Fulcrum Words

In rhetoric, we recognize and pay particular attention to what are called “fulcrum words,” an analytical term for words, phrases and broader topics that an argument’s direction “hinges” on.  Fulcrum words and how they’re employed rhetorically by agents and actors in a given conversation turn the tides of onlooking opinion; fulcrum words shift the balance of an argument depending on how they’re placed and how effectively they’re wielded.

Viewing the three presidential debates in the past few weeks, I believe I’ve identified some basic fulcrum words that begin a list which contains great value for the ways we decide our political direction and national identity in 2016.  Some important fulcrum words are:

  • Women
  • Mexico
  • Wall Street
  • Establishment
  • Media
  • Outsider
  • Prison
  • Taxes
  • Crooked (“Crooked Hillary”)
  • Accusation
  • Lies
  • Syria
  • Obama(care)
  • Constitution

Now, I don’t want this post to turn into a political discussion, or even to advocate one way or another on the issues discussed.  Those close to me know where I stand, and that’s not what I’d like to focus on here. The candidates format their arguments around a simple question: “why should American voters choose me on November 8th?” The fulcrum words that make up this list, after a year and a half of primary and general election debate, coverage, outreach, image-crafting and scandal, have generally remained about the same in my estimation.

Elections are very much a popularity contest, but they do generate debate over policy issues that influence people’s lives in very concrete ways.  The fulcrum words employed by each candidate, I argue, go a long way toward their chances of appealing to voters on a demographic basis, and are probably selected by that very measure.

Where you stand in relation to these words probably determines your attitudes toward each candidate, and possibly tips your vote in one direction or another.  Some words are policy-related, while others concern themselves with the candidates’ personal attitudes and actions.

Given the power and depth of ideology residing in these fulcrum words, what do you all think the (partial) list says about how we view our political landscape of 2016? Which words would still appear on a list in 1984, or, say, in 2012? What words might you add to the list, and why?


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