The GOP Discovers PC

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Decades after the left and Democrats went through wrenching debates about language and respect, the Republican Party is struggling to rein in its sharper tongues.

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In 2004, William S. Lind of the Free Congress Foundation wrote a short intellectual history of the term "politically correct" that well encapsulates the long-standing conservative defense of speech -- and ideas -- that run contrary to those espoused by the new social movements that have been transforming America since the 1960s.

"[W]hat happens today to Americans who suggest that there are differences among ethnic groups, or that the traditional social roles of men and women reflect their different natures, or that homosexuality is morally wrong?" he asked. "If they are public figures, they must grovel in the dirt in endless, canting apologies...What was their crime? Contradicting America's new state ideology of 'Political Correctness.'"

Or as Geoffrey Hughes put it in his 2009 book Political Correctness: A History of Semantics and Culture, "Political correctness inculcates a sense of obligation or conformity in areas which should be (or are) matters of choice."

But now the decades-long conservative opposition to political correctness is finally breaking down. In the wake of Mitt Romney's solid defeat by Barack Obama, the Republican Party has been forced into a series of wrenching internal debates about how to appeal to a wider array of voters, especially the women and minorities who elevated the president to a second term. It's an effort being led by some of the party's own most prominent minority voices, as well as some of its more urbane strategists, with the goal of reining in the most offensive GOP speakers and squashing their provoking uses of language.

The latest instance of intra-party pushback came from Nevada Republican Party on Thursday, which warned in a statement of principles and strategy: "All are entitled to their opinions, but today's priorities not those of the past must prevail if the Republican Party is to regain the trust of Nevada's voters. As Congressman Mark Amodei (and Dr. Einstein) noted, 'insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.' We must change if we are to survive."

In particular, the party noted: "The GOP has increasingly found itself in positions that do not meet the demographic realities of the State's electorate. These positions also conflict with our party's historic commitment to civil rights. To that end, Republicans must become more inclusive, reflecting our desire to secure a better life for all Americans, and equally important, for our children."

The net result: "We support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants." No longer is the conversation about "illegal immigrants," as the Las Vegas Review-Journal calls them -- but about "undocumented" ones. As with Lind's essay, the connection is clear -- language and policy are inextricably bound together, for the use of language describes not just the subject of speech but the stance of the speaker toward the subject. And both those are bound up with the demographic changes the Democratic Party has been absorbing since the 1980s.

The Hispanic Leadership Network urged attentiveness to language in the immigration debate in a memo released earlier in the week, as well. Those engaged in the debate must be more cautious with their buzzwords, they warned. "Do use 'undocumented immigrant' when referring to those here without documentation," they said. "Don't use the word 'illegals' or 'aliens.' Don't use the term 'anchor baby.'"

Further, the group said, it would be wise for Republicans to avoid "phrases like 'send them all back', 'electric fence', 'build a wall along the entire border'."

Earlier in January, Politico ran a piece after Georgia Rep. Phil Gingrey sought to sympathetically interpret what he thought failed Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin had been saying about "legitimate rape." Their headline: "GOP looks for ways to stop the rape comments."

"This is actually pretty simple. If you're about to talk about rape as anything other than a brutal and horrible crime, stop," former Romney senior adviser Kevin Madden told the paper.

That followed on the heels of Bobby Jindal's remarks in November. "It is no secret we had a number of Republicans damage our brand this year with offensive, bizarre comments -- enough of that," the Louisiana governor said, also to Politico. "It's not going to be the last time anyone says something stupid within our party, but it can't be tolerated within our party. We've also had enough of this dumbed-down conservatism. We need to stop being simplistic, we need to trust the intelligence of the American people and we need to stop insulting the intelligence of the voters."

Republicans needed to "stop being the stupid party," he warned, echoing the exact phrase used by MSNBC host and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough over the summer. "I'm just tired of the Republican Party being the 'Stupid Party!'" Scarborough had said, "Stupid people saying stupid things and scaring off independent voters and swing voters!"

Republicans are quite familiar with tweaking their language to sell conservative policies by making them appear more palatable, and inventing new terms to oppose Democratic ones by heightening the contradictions (think "death tax" or "death panels").

But the new voices of Republican linguistic caution are as much about not alienating voters as about selling anything fresh, policywise. Anyone who went through the PC wars of the 1980s or 1990s in the academy, or followed them from a distance, will recognize the dynamic. In the end, the demand for dignity always wins out. It's just a matter of how long it takes people to realize that speaking in way that's respectful of difference makes it easier for people to hear what the speaker has to say on other matters.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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