The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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A Call to Linguistic Disobedience

We have reached linguistic gridlock, in which bipartisan dialogue has been replaced by competing efforts to manipulate voters with loaded vocabularies. Nothing will change so long as Americans remain passive consumers of these vocabularies.

Published on June 10, 2012



Therefore when the kings had regulated names, when they had fixed terms and so distinguished actualities . . . they were careful to lead the people towards unity. Therefore making unauthorised distinctions between words, and making new words—thus confusing the correct nomenclature, causing the people to be in doubt and bringing about much litigation—was . . . a crime like that of using false credentials or false measures. . . . Hence the people were guileless. Being guileless, they could be easily ordered. Being easily ordered, they achieved results. . . . Should a true king arise, he must certainly follow the ancient terms and make the new ones.

—Ancient Chinese text1

I

magine a society built upon total linguistic obedience, in which government controls the meanings of words and no one dares challenge that control for fear of dire consequences. Thankfully, we do not live in such a society. For that very reason, however, it behooves us to recognize that, in the absence of governmental fiat, there are other ways to render people guileless and easily ordered. And when that occurs, it is rarely in the interests of those being manipulated.

We need not look far to find contemporary examples. The current American political scene is rife with them. Politicians employ vocabularies that not only denigrate opponents but camouflage their own views and allow them to present themselves as the opposite of who they really are. As the national election draws closer, the more widespread and intense the linguistic manipulation becomes.

By now many Americans have an intuitive sense of how the other side does it. People who think of themselves as liberals know exactly how self-styled conservatives do it. They don’t really want to conserve; they want to destroy—Social Security, Medicare, collective bargaining, indeed the entire New Deal and all of its offspring. Therefore they adopt a label that paints themselves as conserving the American system, as conserving American values, because if they can get people to see them as conserving, they can’t be credibly accused of destroying. Their label is their camouflage.

Not surprisingly, those who identify as conservatives see neither contradiction nor camouflage. They fully believe certain things must be destroyed to conserve the larger system, much like destroying cancer to conserve life. Moreover, in exactly reciprocal fashion, they know intuitively that self-styled liberals call themselves that not because they wish to liberate but to hide the fact that they wish to rob and enslave. They want to take people’s money and subject Americans to total governmental control of their lives, so they use a label that paints them as liberating rather than enslaving.

Again, the label is the camouflage. And again reciprocally, those who identify as liberals see neither contradiction nor camouflage in their own usage. To them, certain government programs are absolutely necessary to liberate people from the otherwise crushing power of corporate greed and irresponsibility. And because those programs require financial support, there must be fair and adequate taxation, which, far from being robbery, prevents a much broader form of robbery at the hands of banks, insurance companies, oil companies and other huge enterprises.

In short, each side fully believes in its own vocabulary but sees the other side as using language for purposes of deception and control. Indeed, each side takes an Orwellian view of the other, seeing opponents as using language “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”2 While this mutual distrust is not new, it appears to have reached the point where we are experiencing not only political gridlock but an even more dangerous linguistic gridlock. With no mutually acceptable vocabulary, communication between contending parties has all but been replaced by efforts to bypass opponents and communicate directly with two key constituencies: independent or swing voters, and the respective bases each side wishes to mobilize. Ironically, while linguistic gridlock and its attendant breakdown of communication have helped produce the abysmally low approval ratings given to Congress, it is nonetheless self-reinforcing. The bulk of campaign contributions now go into funding endless repetition of competing vocabularies, or what Mark Twain called training. “Training is everything”, he wrote. “Training is all there is to a person.”3

In linguistic gridlock, politics reduces to training voters to accept one vocabulary and reject all others. Bipartisan dialogue is replaced by rival efforts at what sociologists call the “definition of the situation.” “Power, the control of others”, writes Peter Hall,

is accomplished by getting others to accept your view and perspective. This is achieved by controlling, influencing, and sustaining your definition of the situation since, if you can get others to share your reality, you can get them to act in the manner you prescribe.4

If people accept your vocabulary, they accept your reality.

