couldn’t get everyone to agree.

This is an easy pit for liberals to step in. We prize accuracy, we like to explore rhetoric and meaning (a tendency which in its fullest academic incarnation borders on the pathological), and we don’t respect authority that much. (Or less charitably, we think we’re all special snowflakes, who are all equally good at sloganeering, and react with knee-jerk hostility to the slightest whiff of hierarchy.)

I don’t think liberals should necessarily suppress those instincts. A tendency to quarrel in one situation might save an ally from a major mistake in a different circumstance. Furthermore, it is important for one’s catchphrases to describe things reasonably accurately. The problem is if we can’t settle on the good enough, then that means ceding the rhetorical ground to the other side, as has indeed happened with the execrable “fiscal cliff.” So here are some suggestions:

1) For the very famous, be aware of your power over the discourse, both positive and negative. If you’re describing something for the first time, take care to pick a phrase that is as accurate and catchy as possible. If someone else has already picked one, strongly consider adopting it yourself. It should have a major error for you to consider coining a new one, not least because you are likely to quash the previous phrase while failing to insert your own.

2) Discussion is good, but not too much. Trying to capture every tiny semantic quibble in a phrase takes too long and leaves the way clear for others to gain ground. Any of the above substitutes for “fiscal cliff” would have been a vast improvement. I think the way Ezra Klein handled it on Wonkblog was pretty good.

Again, I’m not saying the left needs to start Frank Luntz-ing everything in sight. I’m saying that the power of rhetoric is strong, especially with these sorts of high-stakes negotiations, and liberals need to recognize that using that power will require a bit of followership, something which might be uncomfortable. Because the alternative is to allow the empty suits at CNN to be steamrollered by brute repetition.


Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.