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The Linguistic Equivalent of War

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The Linguistic Equivalent of War

Today’s progressives are heirs to a long tradition of abusing words to advance their policy goals. September 27, 2021
Politics and law

A day before an ISIS attack killed 13 Marines in Kabul, President Joe Biden declared cybersecurity “the core national security challenge we are facing.” Cybersecurity is critical. But with the Taliban retaking Afghanistan after being routed by the U.S. military two decades ago, calling it the “core” national security challenge of our time was bizarre. Still, Biden’s August comments were an improvement from June, when the president declared climate change the greatest threat to American security.

You would think that the commander in chief responsible for one of the biggest foreign policy blunders in decades would choose his words more carefully. But that’s not how his party tends to operate these days. George Orwell warned of the dangers of imprecise political speech in his seminal essay “Politics and the English Language.” The problem, in Orwell’s telling, is that “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” Political speakers reach for muddled, vague language to sell the public on their indefensible policies. This is bad enough, but it presents a broader issue because “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

Orwell’s diagnosis is as true in America today as it was when he wrote those words 75 years ago. And while both political parties are guilty of indulging in bad rhetoric that corrupts policy, Democrats are the more frequent and more serious offenders, largely because linguistic manipulation is central to so many progressive political ideas.

Twentieth-century progressives, for example, were enamored with philosopher William James’s idea of “the moral equivalent of war.” In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson declared “an unconditional war on poverty,” inaugurating an era of U.S. leaders declaring war on concepts. More than a decade later, President Jimmy Carter directly quoted James in a speech calling the energy crisis the “moral equivalent of war.” By now, we’ve seen the fallout of the twentieth century social policy’s moral crusades. As Charles Murray shows in Losing Ground, poverty rates began climbing in the 1970s, despite the expansion of government power and spending inaugurated by Great Society antipoverty programs. Medicare, another campaign in the War on Poverty, is projected to run out of money by 2026.

Democrats today don’t speak in such martial terms as their mid-century predecessors, but the broadness of their vision and goals—and the language they use to describe them—is a contributing factor in spreading already-ineffective federal agencies even thinner. In addition to a resurgent Taliban and the global challenge presented by an increasingly aggressive China, the Department of Defense must tackle climate change. With inflation rising, members of the congressional Squad want the Chairman of the Federal Reserve to focus “on eliminating climate risk and advancing racial and economic justice.” And the Centers for Disease Control, whose botched coronavirus response shows that it can barely handle its core mandate, was temporarily given power over rent and evictions nationwide.

Orwell was right to point out that language can corrupt thought. Since thinking and speaking are the central tasks of politics, language can also corrupt governance. When all hot-button issues become the purview of every facet of government, pesky considerations like specialization or separation of powers fall by the wayside.

Intentionally or not, Democrats’ political rhetoric is moving us closer to rule by total bureaucracy. Congress will soon vote on a $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” bill, Biden’s plan to launch Great Society 2.0. Lumping together everything from free college to electric-vehicle subsidies and tax hikes under the “infrastructure” label, the package exemplifies the blurring of crucial distinctions.

We needn’t proceed down this path. Rather than blend all our priorities together into an expensive, unaccountable policy monolith, politicians should get specific. Let the Defense Department work on national security and leave climate change to the EPA. Let the CDC focus on infectious diseases and leave rental-assistance matters to the Department of Housing and Urban Development—or, better yet, to state governments. Our leaders won’t solve all the country’s problems by speaking more clearly about policy issues. But they won’t make much headway until they do.

Photo: wildpixel/iStock

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