Politics & Policy

When Words Lose Their Meaning

Politics and the English language in 21st-century America.

In 1946, a frustrated George Orwell, tired of “the special connection between politics and the debasement of language,” put pen to paper. “A bad usage,” Orwell averred, “can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.” Those of us who had the misfortune of being alive during the recent general election will understand well what he was getting at.

The two key taxonomical terms that we use in American political life are largely meaningless. Whether it is a case of thought corrupting language or language corrupting thought, our politics is suffering as a result. I contribute to the problem as keenly as anyone by identifying myself as a “conservative” when I am a “conservative” in no meaningful way. My opponents do the same thing, describing themselves as “liberals” when they, too, are no such thing. It is one big conspiracy of ease.

We do this despite its being self-evident nonsense. The Left terms the Right “radically conservative” in the same breath in which it charges hysterically that we wish to “transform the government,” which is to follow an oxymoron with a non sequitur. Not to be outdone, the Right speaks angrily of “prescriptive” and “controlling” and “statist” “liberals.”

What, for example, should we make of Barack Obama’s simultaneous charges that Mitt Romney was a “severe conservative” and that he wanted “to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, . . . the social policies of the 1950s, and the economic policies of the 1920s”? What of the president’s frequent claim that Romney — again, a “conservative” — wanted to “end Medicare as we know it”? What of Obama campaigning under a banner that read “Forward” while ensuring us that, if he had his druthers, the existing state would stay in the same form in perpetuity, only to be expanded but never to be shrunk? (And certainly never subjected to the risk of reform.) Whether or not Obama’s claims of Republican radicalism were fair, it was certainly bizarre to watch the president move coolly between charges of iconoclasm and insinuations that Romney was running as champion of the status quo.

Orwell’s aim was “the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness.” “Conservative” and “liberal” are probably here to stay, so we might have to alter rather than abolish their usage. If so, the first task will be to try to close the gap between what the words mean in the minds of those who reflexively use them and what they mean practically in our current environment.

Like Hayek, who wrote the seminal essay on this subject, I believe that the great joy of a free people is their dynamism. The relentless innovation that occurs in environments of liberty is the very opposite of traditional conservatism, at least in the reactionary, European sense of the word. The rise and fall of ventures and ideas — left to salutary neglect and subjected to the arbitration of free consumers and citizens — is the perfect opposite to the stasis of intrusive government and of the command economy. Look at the American computer industry to see this principle in action.

In this respect, I am a “liberal.” By and large, it is “the Right” that is happy to allow Schumpeter’s creative destruction to take its course, and “the Left” that advocates the use of force to prevent it from doing so. It is the Right that wants to abolish federal departments and to free up schools from federal and labor-union control, and the Left that wants to keep things exactly as they are — if not indeed to reinforce that control. It is the Right that was happy to let General Motors sink into history, and the Left that speaks of the American car industry as if it were 1957. It is the Right that wants to reexamine the New Deal and Great Society on both philosophical and actuarial grounds, and the Left that will permit neither reexamination, all pieces of the state that have thus far been built being untouchable. And so on, and so forth. Who, one might ask, are the “conservatives”?

Yet there are few anarchists among us. Almost all of us on the right are in favor both of a libertarian underpinning to American dynamism and of the rule of law to keep the frame steady. I am a “conservative” insofar as I wish to conserve America’s radical Constitution and to keep intact its classical-liberal provisions and presumptions — those of limited government, local control, free markets, freedom of speech and assembly, the right to bear arms, trial by jury, blind justice, and so forth. But you can see the problem: When a radically liberal framework exists, as it does in the form of the United States Constitution, one ends up being both sides of the terminological coin. To be a radical liberal, one must also be a conservative in order to keep the framework. Thus the radical becomes the conservative, and those who would prefer the European principles of government unlimited by static values, an enlightened ruling class, and centralized control — and who are opposed to the maintenance of the radically liberal framework, as “progressives” (another thorny word) have always been — become the liberals.

Where it matters, a man who is conservative of radical principles remains a radical in the same manner that a man who is conservative of his marriage remains married. “He is only a very shallow critic,” said G. K. Chesterton, “who cannot see an eternal rebel in the heart of the Conservative.” At a time when sticking with the status quo is unsustainable, there is limited advantage in holding onto the “conservative” mantle. Burke, of course, remains a touchstone. But, as Dan Foster asked in a recent issue of National Review, what should we do with Burke “if the Jacobins have already won?” Even if the answer is “the Ryan plan,” it is still the “conservatives” who have suggested the radical option — radical compared with the conservatism of those who call themselves “liberal.” Would that our language reflected that reality.

Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.


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