For my money, it’s Bernie Sanders—not Ronald Reagan—who deserves the title of the “Great Communicator” of American politics. Agree with him or not, Sanders is incredibly effective at delivering a clear, simple message that resonates with his audience. In a recent appearance in Britain, he gave his straightforward explanation for why the existing distribution of wealth is unjust:
“We don’t need any more billionaires,” Senator Sanders said. “How much money can you possibly spend? How many homes can you own? How many islands, jet planes, yachts?… We don’t need three people owning more wealth than the bottom half of society.”
We’ve heard this over and over from Sanders, but it’s only lately that it’s been sinking in. Young people are turning strongly against the existing distribution of wealth, the Democratic Socialists of America has grown tenfold since 2016, and a lot of this is the direct result of Bernie’s presidential campaigns.
Unfortunately, Bernie’s clear and direct style of communication is the exception rather than the rule on the Left. AOC may be very good at writing viral tweets, but the literature of the Left is infamously clogged with academic and abstract words—words like “dialectics”, “neoliberalism”, “hegemony”, “materialism”, “historicism”, and “essentialism”, plus references to theorists like Marx, Lukacs, Adorno, Foucault, and Jameson.
Leftist language all but screams, “This is not for you, the public; this is for us, the ones who understand Theory.” Indeed, some of it can be impossible to understand without a graduate school education. Open a leading socialist journal and you’re likely to find one Leftist criticizing another Leftist for accepting “the contingent and mutable nature of the ‘assemblage’,” whatever that means. When social theorist Judith Butler won a bad writing award for producing uniquely impenetrable prose, they (Butler uses they/them pronouns) lashed out in the pages of the New York Times, claiming that their ideas were simply too sophisticated to be expressed in everyday English language. I commonly encounter that sentiment on the Left: If writing is intelligible to ordinary people, it must be overly simplistic.
But they’re wrong, and this is why we’re losing.
Lately I’ve been reading dozens upon dozens of right-wing books, by figures from Friedrich von Hayek to Tucker Carlson, as research for a book of refutations of conservative talking points. And one of the most striking, undeniable facts is that conservatives are far better writers than their Left-wing counterparts. They present their ideas in clear, digestible, accessible language. They organize their arguments in ways people can understand. They use memorable phrases and jokes. They’ve clearly read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” with its warning against “humbug and vagueness” in political speech.
Even though I’m personally horrified by the right-wing political agenda, I’d much rather read the prose of a reactionary than a Marxist.
Take Thomas Sowell. Sowell is a hugely successful writer of popular economics books from a free market perspective. His presence is marginal in academic economics, but Sowell has attracted a major following, in part because he speaks in aphorisms and pithy phrases, saying things like “What exactly is your ‘fair share’ of what someone else has worked for?” and “Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it.” They’re expressions that stick in the mind, and they’re instantly intelligible to anyone.
Progressive ideas are popular, but progressives need to do a better job of speaking to people. Bernie will visit any venue from Fox News to the “Joe Rogan Experience” and try to explain his views in ways that even a Trump supporter can get on board with.
By contrast, a lot of my fellow Leftists seem to think we’re above having to debate our ideas or find persuasive ways to express them. I often encounter the sentiment that people can’t be persuaded, so debates and arguments are futile, with the implication that it’s okay if we only talk to others in our bubble.
This is dead wrong. The evidence shows that people can be persuaded if ideas are expressed clearly and succinctly. Conservatives understand this, which is why PragerU spends millions of dollars producing quick five-minute videos that explain the right-wing position on issues from the minimum wage to abortion. Compare the accessibility (and fun cartoons) of a PragerU video to the dense, theory laden text of the New Left Review and I think you see one reason why socialists other than Bernie remain at the margins of U.S. political discourse.
I suspect the Left’s failure to use rhetoric effectively is a significant explanation for why Republicans retain a strong constituency, despite the unpopularity of their ideas. Linguist George Lakoff once argued that Democrats lost in part because they weren’t as good at “framing” as Republicans, who used clever tricks like recasting the estate tax as a “death tax.”
Framing isn’t everything, and progressives shouldn’t become as shameless as Fox News in manipulating people through deceitful propaganda. But they should pick up books by people like Sowell, Ben Shapiro, and Mark Levin to understand why conservatives consistently win public debates and sell more copies of their books.
Bernie Sanders and Ronald Reagan don’t have a lot in common, but one quality they do share is their uncommon ability to boil complicated ideas down into simple, intelligible rhetoric. Progressives who want to win should take notes.
Nathan J. Robinson is the editor in chief of Current Affairs magazine and the author of Responding to the Right: Brief Replies to 25 Conservative Arguments.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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