Effective linguistic training not only makes it possible to defeat one’s rivals; it can indeed render people guileless, easily ordered and thus willing even to support policies that are manifestly contrary to their own interests. Ironically, on this point both sides agree, though each blames the other for doing it. Even more ironic, however, is that while the blame game has become the central preoccupation of both parties, the very vocabulary of that game has been remarkably deficient in one key respect. Current vocabulary, both the standard duality of liberals versus conservatives and its companion duality of “left” versus “right”, has utterly failed to explain how the present economic crisis came about.

Consider the bailouts that began in the fall of 2008. In the heat of a presidential election campaign, the Bush Administration suddenly announced that unless Congress immediately provided $750 billion to certain financial institutions with virtually no oversight and no strings attached, the entire economy would collapse. Most Democrats, including the party’s presidential candidate, voted for the appropriations, while a large bloc of House Republicans adamantly refused to go along with their own administration.

Were those House Republicans suddenly “going left” in their refusal to assist large corporations? Was the Bush Administration suddenly “going liberal” in demanding taxpayer money to keep the economy afloat? Or were Democrats who voted for the bailouts “going conservative” in supporting Bush? Which was the “liberal” position, which the “conservative”, which the “left-wing” view, which the “right-wing”? Nor does it help to classify or label the positions according to who supported them. Bernie Sanders opposed the bailouts, but so did Eric Cantor. Barack Obama supported them, but so did John McCain. So labeling ad hominem gets us nowhere.

Moreover, the standard labels not only fail to explain individual or group votes; they fail to provide any insight into the causes of the crisis. Was it a result of liberal policies or conservative policies? Was it caused by leftist or rightist programs? There is obviously no consensus. Each side blames the other, but that only reinforces the gridlock and makes the rhetoric even harsher. When we look at current political vocabulary from this perspective, we are immediately confronted by two questions: How did this gridlock come about, and what, if anything, can be done about it?

T

he first thing to recognize is that political labels like “liberal” and “conservative” are what social scientists call condensation symbols. They condense a lot of information into small packages. Such condensation includes not only assertions of fact but values and emotional cues as well. Condensation symbols are designed to evoke emotional responses and are thus central to what George Lakoff calls framing, or the organizing of political discourse to promote certain perspectives and discredit others.5

Condensation symbols derive their evocative power not from any precision of meaning but rather from their ambiguity and flexibility. Far from having fixed definitions, political labels evolve over time. That is to say, there is no such thing as “the correct definition” of words like liberal and conservative. There are only those definitions that particular individuals and groups have assigned to the labels at various times and places by condensing certain information into them.

Because labels have great evocative power, the condensation process is competitive and ongoing. That is what linguistic training is about: getting people to accept the factual assertions, values and emotional cues that have been condensed into labels by one side rather than another. Labels will be used as self-designations, that is to say, “good” labels, or as epithets, “bad” labels, depending upon what information is condensed into them. For example, to a Paul Krugman the word liberal is a cherished self-designation or “good” label, whereas to a Rush Limbaugh it’s a hated epithet or “bad” label, to be hurled at opponents at every opportunity. Obviously, those who use a word as a self-designation will define it very differently from those who use it as an epithet. The same holds true for words like conservative, left and right. Many Tea Party supporters are not only happy to identify as “right-wing”; they see Occupy Wall Street people as “left-wing lunatics.” The latter return the compliment, simply reversing the polarities. Each accepts the other’s choice of labels, but the connotations they attach to them are as diametrically opposed as the labels themselves. As economic and other stresses intensify, so does the harshness of the linguistic competition.

As new issues arise, not only will the contents assigned to old labels change; new terms will emerge as politicians compete to frame public understanding by condensing new information into new vocabulary. Thus Mitt Romney will identify himself with “the opportunity society” as contrasted with Barack Obama’s supposed belief in “the entitlement society”—a new self-designation versus a new epithet.

As popularly accepted meanings of labels change, so do their popularity. A label may be the dominant self-designation of one era and become the most hated epithet of another. Seventy-five years ago, the liberal label was the predominant self-designation in American politics. Today, it is far more widely used as an epithet. Partly in response, the last few years have seen a reemergence of the term “progressive” as an alternative self-designation for those wishing to avoid the liberal label. 

