In Language Wars, The Right has Won

It is an apt metaphor: emerging from the forest, on a quiet, nondescript road in southern New Hampshire, a sign reads, “Obama has fired more cruise missiles than all other Peace Prize winners combined.” The sign is white, the lettering, green. The creator of the sign is unnamed, and those driving by are left with inevitable questions as to who made it, and as to why. Yet they are also left with a statement of truth. It is a truth emerging out of the dark New Hampshire wilderness; but it is also a truth that has surfaced, however humbly, however ephemerally, from the dark and convoluted wilds of American political discourse.

In this country, political language is not—as some will say—confused. The Republican Party does not label President Obama a socialist out of confusion. Rather, political language is a battleground in which the battle lines are clearly drawn. Political language is a field in which diverse and powerful interests wage daily definitional skirmishes, in which one word may become a victory that takes years to achieve. Tactics of intimidation, appeals to racism, and an otherwise profound use of public social engineering have rendered entire linguistic histories moot. The Republican Party’s transmogrification of “socialism” is but one of a string of victories for the Right.

Indeed, since the closing of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society—a period of substantial reform in the 1960’s that oversaw the creation of Medicare and Medicaid—political language in this country has suffered nearly continuous perversion. Words such as “union” and “welfare” (not to mention “socialism”) are no longer emblematic of human advancement as they were in earlier epochs. Rather, right-wing strategists, lobbyists, politicians, and CEO’s have utterly disemboweled the historical and popular meanings of these words, replacing them with connotations of “middle-class oppression.” In the war of language, the political Right has won. We can’t even speak of a national social contract—once a presupposed socio-political reality, however partial and even exclusive it was of certain social groups—without consequently enduring destructive and idiotic epithets. Ultimately, language has an immediate causal relation to political realities: the national linguistic climate directly determines the national policy climate. If, for example “single-payer healthcare” is equated to Stalinism, then the former will never be achieved. And thus the Republicans’ recent monopoly on populist political language has largely facilitated the rightward trending of the Democratic Party—a historical phenomenon dating from the 1970’s onward.

The Democratic Party has played a passive role in this historico-linguistic regression. From the utter economic failings of the Carter administration, to Clinton’s gutting of welfare programs and his murderous sanctions on the Iraqi people (mostly children), Democratic leadership has proven incapable of confronting the Right’s reconceptualization of our political spectrum. Since the 1970’s, under both Republican and Democratic leadership, our government has systematically dismantled social protections, deregulated the financial sector, neglected urgent environmental concerns, and perpetuated a foreign policy of endless war. President Obama represents no divergence from this new, bipartisan party line.

Elected in 2008, Obama began his presidency by shoveling billions of dollars into the very financial institutions that caused the crash of that year. Through 2009, the leaders of the financial elite recorded record bonuses, while a majority of Americans sank ever deeper into economic misery. One upshot of the Great Depression, for example, was the implementation of significant banking regulation (facilitated by the passage of such groundbreaking reforms as the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which limited financial speculation). After the 2008 crash, however, our regulatory structure remains basically unchanged. Or take so-called health-care reform: as Thomas Frank notes in the September issue of “Harper’s Magazine,” the Democrats’ new legislation was largely inspired by Heritage Foundation policy advocacy and “a certain Republican governor of Massachusetts.” Indeed, the new law grants further monopoly privileges to private health insurers and pharmaceutical corporations. Yes, the legislation will slow the rise of health-care costs, but costs will nonetheless continue rising, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Furthermore, around twenty-five million people will remain uninsured. Regarding immigration: Obama has already overseen more deportations of “illegal immigrants” than any other president.

Obama’s foreign policy is similarly conservative. Rather than quickly ending the Afghanistan War—a campaign promise—he delayed the U.S. withdrawal from 2011 to 2014. In this imperial war, drones are his weapon of choice: ripping through the Afghan night they shatter the lives of militants and civilians alike. Even Americans may be killed in drone strikes, for Obama has given himself the legal authority to carry out the assassination on foreign soil of any citizen suspected of terrorist activities. Guantanamo is still in operation; habeas corpus is not a presidential priority. Obama’s record is that of a war hawk, not a progressive.

There are, admittedly, some significant differences between Romney and Obama. Womens’ and gay rights, and the necessity of certain social programs, are areas of real contention between the two. Yet however progressive Obama’s stance on certain issues, the overwhelming direction of his policies is conservative. Yes, Republican language is increasingly violent and contains barely coded logics of racism and social Darwinism. But in recent memory, neither has the Democratic Party neverbeen so far to the right as it currently is. As November nears, Americans will once again be subjected to the fraudulent spectacle of electoral politics. The choice—between Romney and Obama—is a false one. For liberals and progressives, for socialists, pacifists, and environmentalists, only a decisive and mass rejection of this politics of illusion will deliver us from our permanent disappointment. We must vote for actually democratic third parties while rejecting the very premises of our broken two-party system. And we must reject, unconditionally, our corrupted and reactionary Democratic Party.

~ by Eli Lichtenstein


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