Saturday, March 01, 2008

The postpartisan vocabulary

As the allegedly "postpartisan" John McCain scurries to make peace with the hardcore conservatives in his party, it comes as no surprise to hear him indulging his audience's preferences in political nomenclature. A case in point was a speech on Friday in which McCain denounced the two "Democrat candidates" for opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) [1].

Nowadays there's nothing unusual about McCain's ungrammatical conversion of the familiar noun Democrat into an adjective. Many Republican politicians use it routinely and without hesitation, as do conservative talk-show hosts on television and radio. It's slowly infiltrating the language, exactly as intended.

The origin of this particular usage of Democrat isn't clear to me, but it's the first time I've heard it from McCain's mouth. The problem facing Republicans is made illustrated in a speech that Dubya made in February 2003 to justify the invasion of Iraq: "The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values..." So how do you talk about "democratic values" without associating yourself with, or even glorifying, your political opposition? The solution is to drive a linguistic wedge between them by dropping the -ic suffix.

The first references to the "Democrat party" likely came long ago from ideologues like Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich or Tom Delay, or maybe even from an earlier generation [2]. But the current attempt to turn Democrat into an openly pejorative term represents a systematic application of propaganda theory. This campaign has some distinctive features:
  1. It subtly disassociates the "Democrat party" from the "democratic" principles that, by implication, Republicans like Bush feel uniquely qualified to claim as their own. The reference to Democrat refers to individuals rather than concepts, and in so doing it tries to invoke traditional stereotypes about liberals, congress and corrupt machine politicians.
  2. Through endless repetition, Republicans hope that "Democrat party" will infiltrate the political vernacular, eventually replacing "Democratic party" in popular usage. The ultimate goal is for the media to reflexively apply Democrat to the party, its candidates and its platform.
  3. It really, really pisses off Democrats—to the point of apoplexy in some cases. At the same time, the targets are rendered helpless and defensive: they don't want to appear petty by challenging the misuse of the noun Democrat as an adjective. Besides, the same word serves them and their party perfectly well as a noun.
  4. The campaign largely remains off the radar screen for the media, which at most views it as a minor irritant to overly-sensitive Democrats. On the rare occasions when a reporter challenges the usage, the speaker simply laughs and claims that it's just a habit or maybe a slip of the tongue, but in any case no offense was intended.
While this campaign may seem subtle and comparatively innocuous, the constant misuse of Democrat is designed to demonize and belittle the party and its candidates. If they can create a linguistic barrier between the "Democrat party" and "democratic" principles, Republicans can finally appropriate the adjective as part of the quasi-religious construct that Bush/Cheney used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Progressive bloggers have responded in kind by adopting Repubs or repugs (short for repugnants) as a regular part of their vocabulary.

The manipulation of language for ideological ends is hardly a new phenomenon in politics, but the process has been especially pernicious during the Rovian era—which is far from over. With McCain facing either a woman or an African American nominee, the process of linguistic swiftboating has barely begun.


[1] McCain argued that NAFTA, like the escalation in Iraq, was a grand idea, and opposing it would be insulting to "our friends" like the Canadians. Whenever I hear a politician refer to "our friends" in other countries these days, I have to wonder whether there's any basis for that characterization--even when the "friends" in question are Canadians or Aussies. By associating himself so closely to the war in Iraq and NAFTA, McCain may again be hitching his wagon to two of the wrong horses, depending on the fate of the economy and the surge.

[2] A 2006 article in Media Matters notes that Hendrik Herzberg of the New Yorker can trace this usage "as far back as the Harding administration." It was routinely applied by Republican luminaries like Joe McCarthy and, not surprisingly, Bob Dole. The article states: "Hertzberg wrote that 'among those of the Republican persuasion, the use of Democrat Party is now nearly universal' thanks to 'Newt Gingrich, the nominal author of the notorious 1990 memo [and here] Language: A Key Mechanism of Control, and his Contract with America pollster, Frank Luntz.'" The intent, Herzberg writes, is "to deny the enemy the positive connotations of its chosen appellation."

PHOTO: Newt Gingrich (wearing no flag pin!) and Trent Lott in happier times. (Wikimedia)

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