Changes in popularity and usage do not merely reflect changes in political mood; they may significantly affect politics itself. Entire programs and policies can be rendered illegitimate in the minds of millions through the application of a single epithet, for example, “Obamacare.” Moreover, by reducing political discourse to competing self-designations and epithets, the very process of condensation tends to oversimplify issues and thereby undercut recognition of complexity and uncertainty. This in turn can reduce or even eliminate room for discussion, deliberation and compromise. Most important, the inclusion of values and emotional cues promotes rigidity and inflexibility, thus further undermining the possibility of mutual concession and accommodation.

In short, not only are condensation symbols at the heart of American political discourse; in this age of instant mass communication, as they take on ever-increasing importance they also tend to promote the very linguistic gridlock that not only paralyzes politics but is simultaneously self-reinforcing. Which in turn brings us to the key question: What, if anything, can be done about it?

Let us begin by clarifying what cannot be done about it. Some observers suggest that all we need do to put our political discourse back on track is to restore a working consensus on the meanings of labels. Others suggest that we need new definitions of old labels, or even entirely new labels more in touch with political reality. The problem with both approaches is that political labels are weapons, tools of power. That is why they are objects of perpetual competition. There may occasionally be longer or shorter periods of consensus, depending upon the electoral strength of those in power, but this does not mean that the competitive process has ended or that the evolution of political labels as weaponry has ceased.

Nor do labels become “out of touch” with political reality; they are part of political reality and are constituative of it. A label may lose popularity because the policies associated with it have lost favor, as was the case with the liberal label in the 1980s. An astute politician may even be able to capitalize on this and turn a label from a self-designation into an epithet, as Ronald Reagan did in his references to “the dreaded L-word.” Reagan’s achievement, however, did not take place outside the context of linguistic competition; on the contrary, it was the most signal victory within that process of the past thirty years, rivaling in importance Franklin Roosevelt’s achievement in making the liberal label coextensive with the New Deal itself. So sweeping was Reagan’s victory that, to this day, few candidates for office are willing to identify with it.

This does not mean, however, that Reagan’s victory is permanent. Nor does it mean that those who wish to revive the liberal label as a self-designation will have to change their definition of the word. They may opt, as Roosevelt put it in 1924, to do nothing and wait “for the other fellow to put his foot in it.” Nor will redefining old labels or inventing new ones change the nature of political vocabulary. Given the competitive nature of politics, competition for control of language will always be part of the political process. All condensation symbols, old or new, will always be subject to rival efforts to control their content. Thus neither approach will solve the problem of linguistic gridlock.

What, then, can be done? The irony is exquisite. Orwell was right when he wrote about improving politics by “starting at the verbal end.” But starting at the verbal end does not mean perpetuating linguistic gridlock by updating old condensation symbols or inventing new ones. Nor does it mean ignoring existing symbols or pretending they don’t exist. On the contrary, we need to engage with existing symbols in a different way. We need to study the history of our linguistic battles to understand how they got us here. Rather than limiting ourselves by using condensation symbols as organizing concepts, we need to step back from them and analyze them critically. Put another way, we need to free ourselves of our linguistic training and analyze the vocabularies that have been used to train us. This is at once the only way to understand their impact and the only way to escape our self-perpetuating linguistic gridlock.

F

ortunately, we have at our disposal a striking point of entry into this process. Confronted at the Iowa State Fair in August 2011 by a heckler who urged an increase in corporate taxes, Mitt Romney responded with his now-famous line, “Corporations are people, my friend.” When others in the audience replied, “No, they’re not!”, Romney followed up with the rejoinder, “Of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people.”

Romney’s statement opens a window that gives us a magnificent view of the subject. He takes us back more than 125 years to a fierce linguistic competition that took place during the early post-Civil War era. It was then that corporations first came to dominate the American economy. Key to that predominance was the 1886 Supreme Court decision in Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific that recognized corporations as “artificial individuals” within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. The decision touched off a furious debate over who really had the right to claim the “individualist” label, the corporations or their critics.

