The (Foreign) Language of American Politics


| 11/2/2012 2:42:35 PM


Bruegel-Elder-Babel

This post originally appeared at Chronicle.com.  

James Fallows, former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter and a longtime national correspondent for The Atlantic, is generally known as a liberal-leaning but hardly flame-throwing commentator on politics. In June, Fallows, who had been writing for some time about Republican efforts to create a 60-vote "supermajority" in the U.S. Senate, posted a blog entry called "5 Signs the United States Is Undergoing a Coup." That headline lasted about three hours. On further reflection, Fallows said in a corrective message, using the word "coup" in his headline gave the wrong impression. He changed the title to "5 Signs of a Radical Change in U.S. Politics."

His concern was not just with the filibuster. Fallows also asked whether we can call a society democratic if unelected judges determine a presidential election, after which the newly installed president appoints similarly minded judges, who then use their position to change the rules to favor their party.

Fallows's alteration raises two fascinating questions: At what point should we start describing our liberal-democratic heritage as under threat? And what should our appropriate language be for discussing it?

Was Fallows right to use the word "coup"? Before we can answer that question, we must first consider another. Fallows had taken the word from a slightly earlier post he had written, titled "Scotus Update: La Loi, C'est Moi." Readers asked, Why the French words? Fallows did not really answer, except to say something about The Atlantic's policies involving capitalization. Let me try.



Perhaps because the United States was created during a liberal era, as the late 18th century truly was, our language lacks words that convey the full force of reactionary politics. From time to time, we required terms to describe the old order, such as when we denounced King George as a tyrant (itself a word derived from Old French). But our demagogues, rhetorically, have generally confined themselves to the English language.



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