A beachhead by any other name?

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Matt Viser, Seung Min Kim & Annie Linskey, "Biden plans immediate flurry of executive orders to reverse Trump policies", WaPo 11/7/2020 [emphasis added]:

Although transitions of power can always include abrupt changes, the shift from Trump to Biden — from one president who sought to undermine established norms and institutions to another who has vowed to restore the established order — will be among the most startling in American history.

Biden’s top advisers have spent months quietly working on how best to implement his agenda, with hundreds of transition officials preparing to get to work inside various federal agencies. They have assembled a book filled with his campaign commitments to help guide their early decisions. […]

Making a clear break from the Trump administration's adversarial posture toward the civil service is also a top priority for the Biden transition team.

The Trump administration's suspicion of career officials and early calls for them to “get with the program” or “go” created tensions with incoming political appointees that never dissipated. Biden officials are hoping to create a positive atmosphere by avoiding some of the terminology and labels they think contributed to the mistrust.

The teams of campaign staffers and other aides that first embed themselves into government agencies after an election have historically been called “landing teams” and “beachhead teams,” summoning the memory of the storming of Normandy during World War II.

To avoid any associations with war, some Biden aides are sticking to soberingly bureaucratic terms, referring to landing teams as “ARTs” or Agency Review Teams, and beachhead team members as “temporary employees.”

Julia Preseau, who sent in the link and quote, wrote: "I would be interested in Linguists' opinions/take on this".

I doubt that linguists as a group have any special expertise in this area.

We could take a look at the Hedonometer scores of the various words involved, but I don't think we learn much thereby:



  1. Viseguy said,

    November 8, 2020 @ 8:09 pm

    The Biden team should re-read Orwell's "Politics and the English Language". Politics, like chess, is a form of warfare, so why not call things by their proper names? The only problem with "landing teams" and "beachhead teams" now is that they don't mean much to many people. "Drones" or "special forces" would be more relatable.

  2. Thiago Ribeiro said,

    November 8, 2020 @ 9:27 pm

    @Viseguy To be honest, I would find it both anticlimatic and pompous (almost in a stolen value way) if I learned the Biden team sent "beachhead teams" at the White House or is planning to send drones, but turns out it is about sending a bunch of pasty number crunchers. If "special forces" at the WH are mentioned at any point of the transition, I will demand a "raid on bin Laden's compound"-like operation. Doing anything less than that would be failing the American people.

  3. Haamu said,

    November 9, 2020 @ 12:43 pm

    My guess is that linguists could offer plenty of the "opinions" and "take[s]" that the questioner is seeking, but if you limit responses to "special expertise," per Prof. Liberman — particularly from "linguists as a group" rather than from individuals — then there will probably be a lot of reluctance. Leaving aside that the subject matter is politics, any theorizing here would have to verge into the somewhat controversial area of Cognitive Linguistics, wouldn't it?

    The idea that you'd want to "avoid any associations with war" seems like common sense, but can any rigor be applied to validate it? Assuming that associations with war actually form in a listener's mind, what is their nature and extent, and do they have any consequential cognitive impact? And, more broadly, is there any benefit or harm in political organizations investing in intriguing or seemingly intuitive but somewhat unsubstantiated Cognitive Linguistic ideas?

    It's a commonplace observation that, within the U.S. political sphere, Republicans are a few decades ahead of Democrats in grappling with these issues and deploying an infrastructure that allows them to wield an apparent rhetorical advantage. George Lakoff attempted to rebalance things by giving Democrats some theoretical underpinnings re "framing" analysis in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but enthusiasm for his ideas among rank-and-file Democrats seemed to drop off noticeably after Obama's win in 2008, as though theory was no longer needed. Nowadays you see Democrats making unforced framing errors like "Defund the Police," and while there's some criticism of these in internal discussions, it's vague ("associations") and, generally, no longer being couched in Lakoffian terms.

    With that context, the interesting points suggested by this article are: (1) Might the Biden Administration bring a renewed attention and sophistication to framing issues? and (2) Do they now see the Civil Service as a new partisan battleground (sorry for the war framing there) and therefore another audience, like the general electorate, that should be addressed through careful framing?

    I am not a linguist, and therefore, to the extent this is a "take," it isn't what the questioner is seeking. Nevertheless, I'd love to be educated by actual linguists and other more knowledgeable folks on any of these points.

  4. Haamu said,

    November 9, 2020 @ 12:55 pm

    PS — Another clear example of a recent unforced framing error by Democrats is the embrace by many of them of the phrase "Pack the Court."

  5. Haamu said,

    November 9, 2020 @ 1:29 pm

    The link to the Washington Post story in the post above is broken (URL was inadvertently doubled). Here's a working link.

  6. Haamu said,

    November 9, 2020 @ 2:28 pm

    At the risk of prolonging a conversation with only myself, I'll add another point that might be illustrative.

    If I were doing a conceptual frame analysis of "beachhead team" and "landing team," I would note the probable triggering of a war frame, but the real reason I'd want to avoid these terms is because of a few more precise frames that are likely to be activated in listeners: invasion, conquest, and perhaps even colonization.

    This follows from the assumption that the likely audience for messages containing these terms is not the general public, but the personnel at the agencies involved. (In several decades of political involvement and focused awareness, I've never seen "beachhead team" or "landing team" used in this way, but they might be common terms in agency communications during Presidential transitions.)

    A war frame entails outright conflict between mutually hostile forces. As such, it sends a negative message but doesn't exactly fit the context. Invasion/conquest, on the other hand, may suggest a more one-sided hostility and that the incoming teams view themselves as not merely in conflict with but fundamentally superior to the indigenous agency personnel. The risk is not merely becoming a casualty of war, but more likely surviving and being forced to live under a soul-killing occupation. Neither entails the prospect of meaningful collaboration, but the latter adds an emphasis on loss of control and lack of respect, where Biden instead presumably wants to convey that he views these civil servants as valued professionals and, to some extent, equals.

    It's important to emphasize that the hypothesis is that these messages are transmitted and received sub-rationally. In Daniel Kahneman's terms, they are being processed by System 1, not System 2.

  7. ajay said,

    November 10, 2020 @ 4:33 am

    If I were doing a conceptual frame analysis of "beachhead team" and "landing team," I would note the probable triggering of a war frame, but the real reason I'd want to avoid these terms is because of a few more precise frames that are likely to be activated in listeners: invasion, conquest, and perhaps even colonization.

    "Beachhead" implies an opposed landing, though. I don't think anywhere in the world has ever been successfully colonised followed an opposed landing. The time frames simply don't overlap.

  8. KeithB said,

    November 10, 2020 @ 11:22 am

    The Norman Conquest?

  9. Haamu said,

    November 10, 2020 @ 10:23 pm

    It's important to note that conceptual frames don't have to be historically accurate. They are largely socially and culturally constructed. It might be relevant how actual invasions or colonizations have taken place, but it might be more relevant how they've been depicted in popular science fiction movies, for instance.

  10. ajay said,

    November 11, 2020 @ 4:58 am

    KeithB – not an opposed landing. The Normans landed in Pevensey without opposition (the fyrd was up around York fighting Harald Hardrada).
    Before the gunpowder age, you don't really get successful opposed landings, for fairly obvious reasons; the Mongols tried one in Japan and got minced.

  11. ajay said,

    November 11, 2020 @ 4:59 am

    As to Haamu's point, I wouldn't worry about Americans hearing amphibious-landing words and thinking of negative things like "occupation" and "colonisation". I would expect them to think of things like "D-Day" and "Iwo Jima"!

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