Rarely used in current political discourse, the word individualist was the first and most important condensation symbol of post-Civil War America. The word itself is a metaphor taken from the world of nature, in which the biological individual is a naturally occurring organism. In Social Darwinist America, what survived “naturally” survived legitimately. Moreover, by allowing disparate individuals to combine their resources under limited liability, corporations enabled them to do what few could do singly. Hence the court’s willingness to define the corporation as an “artificial individual.” Corporate entrepreneurs enthusiastically adopted the court’s usage, and the individualist label became the first self-designation to dominate modern American political discourse.

This did not happen without a fight. Journalist Hamlin Garland, a leading critic of corporate power, put it succinctly:

We are individualists mainly. Let that be understood at the start. We stand unalterably opposed to the paternal idea in government. We believe in fewer laws and juster interpretation thereof. We believe in less interference with individual liberty, less protection of the rapacious demands of the few, and more freedom of action on the part of the many.6

If this statement, written more than 120 years ago, sounds remarkably contemporary, it is no accident. What Garland was saying was precisely that corporate power depends not on the absence of “paternal” government but on its presence. Through tax policy, subsidies, land grants, huge construction contracts and other forms of assistance, government had “fathered” a great concentration of wealth, creating “vast corporations and privileged classes.” Government itself had created “giant corporations to dominate our legislature” and its intervention had undercut competition and created “the trusts.” As beneficiaries of massive doses of government “paternalism”, corporations had no right to call themselves “individualists.”7

This was not simply a battle over labels; it was a battle to shape people’s understanding of the real sources and nature of corporate power. It was about America’s political economy changing in ways that were making it dramatically different from ante-bellum America. It was nothing less than a battle for America’s future.

Not surprisingly, corporate spokesman Andrew Carnegie took the opposite view. Decrying constant “tinkering” by legislators with the “all-wise laws of natural forces”, Carnegie insisted that America’s “individualistic” system protected it from the permanent class divisions of Europe. “Wealth”, he argued, “cannot remain permanently in any class if economic laws are allowed free play.” As for the “bugaboo of trusts”, under competitive conditions such supposed monopolies were constantly creating new competitors for themselves. “The more successful the Trust”, he wrote, “the surer these off-shoots are to sprout. Every victory is a defeat.”

Needless to say, Carnegie ignored suggestions that corporate power required either government assistance or special privileges. In his book Triumphant Democracy (1888) he never mentioned land grants, subsidies, government contracts or other aids to corporate growth. Corporate success, he argued, was a natural result of the great American “tradition” of minimal government. “The laws”, he wrote, “are perfect.”

If one draws a straight line from Hamlin Garland to the Occupy Wall Street movement and a second straight line from Andrew Carnegie to Mitt Romney, it might at first appear as though little has changed over the past century and a quarter. Not only do we hear the same arguments over policy; even if the specific term “individualist” is no longer in vogue, we nonetheless hear them couched in similarly competing vocabularies.

In reality, of course, a great deal has changed. To begin with, the debate has not been continuous. In that early opening round there were clearly winners and losers: Carnegie and the corporations won; Garland and his fellow critics lost. Not only did they lose on an immediate policy level; more important, they lost the linguistic battle. They lost the competition to define the situation, and in so doing lost their battle to shape public understanding of the real sources of corporate power in the American political economy.

Carnegie’s condensation symbols, from the individualist label to the term “free play”, brilliantly succeeded in camouflaging any links between government aid and corporate growth. By contrast, Garland’s efforts to pin the paternalist label on the corporations utterly failed. By the mid-1890s, the corporations had turned his usage around and were aggressively applying the label to critics who wished to use government to limit corporate power. The paternalist label, as defined by the corporations rather than by their critics, thus became the first modern American political epithet. Henceforth, the word paternalism would conjure up visions not of corporate dependence on government, but of efforts to use government to limit corporate power. With the victory of the corporate definition of the situation, the most important post-Civil War insight into the actual nature of the corporate-government relationship was literally lost in the evolution of our political vocabulary. To this day, it has not been fully recovered.

