Military Language in Politics Proves Resilient

by John J. Pitney, Jr.

Right after the Tucson shootings, some called for a halt to the use of military language in politics. At the Huffington Post, Gary Hart wrote: “The degree to which violent words and phrases are considered commonplace is striking. Candidates are ‘targeted.’ An opponent is ‘in the crosshairs.’ Liberals have to be “eliminated.” Opponents are ‘enemies.’” To these critics, even metaphorical warfare was off-limits. At the New York Daily News, Michael Daly wrote, “Metaphor can incite murder.”

The moratorium on martial metaphors was brief. The Hill quotes Jennifer Crider of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: “The DCCC is targeting the 14 districts that were won by both President Obama and Sen. Kerry as well as the 47 additional districts that were won by President Obama.” Carla Marinucci writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Gov. Jerry Brown, a battle-scarred survivor in California politics who has vanquished well-armed opponents such as billionaire Meg Whitman, has said his strategic guidebook for decades has been a slim, 2,500-year-old volume: ‘The Art of War’ by Chinese general Sun Tzu.” And at Politico, Ben Smith reports: “The liberal group Media Matters has quietly transformed itself in preparation for what its founder, David Brock, described in an interview as an all-out campaign of ‘guerrilla warfare and sabotage’ aimed at the Fox News Channel.”

Exhortations to “de-militarize” political rhetoric were never practical to begin with. Although actual incitement to violence is wrong, it would be impossible to purge battlefield language from politics. Years ago, the manager of a presidential campaign wrote: “Other campaigns, John Kennedy in 1960, McCarthy in 1968, Robert Kennedy in 1968, had relied heavily on the classic insurgency technique of rousing the countryside — the volunteers — to beat the entrenched powers. Like most political techniques, this one is based on military principles; it is New England citizens with pitchforks and muskets against George III’s troops.”

The manager worked for George McGovern in 1972. His name was Gary Hart.

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