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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The ever-changing meaning of change

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press just released a new study that tests Americans’ reactions to words and phrases that are used frequently in political conversations: “capitalism,” “civil liberties,” “civil rights,” “family values,” “libertarian,” “militia,” “progressive,” “socialism,” and “states’ rights.”

Here are the results, so look away now if you want to rank the words yourself from most positive to least positive impression.
1. Family Values: 89% positive/9% negative
2. Civil rights: 87%/10%
3. Civil liberties: 76%/14%
4. States rights: 77%/15%
5. Progressive: 68%/23%
6. Capitalism: 52%/37%
7. Libertarian: 38%/37%
8. Socialism: 29%/59%
9. Militia: 21%/65%
As expected, Democrats and Republicans differed in their reactions. Democrats were more favorable than Republicans to “civil liberties,” “civil rights,” “libertarian,” “progressive,” and “socialism.” Republicans responded more positively than Democrats to “capitalism,” “family values,” “militia,” and “states’ rights.”

But one word is conspicuously absent from the survey. It is perhaps the most used – or overused – word in politics: “change.” It was spoken so frequently during the last Presidential election that it became part of an Obama speech drinking game.

The word “change” also illustrates well that people’s reactions differ depending on who you ask and when you ask. “Change” generally has more positive connotations with younger people than older people, according to a February 2010 Pew study. During the 2008 elections, most voters would have probably said that change in American politics primarily meant a break from political leaders of the past. Those same voters today might instead associate political change with transforming Wall Street and corporate leadership.

Before the politicians of 2010 become overly fond of using any particular words, I hope they consider that words and connotations are ever-changing. If there is a politician out there who wants to talk semantics strategy, I’m all ears.