The debates over the current economic crisis are a case in point. That our standard labels fail to explain either the political causes of the financial collapse or the votes on the bailouts is no accident. To the extent that there exists any media consensus on current usage of the standard labels, it usually takes the form of “liberal equals left equals more government equals an anti-corporate attitude”, while “conservative equals right equals less government equals a pro-corporate attitude.” Both usages assume a negative relationship between government action and corporate power. Both assume government activity is never deliberately pro-corporate. Hence the conspicuous absence of both labels in media coverage of the voting on the bailouts.

A similar observation applies to explanations that blame the financial/economic collapse either on the banks or on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The explanation usually labeled “liberal” or “left” argues that insufficiently regulated banks were alone responsible, while that usually labeled “conservative” or “right” blames the government-sponsored and insured mortgage giants for usurping the rightful role of private financial institutions. Again, both explanations not only assume an antagonism between corporations and government; they ignore such mutually profitable (and ultimately risky) relationships such as that which existed between Countrywide Financial and Fannie Mae.

Current arguments over regulation further highlight the misleading nature of our labeling system. That system classifies more regulation as liberal, less regulation as conservative. Again, the assumption is that government regulation is by nature anti-corporate. Yet as Bernard Harcourt points out, the so-called deregulation movement of the 1970s shows clearly that this is not necessarily the case. Since by that time both parties were already highly dependent on corporations for campaign contributions, neither party was willing to acknowledge that the legal framework that remained in place after deregulation was still highly supportive of the largest corporations. Republicans and Democrats alike, Harcourt writes, “were able to disguise massive redistribution toward the richest by claiming they were simply ‘deregulating’ when all along they were actually reregulating to the benefit of their largest campaign donors.”8

Similarly, the standard labels also miss key issues regarding debt ceilings and deficits. Supporters and detractors alike tend to refer to Ronald Reagan as America’s quintessential modern conservative. Such labeling utterly fails to explain not only his presiding over several increases in the debt ceiling and his raising taxes not once but several times (calling them “revenue enhancements”), but also accumulating what were up to that point the largest deficits in American history. And he did these things at the very time he was calling government itself “not the solution but the problem.”

Does this mean Reagan was really a closet liberal? Of course not. The point is not to fit people, events and issues into a labeling system. On the contrary, the point is that to accept the labeling system itself is to relinquish any ability to explain behaviors, events and issues with reference to the actual relationship between corporations and government. There are Reagan supporters who still insist that most of his deficits were accumulated through defense spending, and that support for a strong military has always been a conservative virtue. Like all such definitions, this one is not only partisan; it begs the question of which groups benefited most from such spending. The answer, of course, is that it was many of our largest corporations, those to whom President Eisenhower referred as the “military-industrial complex.”

Perhaps most striking of all is the way in which current vocabulary affects debates over future spending. A protest sign at a Tea Party rally reads, “You Are Not Entitled To What I Earn.” The clear reference is to such programs as Social Security, Medicare and unemployment benefits rather than subsidies to oil companies or commodity price supports for agribusiness. Similarly, epithets such as “Obamacare” ignore the many ways in which the President’s 2010 healthcare legislation protected and served the interests of large health insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Not only does such labeling obscure the degree to which government activity benefits corporations; it obscures the degree to which such activity is a direct result of lobbying efforts mounted by those corporations. As a result, the resentment generated over government spending is directed instead against the poor, while resentment against the wealthy is dismissed or denigrated as “class warfare.”

O

ur condensation symbols today not only oversimplify, distort and camouflage political and economic realities; they also perpetuate linguistic training rather than critical analysis. Benjamin Lee Whorf once observed that language, “for all its kingly role”, was but “a superficial embroidery upon deeper processes of consciousness.” Far from suggesting that language was unimportant in shaping understanding, he was arguing that “the more superficial can mean the more important, in a definite operative sense.” Political labels are themselves superficial but have profound consequences, not least because labeling implies judgment, and that stops analysis. To perpetuate intellectual passivity through constant linguistic training is to keep public analysis of politics, and public political consciousness itself, at a perpetually superficial level.9

Can Americans ever be anything other than passive consumers of competing vocabularies? What would interactive politics look like if linguistic training were dethroned from its “kingly role” in the political process? What would it take to make this happen?

