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"It's the Language, stupid!" - The Frightening Secret to Bush's Success

Following the November elections, much of Washington's political pundits focused on the traditional political questions that follow an electoral victory. Democrats in particular wondered what went wrong? Should their message appeal to the left or be designed to re-conquer the center? Was the message correct and if not, what should it be going forward?

These questions, however, ignore a key component of political communication: it involves more than content. Communication also involves emotion. While George W. Bush may slip and slide over particular parts of the English language, few have recognized that he has mastered the use of emotional language, especially negatively charged emotional language, as a powerful political tool. Democrats must recognize this and take active measures to counteract the mesmerizing effect of Bush's use of negative emotional language if they are to mount any challenge to him.

Over the past few years, I have researched how Bush has managed to expand his power with a subtle, fear-inducing language structure. As a psychologist who evaluates and treats problematic power patterns in my clients, I have learned to focus on how they use language, to watch not what people in power say but how they say it, and what they achieve or destroy by doing so.

Viewed through this lens, Bush's power, his recent triumph at the polls and ability to dominate the agenda, does not surprise me. Rather I see subtle linguistic manipulation successfully aimed at producing a national collective need to have someone (namely Bush) in control.

Bush uses language to create a black and white, good versus evil, world-view that has strong appeal because it meets people's emotional needs created by the President's language itself. Bush's language structure is similar to the communication structure of an abusive personality.

The goal of any abusive personality is domination, to make their targets do things that they otherwise would not do. Abusers typically use language to create a black and white world where catastrophe is the only perceived alternative to following their demands.

The abusive personality uses controlling language to gain hold over others and uses a variety of negative techniques to destroy their will to resist. For example: a man whose wife is overweight picks on that detail for everything that is wrong in their lives and uses language designed to convince her that no one else would find her desirable, that no one else could love her, and that she is lucky to have him. If the target buys into the negative framework then they quickly lose touch with their goals, dreams, and vision of the future. In this hopeless state they will tend to develop a powerful need that can only be satisfied by giving all power to the abuser.

An examination of the way George Bush uses language shows that he uses many linguistic techniques characteristic of an abuser to create control over the targeted electorate. An essential first step is his use of empty language. Empty language is devoid of real meaning and does not connect to any great vision, principle, fact or action. Empty language relies on the fact that most people cannot take the time to examine the differences between speakers in much depth. In an analysis of the use of empty language, I used independent raters to compare the words of George W. Bush in his 2000 presidential debates with those of Albert Gore and those used by Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in their debates in 1980. Bush used 420% more empty language than did Reagan or Gore.

Empty words ultimately dull the listeners' mood and energy, setting the stage for a second abusive technique: using language to create a negative evaluation of the present and future. Bush is a master at developing negative frameworks, often relying on the phrase "crisis" and other words conveying the dark, evil world around us. Whereas most leaders reserve the use of negative evaluations for true emergencies, President Bush addresses a wide range of issues using the word "crisis" or any of its synonyms.

Why George W Bush is Nothing Like Ronald Reagan

Using negativity to gain power is nothing new. It is, however, not common behavior for leaders. It is thus not surprising that President Bush's negative evaluation of present and future is unprecedented for an American president. Comparing Bush's terrorism rhetoric with that of Ronald Reagan, it is easy to see how Reagan favors solutions and positive outcomes to lengthy descriptions of the current problem. Ronald Reagan's October 27th, 1983 national addresses following the terrorist bombing in Lebanon and the Grenada invasion, for example, express an equal amount of language focused on crisis and optimism. President George W. Bush's October 7th 2001 speech, on the other hand, expresses the idea of an ongoing crisis three times for each time that he says something positive or optimistic about the future.

