Can Conservatives Change How They Talk about Immigrants?

For many years, it's been obvious conservatives do a better job of manipulating language than liberals, not only because they seem good at coming up with new terms to describe things, but more importantly because once they decide on a new term, they very quickly get everyone on their side to use it. One of the classic examples is how they took the "estate tax," with its evocation of a white-haired gentleman named something like Winthrop Flipperbottom III sipping brandy from a gigantic snifter while petting his afghan hound as he looks over the vast gardens of his estate, and renamed it the "death tax," which evokes a cruel IRS agent bursting in on your family mourning the death of your beloved uncle and making off with his lovingly amassed collection of vintage baseball cards. You will never, ever hear a conservative call the tax anything but the "death tax," because they all understand the utility of language. How much these kind of linguistic efforts really affect the outcome of policy conflicts is debateable, and the left certainly tries to do the same thing, but few people would argue that over the past 20 or 30 years the right hasn't been far better at it. It doesn't happen by accident—there are people who come up with the new words and phrases, people who test them in surveys and focus groups, people who work to spread them, and then all the people who reinforce them with frequent use. It's a system, and it works very well.

All of which makes it so odd that it has taken until now for conservatives to realize that they have a real language problem, and what they really need is a little of the political correctness they've so despised in the past. As Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic explains, not only are Republicans telling each other to shut up about the whole "legitimate rape" thing, but some of them are urging a change in how they talk about immigration. The Nevada Republican Party released a statement saying, "We support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants," and the language use is more remarkable than the position they take. "Undocumented immigrants" is what Latino activists and immigration advocates call them, not what Republicans call them. The Hispanic Leadership Network, a conservative group, distributed a memo telling Republicans, "When talking about immigrants: Do use 'undocumented immigrant' when referring to those here without documentation; Don't use the word 'illegals' or 'aliens'; Don't use the term 'anchor baby'."

This is hardly the first such memo that conservatives around Washington have found in their inboxes; the most notorious was "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control," in which GOPAC, an organization founded by Newt Gingrich that used to give Republican candidates tapes of Gingrich lecturing them that they could listen to in their cars, advised those candidates to use words like "opportunity," "vision," and "empowerment" to describe themselves and their ideas, and words like "decay," "sick," "pathetic," and "traitors" to describe Democrats. But the difference here is that instead of being advised to take their existing beliefs and describe them more effectively, Republicans are being told to suppress their natural inclinations.

And it won't be easy to get everyone on the right on board. Tune in to the places conservatives get their news, and those "don'ts" from the HLN memo are pretty much the only words you'll hear used. If somebody came on Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh's show and referred to "undocumented immigrants" he'd be mocked. Those programs have spent years describing undocumented immigrants as murderous, government benefit-sucking job-stealers, and it would be quite something if they suddenly started talking about them respectfully. A regular feature on the programs of people like Lou Dobbs and Bill O'Reilly is the story of a crime committed by an undocumented person somewhere, presented as though it were representative of some larger trend that threatens us all. ("Yesterday in Miami, an illegal alien got drunk, got into a car, and smashed into this young mother, killing her. Another life stolen by America's broken borders.")

But Republicans may be waking up to the fact that their Latino problem about both the policies they advocate, and the way they talk about Latinos and immigrants. The message of hostility they've been sending is heard loud and clear when people are described as "illegals," as though the entirety of their existence is nothing but a state of lawlessness, or "illegal aliens," as though they come from another planet. You can say you've changed your position and you're open to a new policy on immigration, but if that's wrapped in the same language you've been using, your sincerity is always going to be in doubt. Conservatives know better than anyone that in politics, words matter. But I'll be pretty surprised if a year from now they're all saying "undocumented immigrants."

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