By Gail Hankin
When Republicans first introduced their alternative to the Affordable Care Act, many clickbait-generating sites (and some more reputable news sources) seized on its title: the “World’s Greatest Healthcare Plan of 2017.” The name seemed perfect for the self-aggrandizing Trump era, where it seems everything is a superlative. Unfortunately for many late-night television hosts, ready to make jokes about the similarly oxymoronic Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, if this title seemed too funny to be true, that’s because it was. The actual replacement bill, which failed spectacularly last month, was innocuously named the “American Health Care Reform Act of 2017.”
It’s no secret to politicians and interest groups that the words they use — in naming legislation, in describing issues and policies — matter a great deal to public perception. The Affordable Care Act went through its own transformation. At first, the term Obamacare was used derisively by the opposition, and then it was embraced wholeheartedly by Democratic supporters, seeking to tie the president to one of his greatest accomplishments. Speaking of late-night hosts, as Jimmy Kimmel showed us in a recurring sketch, most people on the street had little idea that the two referred to the same piece of legislation.
One of the most longstanding battles in this realm has to do with the words used to describe stances in the abortion debate. The term “pro-life” first took root in the 1960s, and in what is generally seen as a bit of a marketing coup, was quickly embraced after Roe v. Wade by those who opposed abortion. Those on the other side of the debate were forced into a reactionary position – labeling themselves “pro-choice.” Recently, groups like Planned Parenthood have made efforts to shift away from those terms, and many news organizations have replaced them in reporting with the more neutral “abortion-rights advocates” and “anti-abortion.”
But do these word choices have implications beyond headlines and opportunities for gaffes? The answer is yes. Leiserowitz, et al (2014) found that compared to “climate change,” the term “global warming” evoked more negative feelings, images of alarm, and a sense of threat from people across the political spectrum. “Global warming” also engenders greater support for U.S. interventions.
On the immigration front, “no human being is illegal” has become a rallying cry against the offensive and imprecise term “illegal immigrant”, which a 2005 Republican strategist memo suggested be used to encourage stricter enforcement. Instead, news organizations and immigrant advocacy groups have turned toward the use of “undocumented” or “unauthorized immigrant.” Merolla, et al. (2013) found that language framing had large effects on perceptions of immigration policy. Resistance to legalization decreased significantly among subjects when the policy was described as a “path to citizenship” versus “amnesty.”
So, in a time of sanctuary cities, when a major U.S. presidential candidate labeled himself a socialist, when conservative legislators had to defend their opposition to the “Violence Against Women Act,” when Trump (falsely) criticized his opponents for not using the term “radical Islamic terrorists” — how can politicians make sure that they are influencing the debate, and public opinion, in the right way? There might not be a single salve when polarized Americans can barely agree on terminology, let alone policy. But in the words of Hillary Clinton during the first presidential debate, “Words matter.” The media, private citizens, interest groups, and especially politicians should take care when choosing how they speak about important issues.