Debates can be decided by the choice of the terms in which they are argued, by the label attached to the issue or position. In other words, they are decided by definition, and therefore in advance. Liberals have won a few that way. However, conservatives have had the overall advantage.
They have accomplished this in part by successfully defining "liberal" as a term of derision. When one side allows the other to define not only the labels for the issues but the names of the parties, the argument is nearly over. Liberals, rather than fighting back, have retreated into calling themselves progressives.
Liberals are derided in part because they are an "elite." Somehow, those who stand up for the welfare of the country and its citizens are elitists while those at the top of the socio-economic pyramid, who want still more, are allowed to pose as friends and protectors of ordinary folk. Dan Quayle often is credited with redefining "elitism," and saddling liberals with the epithet, by attacking the "cultural elite." I’m not sure that that phrase makes sense — the debate isn’t usually about the acquisitions budget of an art gallery — but it helped cement the image of liberals as out of touch. One variation has to do with values: ordinary people are religious and morally conservative and don’t care for the alleged loose lifestyles of the left; here’s where Quayle’s Murphy Brown attack registered. A corollary is the notion that liberals, residents of the Northeast or the West Coast, are unsympathetic toward real Americans from the heartland. Another trope has been the "intellectual elite:" people who, confident of their superior knowledge, tell us what to do; this goes back at least to the Roosevelt brain trust.
This year’s election gave us a twist on intellectual elitism courtesy of Rick Santorum: education is elitist.
President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob! There are good, decent men and women who work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor, trying to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. . . . .
I was so outraged that the President of the United States would stand up and say that every child in America should go to college. Who are you? Who are you to say that every child in America go — I mean the hubris of this President to think that he knows what’s best for you. . . . This is the kind of, the kind of snobbery that we see from those who think they know how to run our lives. Rise up, America. Defend your own freedoms and overthrow those folks who think they know how to orchestrate every aspect of your life.
Did Mr. Obama say that? Apparently not, but it hardly matters. Here the attack on the intellectual elite — they are liberals (socialists, communists, pick your favorite synonym) who want to impose authoritarian rule — comes wrapped in reverse snobbery about education. This was served up by a man with three college degrees. Not to worry; Rick definitely resisted being remade in the image of an intellectual.
Other words and phrases influence decisions: "right to work," not interference with unionization; protecting "small business," not tax breaks for the wealthy. (Small business has replaced motherhood as the icon to be protected; we could at least define the former). The current magic phrase is "the fiscal cliff;" it implies that some sort of unavoidable crisis awaits rather than a (less dire) situation created unnecessarily and irresponsibly which can be avoided by making intelligent decisions. Here’s statesman Orrin Hatch: "Rather than stop the country from going over the fiscal cliff and preventing the expiration of the 2001 and 2003 tax relief, they [Democrats] are prepared to Thelma and Louise the American economy right over the cliff.” Note the second magic phrase: "tax relief," the Bush gifts to the wealthy.