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"Political hate speech":
A case study in the use of language as a political weapon

By Brendan Nyhan
January 26, 2004

Since Sept. 2003, the Republican Party has been attacking Democratic presidential candidates for "political hate speech," the latest in a long line of catchphrases such as "political correctness," "media bias" and "class warfare" popularized in recent years by pundits and political operatives. As these terms - which draw on a set of associated stereotypes - gain wider use, they are often used in an increasingly vague and logically nonsensical manner. In this way, "political hate speech" and other bits of political jargon are used to trigger an emotional reaction without making an argument as to why the term applies to a specific case.

The history of "political hate speech"

The term "political hate speech" has become a key weapon in the communications arsenal of the Republican National Committee under chairman Ed Gillespie. Appointed in July 2003, Gillespie is a professional operative who previously served as director of communications and congressional affairs at the RNC in the 1996 election cycle and as a senior communications advisor to the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000.

As we have previously noted, Gillespie debuted the term during an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sept. 7, 2003. He defined "political hate speech" by referring to a series of examples, blurring the distinctions between two different kinds of rhetoric: vicious and unfair comparisons of Bush to the Taliban and Saddam Hussein and harsh but hardly unprecedented partisan charges that Bush is a phony, a liar and a failure. In this way, the RNC trades on the negative connotations of "hate speech" (an often vaguely defined term which has been used loosely in the past) and associated laws against "hate crimes," both of which refer to actions motivated by animus toward minority groups, to stigmatize virtually all harsh criticism of Bush as hateful and illegitimate.

Over the following four months, the RNC's usage of the term became increasingly vague, transforming "political hate speech" into a catchphrase designed to invoke emotion and a set of associated stereotypes. A mere two days after his appearance on "Meet the Press," Gillespie responded to an entire Democratic presidential debate by saying the candidates "continued their patter of political hate speech." An RNC memo on the debate merely listed a series of claims by the Democratic candidates and labeled them as hate speech without making an argument as to why they deserved the term.

By October 8, Gillespie was issuing sweeping claims that "The Democratic field has engaged in political hate speech for the past six months" on CNBC's "Capitol Report." An October 28 memo instructed "RNC Members and Republican Leaders" to "Highlight [Democrats as] the party of political hate speech."

After the RNC's frequent repetitions of the term in October and early November 2003, pundits began to pick up on the term, which was repeated by Washington Dispatch columnist C.K. Rairden on Fox News Channel's "The Big Story with John Gibson" on Dec. 17; twice by MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, host of "Scarborough Country" on Dec. 19 and Jan. 8; and by Nancy Bocksor, a Republican strategist, on the Dec. 21 edition of "CNN Live Sunday."

Certainly, in some cases, the term could be seen as appropriate, as when Gillespie denounced commercials comparing Bush to Hitler that were posted on the liberal website MoveOn.org as entrants in an anti-Bush ad contest. But more often, the lines are blurred, as when Gillespie claimed former Vice President Gore's Jan. 15 speech criticizing Bush's environmental policies amounted to "political hate speech" without ever specifying what, precisely, in Gore's address he was objecting to. In a January 21 online chat on the RNC website, Gillespie even equated "harsh rhetoric" from Democrats directly with "hate speech," noting that "I highlight their harsh rhetoric all the time, because I believe that while Americans appreciate passion in politics, they reject this hate speech."

How it works

By examining it more closely, we can see how a phrase like "political hate speech" is constructed. First, it refers to a broad political stereotype with emotional resonance - the angry anti-Bush Democrat. The term also has a legalistic tinge since "hate speech" is banned on some college and university campuses and laws against "hate crimes" increase criminal penalties for certain crimes judged to be motivated by bias or hatred. In this way, it's similar to the indiscriminate usage of such terms as "slander" and "treason" by the pundit Ann Coulter (among others), which imply that the target is somehow criminal.

In addition, as the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg argued in the New York Times, "political hate speech" is part of a recent trend in which conservatives strategically reverse civil rights jargon against liberals. Counter-accusations of liberal "hate speech" can be observed at least as far back as episodes of Rush Limbaugh's TV show in 1995. In 2001, conservative supporters of the Boy Scouts of America suggested that the groups' critics were practicing discrimination and likened them to segregationists. Along the same lines, Congressional Republicans and conservative groups have recently accused Democrats of discrimination for opposing judicial nominees of President Bush who were racial minorities.

Other catchphrases

These types of phrases are commonly developed and employed to attack political opponents. Perhaps the best known is "political correctness," which was widely denounced in the 1990s. At first, this referred to specific incidents in which colleges and other institutions attempted to enforce liberal norms some perceived as oppressive. Over time, however, as UCLA's Phil Agre argued, some speakers began to use the phrase (or the variants "politically correct"/"politically incorrect") to imply coercion without making a specific argument that it had actually taken place or stigmatize any opposition to a political view as "political correctness." In this way, a set of associated stereotypes could be triggered in increasingly vague and pathological ways.