Another unique aspect of Bush's exaggerated pessimism is his tendency to exclude any clear plan of action. Again, Reagan's October 27th 1983 speech provides a base from which to compare. After informing the American public on the situation in Lebanon and Grenada, he asked, "Where do we go from here", and followed with three steps that could be taken to resolve the problem. Unlike Reagan, George W. Bush does not allow the electorate to see the problems they face as having any short or even long-term solution. Bush declared that the war with Iraq "will go on for a long time to come" and that we "will suffer like no people have ever suffered before". Even George W Bush's father, while evaluating the crisis in Kuwait, focussed his energies much more on solutions than problems. In his January 17th 1991 war speech, he mentioned the word "crisis" in the present or past tense 8 times, while never mentioning crisis it in the future tense. In contrast, his son, when describing the military operation in Afghanistan, used optimistic constructs in the present or past 4 times, while using pessimistic constructs in the future tense 8 times.

Once a present and future negative framework is installed, the abusive personality has a much easier time convincing the audience of the severity of the problem at hand. George W Bush has been known to utilize abstract passive construction to suggest that some terrible force outside our control is threatening our survival. He tends to describe these threats or problems as beyond our control, totally overwhelming and lacking any specific solution. An example of abstract passive construction is the administration's color-coded terror threat alert system, which is issued without any specific guidance to the American people other than being vigilant -- and afraid.

The hallmark of the abusive personality is the need to cast itself as the savior though personalization, creating a dependency dynamic. In order to present himself as the only man for the job, Bush uses personalization to contrast his positive "optimistic" personality with the difficult times at hand. Bush openly identifies himself as the only person capable of producing positive outcomes, even when the actions required are vaguely understood. Contrast Bush's signature line in his speech to Congress "I will not falter, I will not tire, I will not fail.." with Kennedy's signature line "ask not what your country can do for you, ask rather what you can do for your country."

Counteracting President Bush's Emotional Impact

The abusive personality destroys the hopes and goals of their target. The emotion generated by the criticism of the abuser paralyzes both and the abused person is reduced to appeasing the short-term demands of the abuser, losing touch with his or her long-term vision, while the abuser likewise is trapped into continuing to abuse rather than resolve the underlying issues.

It is a dependent, destructive cycle easily played into and hard to break. When we treat abusive relationships, the first step is to recognize how one is being abused.

In order for the Democratic Party to reduce the power of Bush's negative language they must focus on optimistic ways to solve problems, allow people to think about a purposeful life that is not defined solely by terrorism. They literally need an alternative worldview, and more importantly, an alternative language to combat the language of abuse.

They must create a core positive framework that reconnects people with their optimism, their values and their hopes and dreams for themselves and their children.

Until the Democrats understand these psychological patterns they are not likely to overcome their current electoral difficulties or effect the national agenda. They need an approach that will allow Democrats to counter Bush's language of fear and depression with language of optimism and empowerment.

Democrats must work to counteract the power of fear Bush has built upon with his language. They will need a leader that believes and can effectively communicate that the American way of life and spirit is strong and cannot be broken.

Democrats must expose Bush's pessimism, show that he relies on a feeling of crisis and failure and offers no hope or solutions. They must begin to employ an alternative language of hope and optimism.

This is not an easy task, as much of the language Democrats have used in campaigns is divisive and fractional and hence relies upon the optimism being in place at the outset. They cannot win based on the correctness of their positions without addressing the current negative framework. They must remember that one of Clinton's most effective slogans was to describe himself in the middle of a recession as the "Man from Hope".

Democrats must offer bold and optimistic clear proposals, and highlight the contrasts. They must have leaders who understand how to communicate ideas in terms of word usage and metaphor. They must emphasize what people need to do to rise to the demands of these times.

They must use psychological techniques to create a relationship with the American people and show them that they can be safe and secure without being paranoid and frightened, that they have a vision to make the international community work.

Inspirational leaders such as Roosevelt or Reagan involve the citizenry with soaring visions of what is possible. They emphasized principles and ideas that went beyond themselves. They commanded respect without constantly referring to themselves. Our nation was once inspired by the declaration "we have nothing to fear, but fear it self". Now Americans are told on a daily basis they are helpless.

Every leader is responsible for the emotional impact that his or her language and imagery creates. President George W. Bush employs language and imagery that diminishes the American people's level of self-confidence.

Democrats should pay close attention to the words President Bush uses later this month in his State of the Union Address and look at the way Bush uses language and frames debates. If they pay attention, they can build a dialogue with the American people focused on positive solutions that reject the abusive power and language of George Bush.