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War of the Words

March 24th, 2006

Language has always been a battleground, and conservatives have been especially nasty in how they wield that particular weapon. Look at George H. W. Bush (41) in the 1988 election, taking off with the “L-word,” part of a wide-ranging conservative attack on liberalism–still raging today–which has at least partially succeeded in making the term “liberal” an epithet. Newt Gingrich went further with a wider linguistic attack when he distributed a memo titled “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control” to be used by Republican politicians, operatives, and pundits. One section of the memo lists “contrasting” words intended to be used when describing Democratic politicians or their policies (such as “abuse,” “decay,” and “shame”), and another section lists “governing” words for describing Republican politicians and their policies (“active,” “empower,” “principle”).

That war is still raging, and Josh Marshall is onto one particular word that is being, and has long been, attacked–“Democratic.” Now, one thing that should be recognized as a solid rule is that when an organization names itself, everyone uses that name. If the Green Party calls itself the “Green Party,” you don’t call it the “Greenie Party,” at least not officially. Republicans, again using language as a weapon, are ignoring this rule in a very subtle but pointed attack on the very name of the party opposite them.

The party is called the “Democratic Party,” the adjective form of the name being “Democratic,” as in “the Democratic Senator from Wisconsin.” Republicans have long wanted to change the terminology, so that “Democratic” is never used to describe Democratic politicians or policies, but rather the word “Democrat” be the only form, as in “the Democrat Party,” or “the Democrat Senator from Wisconsin.”

Why change it? The main reason is clearly because conservatives may resent the fact that Democrats have a name that evokes Democracy and Democratic principles; some conservatives clearly do not feel that Democrats are “democratic” enough to deserve the title–a highly ironic attitude considering what “democratic” means, and ironic that the name “Republican” is as equally fitting or unfitting a name, linguistically speaking.

Another reason for the desire is that the word “Democrat” can be differentiated from “democratic” (the name “Republican” cannot, as the root noun is “republic,” and no other noun form is commonly acceptable), meaning that conservatives can then smear the name “Democrat” without appearing “undemocratic.” Already that is being done. A Republican ad in 2000 flashed the word “bureaucrats” across the TV screen in various sizes, one of which cut off the first part of the word, leaving only the word “RATS” on the screen for a fraction of a second. Freepers instantly caught the signal and to this day still capitalize the last four letters of the word “Democrats” when they make reference to the opposition.

Liberals proved the linguistic strategy worthy when many ran from the very word “liberal” after Bush 41’s attack. While I think the name “progressive” is a good one–positive and accurately descriptive–I have mixed feelings because it in part represents a concession to conservatives that “liberal” no longer is a good name, despite the nearly endless positive connotations of the word itself. (Ironically, the word “conservative” has far more negative connotations, such as “stingy,” “unadventurous,” or “mean.”)

The problem, of course, is that this entire battle digs deeply into the philosophy that politics is perception, not reality–a dangerous paradigm that only serves to destroy the country. If politics is not based on reality, then unreal solutions will be applied to real problems–which is why the “war on drugs” is so badly failing, to cite one egregious example. It means that winning is more important than serving, and it only takes one party to steer that way for the nation as a whole to be led to ruin.

The entire political language war neatly encapsulates conservative thinking. Don’t make sense, just win the argument. Don’t serve the public, just mislead them and do what you want. And unfortunately, this conservative strategy fits perfectly into the current media age, where bile and anger win out over reason and science, where sound bites win out over considered, thoughtful explanation, and where a meaningless ten-word meme wins out over an unerring thousand-word examination of a critical issue.

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  1. Paul
    March 25th, 2006 at 05:06 | #1

    It *is* depressing to think that perception is more important than reality… but the facts are such that perception is very, very important.

    Anyone who knows and understands the bell curve realizes that unfortunately 50% of the population falls on the left-hand side of the IQ chart. Like it or not, a large portion of our fellow citizens are nitwits.

    Now, I’d say that a vast majority of those on the left side of the curve are still smart enough to get through these issues and that *reality* is, or should be, more important to them.

    The problem is that in today’s high-paced, consumeristic society, it doesn’t matter. Even a scary percentage of those on the right side of the curve don’t bother applying any critical thinking; I can’t believe the things I hear some people say- and these are fairly intelligent people!

    Thus, I think it behooves liberals/progressives/Democrats to PAY ATTENTION to these things, and to do a little language war of their own. We must. If you don’t win, you can’t get anything done. While it might make us feel good to *know* that we’re right on the issues, if we keep losing it doesn’t do us any damn good.

    Seattle, WA

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