The results of the 2020 election left people puzzling over the minds of their fellow Americans. What were they thinking? No matter where you look, it seems like Trump and Biden voters really don't understand each other.
Listening to what the other side has to say, whether you're talking about immigration or the environment, can seem like peering into an alternate universe. It's not just the divergent political positions; there's something foreign about the language. Republicans talk about liberty, riots, and the "socialist agenda." Democrats speak of empathy, protests, and the "climate crisis."
And where their vocabulary does overlap, definitions have parted ways. Depending on who you're talking to, the Green New Deal is either the only path to avert catastrophe, or a plot to steal your hamburgers.
"We're more polarized than we've ever been," said Dietram Scheufele, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In our lifetimes, the "United" States of America has never felt like such an oxymoron. The presidential election has torn families apart. The media has declared that America is in the middle of a long-running culture war. How did our fellow Americans become so unrecognizable? One part of the answer: Words have simply failed us.
The polarization of our language seems to be a relatively new phenomenon. Last year, a study led by researchers from Stanford and Brown analyzed congressional speeches from 1873, not long after 2 percent of the population died in the Civil War, until 2016, when Trump was elected president. What they found was that polarized language had increased sharply in the 1990s, following a century of remaining relatively steady. "Democrats and Republicans now speak different languages to a far greater degree than ever before," the authors wrote.
So what happened? Some of this divergence stems from a shift in strategy by Republican leadership, one that takes advantage of the way people make subconscious judgments.
Tweaks to words and phrases can alter how our brains process them. Scheufele calls this "mental shelving" — cognitive shortcuts that help us categorize and simplify the world. A pile of bananas, apples, and pears? That goes on the "fruit" shelf. A big rectangle in the wall with a handle? Your brain has seen that before, and it's clearly a door.
"Without a shelf system, we would not be able to function," Scheufele said.
Abstract ideas get put on shelves, too — often political shelves. Republicans have historically been much more savvy than Democrats at using this to their advantage, Scheufele said, tailoring political phrases so they end up on shelves that promote conservative ideals. Beginning in the 1990s, the messaging maestro Frank Luntz began advising the GOP on words to use and words to lose. Based on polling, he suggested substituting illegal aliens for undocumented workers, and death tax for estate tax. If you put "illegal" or "death" in there, of course people are going to file it away on the "bad stuff" shelf.
Another of Luntz's notable suggestions: replacing the scary-sounding global warming with climate change, which lends itself to arguments that "the climate is always changing." Luntz also recommended replacing drilling for oil with the enticing exploring for energy. (He's since had a change of heart. Last year, Luntz called for action on climate change in Congress, recommending a suite of planet-friendly phrases popular with focus groups.)
Then came An Inconvenient Truth. Former Vice President Al Gore essentially became the de facto spokesperson for the climate movement with the release of his blockbuster documentary. The overwhelming message was, "Hey, this is a Democrat issue," Scheufele said. "And that's of course the last shelf that I want to get that onto, because it's not a Democrat issue, it's an issue about sustainability, about economic well being, about societal progress — all of which are values that cut across tribal fault lines."
The missing middle
English is full of divisions. People often talk about "fighting" climate change as if it were a war. This battle-ready language primes our minds to treat the other side as an enemy, ignoring any common ground. Those who follow news about the environment hear all about deniers and alarmists but are usually at a loss of words to describe those with any other range of opinions. "Many people approach this whole challenge of climate change very simplistically when they think of the public — believers vs. deniers," Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, told me last year. "But that's actually horribly inaccurate."
There are words that can bridge the partisan gap. Republicans could argue that clean energy sources will help make the U.S. economy globally competitive and energy independent, for example.
The problem is that the country doesn't have a lot of political and economic incentives to find these words. In states like Iowa and Nevada that hold caucuses, presidential candidates build momentum by appealing to "a narrow slice of the electorate," the most hardline partisans, Scheufele said. On top of that, online "microtargeting" — crafting personalized, divisive messages based on people's digital footprints — winds up building ideologically pure "opinion bubbles." Social media and news sites want your clicks, and wouldn't want to scare you away by showing you anything you might disagree with. As a result, you get fed a diet of the familiar.
All of this has conspired to turn our rivals into cartoons. "We are increasingly seeing a tiny, distorted slice of reality, dominated by extremists," as the journalist Amanda Ripley wrote this week in the Washington Post. "Our vast, complicated country gets lost."
It's still possible to have a productive conversation about climate change or other contentious issues with people on the other side. But it's a whole lot harder than it used to be now that Americans speak different languages. One tip from Scheufele: Never emphasize how stupid your political opponents are. Condescension isn't a winning strategy.
"No persuasive conversation has ever started with, "'You're an idiot, now listen to me,'" he said. "There's not a single piece of social science research that suggests that will be effective."