Sheila Kennedy: Puns prevent honest political conversations

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand said that the man had the floor to disguise his thoughts. In a much-quoted admission, the late campaign consultant Lee Atwater explained how Republicans applied this idea to win the votes of racists:

“You start in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger. In 1968, you can no longer say “nigger”, it hurts you, it turns against you. So you say things like, uh, forced buses, state rights, and all that, and you get so abstract. Now you talk about cutting taxes, and all of these things that you talk about are totally economical things and a byproduct of these is black people get hurt more than whites. … ‘We wanna cut this’, it’s a lot more abstract than even the bus thing, uh, and a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’ ”

Today’s language game revolves around “socialism”. But it’s the same game.

If policy makers really discussed economic systems, rather than using labels to hide their real motives, they would define their terms.

Socialism is what we call economies where the social safety net is much wider and the tax burden a little higher than in the United States. The Scandinavian countries are an example. Interestingly, most of these countries maintain thriving private sector capitalist markets. (Misuse of the term also obscures the sheer amount of socialism that wealthy Americans enjoy. A system that privatizes profits and socializes losses is hardly free market capitalism.)

Socialism is not Communism. Communists believe that equality is defined by equal outcomes. All properties are owned in common, by everyone (hence the term “communism”). In practice, this meant that all property belonged to the government, ostensibly in the name of the people.

In theory, communism erases all class distinctions, and the wealth is redistributed so that everyone receives the same share. In practice, the government controls the means of production and most individual decisions are taken by the state. Since the quality and quantity of work are separated from the reward, there is less incentive to innovate or produce. Countries that tried to create a communist system either collapsed (the USSR) or moved towards a more mixed economy (China).

Socialism too is not fascism. Some of our senior policymakers like to say that Nazi Germany was socialist because fascism was sometimes called National Socialism. However, the two are very different. In fascist systems, the nation is raised – a fervent nationalism is at the heart of fascist philosophy. Although there is nominally private property, the government controls business decisions. Fascist regimes tend to focus on a (glorious) past and defend the traditional class structures and gender roles necessary to maintain social order.

The problem with using words to disguise our true motives isn’t just that it’s intellectually dishonest. This is because such labeling allows us to avoid the conversations we should be having – conversations about fundamental questions of governance: what should government do and for whom? What should we provide in common and what should we leave to the private sector?

We “socialize” the police and fire protection and many other services — parks, garbage collection, schools — because it is fairer, more efficient and / or more cost effective to do so.

Using economic terminology to obscure our true motives has left the most dysfunctional and expensive health care in the developed world in the United States, thanks to Republican success in labeling national health care socialism and socialism. of non-American.

The GOP’s opposition to distorted “socialism” is best explained by Atwater’s admission that too many white Americans do not want their taxes used for the benefit of “these people”.


Kennedy is Professor of Law and Public Policy at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI.

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