Nothing will change in American politics so long as a majority of Americans remain linguistically obedient, passively accepting the vocabularies of politicians and media alike. Nothing will change so long as Americans fail to analyze critically the myriad of condensation symbols thrown at them on a daily basis, including not only self-designations and epithets, but all of the catch phrases, slogans and supposedly “neutral” or “merely descriptive” terms that are in fact central to the process of linguistic training.

When Orwell advocated “starting at the verbal end”, he was calling not simply for grammatical self-discipline, but for relentless, ongoing cross-examination of the political vocabularies used by all parties. This does not mean reclaiming the “individualist” label for critics of large corporations. The point is not to re-fight an old, lost battle. The point is to learn from that battle, and from all other linguistic battles that can give us insight into how our political economy actually works and what must happen in order to make it work better for all.

Recently a panel of commentators on MSNBC agreed that if Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party members ever really communicated with each other, it would mark the beginning of the end for corporate domination of the American economy. In other words, if they could get beyond their respective linguistic barriers they would discover how much they had in common. What these commentators missed, however, is that what keeps the two groups from making contact is precisely the linguistic training to which both have been subjected since their respective movements began.

This is not to say that they have no genuine differences, or that their values are identical. For example, there is an Evangelical strain among Tea Party supporters that manifests itself in an unyielding opposition to all forms of abortion. Several prominent Tea Party supporters are also on record as unalterably opposed to gay marriage. These are issues to which Occupy Wall Street supporters pay little if any attention, and one suspects that a majority of them would not support Tea Party positions on such matters. Such points of difference notwithstanding, it is by no means clear that in America cultural issues will perpetually trump economic issues. The only thing that is clear, so far, is that no economic dialogue has taken place.

Not only does linguistic training keep such potential allies from making contact; it also inhibits understanding of the ways in which supposedly irreconcilable enemies currently in power share common interests as well as common strategies. As Harcourt points out, Democrats and Republicans alike shaped the deregulation movement of the 1970s so as to benefit their largest campaign contributors, and four decades later, our political vocabulary continues to camouflage that commonality. At stake are not just the results of another election cycle, important as they are. What is at issue is public understanding of how power actually works in America. Given that in an increasingly complex world, democracy more than ever requires not only an informed citizenry but an engaged, analytical citizenry, what is at stake is the future of American democracy itself.

Should Americans become linguistically disobedient, should they transform themselves from uncritical consumers of political vocabulary into actively critical analysts of the language presented to them, the nature of political discourse in this country will change dramatically. Debates between candidates will feature far more linguistic cross-examination than presently takes place. Existing antagonisms and alignments will both become subject to serious reconsideration. Media will eventually pick up on the trend and reinforce it. And the groups, parties and individuals who will benefit most will not be those who have been most adept at using condensation symbols to advance their own interests. Both within the political arena and in the nation as a whole, the beneficiaries will be those who are most successful at recognizing, uncovering and addressing actualities that have remained obscured as a result of decades of competitive linguistic training.

Our current linguistic gridlock is at once the inevitable and self-reinforcing result of such training. It can only be broken by a massive shift to linguistic disobedience. That is what “starting at the verbal end” is about. That is the challenge of our time. 

1Quoted in J.G.A. Pocock, Politics, Language, and Time (Atheneum, 1973), pp. 77–8.

2George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”, in Carlyle King, ed., A Book of Essays (Macmillan, 1973), p. 98.

3Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Harper & Brothers, 1889).

4Hall, “A Symbolic Interactionist Analysis of Politics”, in Andrew Effrat, ed., Perspectives in Political Sociology (Bobbs-Merrill, 1973), pp. 38, 51.

5Lakoff, The Political Mind (Viking, 2008), esp. chapters 7, 8.

6Garland, “A New Declaration of Rights”, The Arena (January 1891), p. 158.

7Garland, “A New Declaration of Rights”, pp. 165–169.

8Harcourt, “Occupy Wall Street’s ‘Political Disobedience’”, New York Times, October 13, 2011.

9Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality (M.I.T. Press, 1956), p. 239.

David Green is the author of The Language of Politics in America: Shaping Political Consciousness From McKinley to Reagan (Cornell University Press, 1991). He has taught at Ohio State, Cornell and York University.