"Media bias" is a catchphrase with more contemporary relevance. As Jonathan Chait pointed out in The New Republic (link requires subscription), critics of "liberal media bias" frequently fail to distinguish in their use of the term between genuinely unfair articles and those with which the author disagrees. At this point, many simply dismiss media coverage as "liberal media bias" without making any specific argument demonstrating unfairness. On the other side of the political spectrum, the liberal Media Whores Online website has recently developed the parallel term "media whores," which it applies indiscriminately to disfavored members of the press regardless of whether their stories are actually biased or the site simply disagrees with their conclusions.

Another such term is "class warfare," which is generally interpreted to refer to attempts to divide Americans by socioeconomic status. As we have documented, the term was originally used primarily by liberals to trigger stereotypes of conservatives favoring the rich until recent years, when conservatives began using it to cast liberals as unfairly attacking the rich. In recent years, as Chait has noted, conservatives have frequently invoked "class warfare" to dismiss any discussion of the distributional effects of tax cuts, however innocuous it may be. President Bush and his allies used this ploy frequently during the debates over the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. Again, no argument is generally made; the stereotype of liberals pitting the rich against the poor and middle class is merely triggered through repetition of the term.

Finally, liberals frequently employ the highly contested term "civil rights" to suggest without evidence that their conservative opponents oppose the core protections against racial discrimination passed in the 1960s. For example, Congressional Democrats have made a series of vague attacks on President Bush and Republicans as opposing "civil rights" for supporting the nomination of U.S. District Court Judge Charles Pickering to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Bush's decision to file a brief with the Supreme Court calling the University of Michigan's use of race in admissions unconstitutional. In the debate over Pickering (who Bush recently elevated to the court using a recess appointment), Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said, "You're going to have those who favor civil rights on one side, and those who have a lot of explaining to do on the other side." After the Michigan brief, Daschle added that "the administration has said as clearly by their actions as anyone can that they will continue to side with those opposed to civil rights." Reasonable people can disagree about the proper definition of civil rights, but these ritualistic incantations of the phrase do not make such an argument, instead blurring the lines between the non-discrimination laws of the 1950s and 1960s and other, more controversial policies to provoke an emotional response against Bush and the GOP.

"Freedom of speech" and jargon in the election

Sadly, it appears that such loaded catchphrases will pervade the upcoming election. While perhaps less successful at creating such jargon in recent years, some liberals are now trying to make up for lost time. One new trick is to vaguely invoke "freedom of speech" as code to suggest that others are illegitimately attempting to suppress speech without actually making such an allegation directly.

For example, when former Army general and Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark was questioned during a debate Thursday about filmmaker/author Michael Moore's suggestion that Bush was a "deserter" at one of his campaign events, Clark said, "Well, I think Michael Moore has the right to say whatever he feels about this. I don't know whether this is supported by the facts or not. I've never looked at it." The next day, Clark was asked about the matter, to which responded: "I can't agree with Michael Moore, but I can't dispute his right to say what he feels." He added, "I think there is a larger issue in here in this and that is the issue of freedom of speech." And on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, Clark responded to yet more questions about Moore by saying, "Well, I can't use [Moore's] words and I don't see the issues in that way. But I will tell you this: that Michael Moore has the right to speak freely. I don't screen what people say when they're going to come up and say something like that. That's his form of dissent, and I support freedom of speech in this country, and I would not have characterized the issues in that way." In all three cases, Clark is suggesting Moore's right to speak freely is being unfairly challenged - invoking the liberal stereotype of pervasive attempts to crush dissent and suppress freedom of speech - in order to avoid commenting substantively on his remarks.

Citizens and the press must be especially vigilant during the upcoming election season lest "political hate speech" or another such phrase become the next "political correctness."

Related links:
-A flurry of unfair associations (Ben Fritz, 1/13/04)
-The ugly "Neanderthal" battle (Brendan Nyhan, 11/19/03)
-The Republican assault on "political hate speech" (Brendan Nyhan, 11/13/03)
-Screed (Brendan Nyhan, 6/30/03)
-Manufacturing opponents of "civil rights" (Brendan Nyhan, 1/16/03)
-The art of "class warfare" (Ben Fritz, 1/15/03)
-Demagoguing Pickering (Brendan Nyhan, 1/10/03)
-The trouble with Media Whores Online (Brendan Nyhan, 8/15/02)
-Throwing the book at her (Bryan Keefer, 7/13/02)
-Civil Rights Jargon in the Boy Scout Debate (Brendan Nyhan, 6/25/01)

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