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February 5, 2004 - Political Rhetoric in America, Part 2 - 2004-02-05

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: February 5, 2004

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- we continue our discussion of American political rhetoric.

RS: The Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University says two times as many Americans describe themselves as "conservative" than as "liberal." The Scripps Howard News Service says this finding was true for rich and poor alike.

AA: But what exactly do Americans mean by these terms, “conservative,” and “liberal”? For some perspective, we asked Professor Dennis Goldford. He's chairman of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

GOLDFORD: "In the American context, those who call themselves social conservatives -- conservative Christians, those who emphasize the importance of morality and the culture -- they are speaking that language of traditional European Conservatism. Those who call themselves nowadays conservative in an economic sense are those who believe as nineteenth century Liberals did, that government should not interfere with the operation of the market, that the market and market competition left to itself always produces optimal results.

RS: "So how will understanding these labels, how will this help our listeners who are weeding their way through the electoral process?"

GOLDFORD: "Well, so often these labels are used not to enlighten but as rhetorical clubs to hit people over the head. That's the difficulty. So you simply again have got to bear in mind the kind of arguments people make. When President Bush talked about the sanctity of marriage and strengthening institutions like families and schools and churches, again that's the language of this classical Conservative tradition. But when there's talk about getting government off the backs of entrepreneurs and consumers in the marketplace, that's the language of nineteenth century Liberalism, which is now called economic conservatism."

AA: "And twenty-first century liberalism would be what?"

GOLDFORD: "These would be people who really began in the Progressive movement in American history and politics around the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. And they were very influenced by the rise of the modern, especially the giant corporations. And their argument was, that with these new giant corporations on the playing field, they've tilted the playing field, and that government must step in to protect competition and restore competition and equality of opportunity, that the market wouldn't do it automatically, as used to be thought in the nineteenth century. That's the economic side of what we call liberal now.

"The social side of what we call liberal now is the view that government must remain neutral or agnostic regarding any kind of moral or religious orthodoxy. Government's job is simply to keep you from clubbing your neighbor over the head, and keep your neighbor from clubbing you over the head as each of you pursues your own interests and values as you see fit."

RS: "Do you have any, I guess, advice to our listeners, any signs when they see it coming they should say, 'Ah, this is what I'm listening to.' Any warning signs?"

GOLDFORD: "Well, there's been a kind of Europeanization of American political rhetoric over the past twenty-five years. You'll hear lots of talk among conservatives about 'the left,' and you'll hear talk among people who are more liberal about 'the right.' But really the left in American politics wouldn't dare go so far as to propose social programs that are accepted by the Conservative Democrat or the Christian Democratic Union in Germany, for example.

"And the right in America usually wouldn't go so far as to propose various programs that might be seen in certain authoritarian countries and places like that. American political rhetoric takes place within a relatively narrow band that's really pretty much in the Liberal tradition of the notion of individual freedom and opportunity, with a little smattering or salting, as it were, of this older Conservative notion of the necessity of morality and culture and key institutions like family and church and schools.

"But it takes place with a much narrower band of argument than you find in many countries around the world. So in this sense there's a lot of heat in American political rhetoric in campaign, but it's over quite often less of a significant difference than one might find in other countries and their political systems around the world."

RS: Our thanks to Dennis Goldford at Drake University in Iowa for talking to us after the Iowa caucuses last month. By his count, the good professor had already given around one-hundred-seventy interviews in two weeks about that event.

AA: Thirty-eight states will hold caucuses or primaries during this presidential election cycle, but Iowa traditionally goes first, so it's watched closely. And that's Wordmaster. Our e-mail address is And we're on the Web at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.