Nearly two weeks after the leak of a draft Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, much of the polling on the issue suggests Republicans are on the defensive. Preserving abortion rights has become a galvanizing concern for the Democratic Party’s formerly unmotivated voters, and Republicans with a national profile have assumed a defensive crouch. And yet, the left’s supposed dominance on an issue they hope will deliver them from the edge of an electoral abyss is betrayed by liberals and progressives who don’t know how to talk about abortion anymore.
That’s what we can glean from the messaging materials provided to House Democrats in anticipation of a final verdict that cuts down Roe. That guidance, produced by the House Pro-Choice Caucus, advocates, among other initiatives, doing away with the word “choice.”
The caucus’s handy spreadsheet identifies what it regards as “harmful language,” most of which is the common vernacular associated with abortion policy in the United States for the last half-century. Among the words and phrases that are now forbidden, you’ll find terms like “reduce abortion” and “safe, legal, and rare.” In their place, they hope you’ll say “safe, legal, and accessible” instead. They hope to ditch “conscious clause/protections” for “refusal of care/denial of care,” and they intend to substitute ugly notions such as “back-alley abortions” and “coat hangers” with the phrase “criminalizing healthcare.” After all, what kind of monster would endorse “criminalizing healthcare?” Even the word “choice” is slated for the chopping block. It’s now a “decision.”
The theory that informs these rhetorical guidelines is both radically new and tediously familiar. It is new insofar as it substitutes everyday parlance—indeed, the wildly successful Clinton-era rhetoric that allowed “Third Way” Democrats to help Americans who didn’t like abortion to accept it as a necessary evil—with the language of critical-studies departments on college campuses (though the distinction between a “choice” and a “decision” is exceedingly fine). What’s familiar about it, though, is the left’s tendency to believe that it can navigate difficult public-policy debates by simply hypnotizing you with displays of oratorical cleverness. It’s a marvel that this remains the tactic of first resort because it almost never works.
Take, for example, the Democratic Party’s approach to popularizing a behemoth bill that contained 40 years of progressive aspirations. The party made the herculean task before it a heavier lift at the outset because the first step in the plan was to usher in a paradigmatic revolution. Before it was “Build Back Better,” it was the $3 trillion “social infrastructure” bill. They weren’t just talking about roads, bridges, and airports. America had also failed to shore up its “social and civic” infrastructure, to say nothing of its “human” and “caregiving” infrastructure. “Paid leave is infrastructure,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand exclaimed. “Child care is infrastructure. Caregiving is infrastructure.” It was, as NBC News confessed, nothing short of a campaign to “redefine the meaning of the word.”
This inadvertently made Republicans’ lives that much easier. “Republicans support everything you think of when you think of infrastructure,” said Sen. Tim Scott in language plain enough to be understood by those without a post-graduate degree. “Roads, bridges, ports, airports, waterways, high-speed broadband—we’re in for all of that.” In the end, that’s all that Congress deigned to pass.
The progressively inclined are busily neutralizing gender specificity in the English language—a project that long ago reached the point of absurdity. Universities are banning the use of “mankind” and phrases such as “right-hand man” and “gentleman’s agreement” because the self-obsessed do not see themselves in these age-old terms. Throwing “peoplekind” out there has somehow failed to banish the gender binary from the public mind. The ubiquitous adoption of the phrase “gender-affirming care” to describe the process of prescribing hormone-blocking therapies to prepubescent youths has done little to assuage Americans, a plurality of whom fear the permanently stultifying effects these treatments can have on developing children. Nor has the phrase “gender-affirming hormones” reassured the majority of Americans who were and remain hostile to the idea that genetic males can compete athletically against females on a level playing field.
Invented phrases that sacrifice specificity in favor of inclusivity have either had little political effect or have backfired on those who use them. “BIPOC”—an acronym for black, indigenous, and people of color—hasn’t led those who are black, indigenous, or people of color to abandon their identities in favor of one big minority union. “Latinx” only alienated and aggravated the very people it was meant to describe. Deeming them “undocumented migrants” instead of “illegal aliens” failed to pave the way for comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship.
Nor have Americans proven themselves susceptible to the power of suggestion. Exhuming “Jim Crow” from its ignominious grave didn’t overturn Georgia’s election law, perhaps in part because it hasn’t suppressed Georgians’ votes. Calling a bill the “Don’t Say Gay” bill didn’t thwart its passage or make it unpopular in Florida (even among self-described Democrats). What was once “global warming” and is today “climate change” will soon be universally referred to as a “climate crisis.” The terms evolve not because they are more accurate descriptors but because their predecessors failed to elicit in you the proper sense of existential dread.
The left’s confidence in its ability to change the way you think about issues by forcing you to comport with a set of ever-evolving linguistic prescriptions isn’t just unsuccessful; it’s a manacle around the legs of progressive activists. Forcing policy advocates to use language that is wholly foreign to the general public makes them appear out of touch. More important, sanitizing the language has become a substitute for engaging with the underlying policy issues that are the true obstacles in their paths.
Deeming Americans’ everyday vernacular “harmful language” doesn’t resolve the public’s unease with elective abortion beyond the first trimester. Calling your every desire “infrastructure” doesn’t convince the public of its necessity. Deeming the process of transitioning from one sex to another “gender affirmation” disregards Americans’ concerns about these procedures, and it has failed to shame the public into being silent when female athletes are robbed of their due. The non-citizen population and the porous borders through which they travel to America will remain a public policy concern no matter what language we use to describe the situation.
A political movement with a bit less unearned self-confidence would commit to meeting the voters where they live. It would not try to circumnavigate the issues by imposing on them rigid standards of public conduct that serve only to shield progressives from their true beliefs. The progressive left has been wildly successful at popularizing their preferred speech codes. And yet, they are simultaneously losing the policy debates those codes are designed to advance. Whatever we choose to call that phenomenon to avoid causing any offense, it will still be delusional.