Winning the Language War
How the anti-woke movement can take the moral and linguistic high ground.
I recently hosted a summit on anti-woke public policy and, beneath all of the legal and technical details, I realized that there is an opportunity for a significant shift in rhetoric for the political Right.
For decades, conservatives made their arguments primarily through a statistical frame, using the language of finance, economics, and performance metrics. Think “running government like a business.” But in recent years, the rise of left-wing racialist ideology—BLM, CRT, DEI—has created an opportunity, even the necessity, for conservatives to make their arguments through a moral frame, speaking to the conflict of values that underlies the division between Left and Right.
This linguistic shift is already happening—and paying dividends. At the summit, we discussed two specific examples. First, on education, the activist Corey DeAngelis noted that the school choice movement suddenly started winning when it stopped making statistical arguments about performance metrics and started making moral arguments about parental rights and the content of the curriculum. Second, on the federal budget, Wade Miller of the Center for Renewing America has engaged in a similar strategy, moving the debate from the language of large-firm accounting to the language of moral conflict, arguing that Congress should defund the “woke and weaponized bureaucracy.”
Yes, we should improve test scores and balance the budget. But the deeper purpose of government is to secure the rights of the people and to establish a principle of justice. Conservatives must speak to the ends, not simply the means. And, in our advanced managerial society, this will require a new moral language that appeals to the interests and emotions of the common citizen, who wants to be protected from the institutions and ideologies that have arrayed themselves against him.
I recently hosted a summit in Santa Monica, California, to develop an anti-woke policy agenda for the next conservative presidential administration. We had experts from all the different disciplines: people who had worked in previous White Houses, people who are working in state legislatures, and people who are developing the agenda to turn anti-woke public sentiment into anti-woke public policy. And I’d like to share one of the most interesting takeaways that I had from the event, and I’ll start with the problem.
One of the problems that we’ve had as conservatives is that we’ve ceded the moral language to the Left, to the point that you have even conservative political candidates using identity politics as their framework and as their pitch to voters, because it’s really the most available moral lens. For example, you have someone like Nikki Haley—an ambassador, a governor, a successful administrator—who is pitching her candidacy as: “I am a minority female. Hear me roar.” What she doesn’t seem to understand, however, is that when you operate in your opponent’s frame, you’re guaranteed to lose.
A conservative will never win in a battle of identity politics against the political Left, because they’re setting all of the rules and terms of debate. They’re almost like a bank or a casino and, at the end of the day, the house always wins. But there is also an opportunity and something I learned in the discussions at this summit was that the anti-woke movement has reawakened the possibility for a conservative moral vocabulary.
So let’s look at it. In the past, conservatives made their arguments at a statistical level. They said: Here’s the budget. Here are the test scores. Here’s how the numbers are going to work out in the end. But the new frame for many of the most successful people in this movement is through the language of values. To say: This is what we believe. This is who we’re fighting for. This is what we want to see at the end of the day. In other words, shifting away from a positivistic approach—which prioritizes abstraction, mathematical formulas, and economic trade-offs—to a moral approach, which emphasizes values and people and ultimate ends. That’s not to say that the former isn’t important. We should think about those things. But it is to say that this new approach that foregrounds values and moral expressions is much more persuasive, because it taps into human emotions and it lends itself to human narratives.
Two Case Studies: School Choice and the Federal Budget
And what would this look like in practice? I’d like to use two case studies from this summit.
First of all: school choice. School choice has been a conservative policy priority dating back almost 70 years to Milton Friedman’s early work. And the conservative argument for the last, say, 30 years, has been “school choice is going to improve test scores”—framing it as math and statistics—and then “school choice is going to improve outcomes for inner-city minority kids,” framing it as identity politics and targeting a specific demographic for help. But school choice was really not winning with those messages. There were some marginal victories, some small programs at the state level, but school choice with those arguments and frames never became a dominant public policy.
Fast-forward to the post-COVID world and school choice campaigners, such as my friend and colleague Corey DeAngelis, shifted the narrative completely. Rather than emphasizing test scores and discrete demographics, the new generation of school choice activists made the argument about the curriculum, about values. And they argued that, rather than target discrete groups, they were going to offer universal school choice to everyone, tapping into middle-class sensibilities and saying: “If you don’t like what they’re teaching in your school, if you don’t want critical race theory, if you don’t want gender ideology, if you don’t want COVID masking insanity, we’re going to offer everyone the possibility of school choice. We’re going to let you take your money to any institution and find a place that reflects your values as parents, as a family, as a community.”
And over the course of the last few years, the support for school choice exploded. We saw huge support among the broad middle class, i.e., the people who really shift public opinion and, therefore, shift public policy. And then something really incredible happened: this campaign that had been building for 70 years with limited success, all of a sudden, became immensely successful. We saw universal school choice legislation pass in 10 states, with more certainly to come.
The second example: the federal budget. The traditional Reagan-style approach would be conservatives arguing for a balanced budget, arguing for spending cuts, arguing for tax reductions, and creating really intricate mathematical and economic formulas to persuade voters on the basis of abstract rationality. We shouldn’t really be surprised, though, that this approach doesn’t get most voters excited, it doesn’t get them inspired, it doesn’t get them to demand action.
But some people—most notably Russ Vought, who is President Trump’s former OMB director—have pioneered a new approach to talking about the budget that I think has enormous potential. Russ talks about the “woke and weaponized bureaucracy.” He talks about defunding $150 billion that is currently being spent to advance left-wing priorities that are antithetical to the values of the majority of citizens. And he’s taking these really complex mathematical equations and giving them a new valence, a new articulation using moral language.
He’s also creating also a narrative that citizens, through their legislators, can go on the offensive and take out the “woke and weaponized bureaucracy” that is threatening the values of the majority and the values of the American Constitution. And I think that this is going to be much more persuasive in the future. And again: this is not to say that we should forget about the budget, we should forget about deficits, we should forget about tax policy. Those are important. But the way to get action, the way to get there substantively, is through, first and foremost, this new moral frame.
How Conservatives Can Take the Linguistic High Ground
And so the ultimate style of communication, the ultimate approach to these issues is to combine both the economic or the rational argument and the values- or principles-based argument. So, for example, when you’re talking about the DEI bureaucracy, you should absolutely say that it’s a waste of money, that we shouldn’t devote a single penny of taxpayer dollars towards advancing critical race theory in the federal government. But you should also say that this is a moral argument, pitting a new neo-Marxist ideology against timeless and universal American principles. And when you can do both, I think that much more success for conservatives is possible.
At the end of the day, the moral argument taps into what Aristotle called the “final cause,” or the telos. What are we doing these things for? What is the purpose of politics? What is the purpose of a sprawling federal government? And we’re arguing that it shouldn’t be squandered on an ideology based on resentment, revenge, and redistribution, but the timeless American principles of excellence, merit, competence, and achievement, and protecting the values of the broad middle class. And when we can create a debate about ends, not just a debate about means, we can seize the moral high ground and we can utilize this vocabulary effectively. In a way, we can reawaken the great conservative vocabulary to say that we are protecting the people and their most deeply-held values, against a hostile and nihilistic bureaucracy that would love nothing more than to decimate them.
And as we build that meta-narrative—we pull in school choice, we pull in the federal budget, we pull in DEI bureaucracies in public universities—all of a sudden we have a really powerful story to tell. We can rally people to the cause and we can point them towards a higher end—the pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful or, in the American context, the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness—that is going to get people inspired, get people motivated, and get people on board with a movement that has the possibility to make real meaningful changes in everyone’s life.
This video is sponsored by Manhattan Institute.
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