Mitt Romney has trouble connecting with conservatives, not because he doesn’t speak their language, but because he speaks it too bluntly. (More)

The Romney Code, Part I: Severely Conservative

This week Morning Feature looks at Mitt Romney’s too-revealing gaffes. Today we consider what he meant by “severely conservative.” Tomorrow we’ll probe his statement that “banks aren’t bad people.” Saturday we’ll conclude with his comments about the poor and unemployed.


English is a wonderfully versatile language. For example, we have lots of ways to talk about excrement, such as poo, feces, manure, scat … and another four-letter word that starts with S. Author C.S. Lewis once remarked that in referring to certain parts of the body, “you have to resort to the language of the nursery, the gutter, or the medical textbook.” Using the definitions offered by Keith Allen and Kate Burridge in Forbidden Words, “poo” is a euphemism, a colloquial and often figurative term intended to be inoffensive, Lewis’ “language of the nursery.” “Feces,” “manure,” and “scat” are orthophemisms: formal and direct-but-distant terms, Lewis’ “language of the medical textbook.” That other four-letter word that starts with S is a dysphemism: a blunt term intended to offend or to convey a familiar relationship, Lewis’ “language of the gutter.”

We can hear the same patterns in political speech. For example, there are many ways to say “I like being able to choose my own health insurance and my own doctors.” You could say “I want health care choices,” or “I don’t want a government bureaucrat coming between me and my doctor.” If questioned why you accept a health insurance company bureaucrat doing the same thing, you might argue “I can change health insurance companies, but I can’t change governments.” Setting aside the question of whether everyone can afford to buy health insurance, these are all ways of saying “I like being able to choose my own health insurance and my own doctors.”

Or you could say “I like being able to fire people who provide services for me.”

But-But-But … Context!

Democrats quickly pounced on that statement – often edited down to “I like being able to fire people” – and Romney’s campaign immediately cried foul. His words were taken out of context, Romney insisted. That defense was ironic, after one of his campaign ads ignored context by running a clip of then-Senator Obama quoting Sen. John McCain in 2008. Romney insisted that context didn’t matter for his ad, because “There was no hidden effort on the part of our campaign.”

Yet that’s exactly why “I like being able to fire people” should stand on its own. Yes, Romney was saying – in another way – that people who can afford it should be able to choose their own health insurance and their own doctors. But Romney chose a dysphemism, a blunt word or phrase intended to offend or, as here, to convey familiarity. The subtext was “We’re all friends here, so I can let it all hang out” (to put it euphemistically). And what Romney let hang out was….

“severely conservative”

Pundits have been scratching their heads over that phrase ever since Romney said it last week in his CPAC speech. Rush Limbaugh said he’d never heard that phrase. David Frum opined that Romney really meant “strongly conservative.” Paul Krugman tried to dissect Romney’s phrase in terms of conservatism “detached from, indeed at odds with, facts and rationality,” as one might be “severely ill” or “severely disabled.”

The New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza offered a list of other contexts where writers used that phrase, and several of those examples express what I think Romney meant:

“The latter is due to the fact that he has been raised by his severely conservative Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and beloved Uncle George (David Threlfall).”

“Qatar’s ruling family has its roots in the same part of the Arabian peninsula that produced the Al Saud dynasty, and both subscribe to the severely conservative Hanbali legal school of Islam.”

And, from a Mormon book on wedding etiquette:

“Only severely conservative jewelry is worn by the bride. She may wish to wear pearls or other simple jewelry given her as a gift by the groom or her parents.”

The Strict Father model

In Moral Politics, cognitive linguist George Lakoff probed the differences between the progressive and conservative views of morality. The center of the conservative worldview, Lakoff argues, is the Strict Father model of the family and society:

This model posits a traditional nuclear family, with the father having primary responsibility for supporting and protecting the family as well as the authority to set overall policy, to set strict rules for the behavior of children, and to enforce the rules. The mother has the day-to-day responsibility for the care of the house, raising the children, and upholding the father’s authority. Children must respect and obey their parents; by doing so they build character, that is, self-discipline and self-reliance. Love and nurturance are, of course, a vital part of family life but can never outweigh parental authority, which is itself an expression of love and nurturance – tough love. Self-discipline, self-reliance, and respect for legitimate authority are the crucial things that children must learn.

Once children are mature, they are on their own and must depend on their acquired self-discipline to survive. Their self-reliance gives them authority over their own destinies, and parents are not to meddle in their lives.

A Mormon bride should wear pearls or some other simple jewelry given by the groom or her parents, to signal her submission. And when Romney wanted to ‘let it all hang out’ with a conservative audience in discussing health care choices, he said “I like being able to fire people who provide services for me” … to signal his authority.

Both are “severely conservative” signals, grounded in the Strict Father moral model. As the Christian Science Monitor put it:

In politics, a gaffe is often described as a “truth told by accident.”

Romney’s problem is not that he doesn’t speak conservative language, but that he speaks it too bluntly.


Happy Thursday!