The (Foreign) Language of American Politics

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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.

Father Charles E. Coughlin, the controversial right-wing
priest who had a popular radio program in the 1930s, called Franklin D.
Roosevelt “the great betrayer and liar” and Jews “Christ
killers” and “usurers.” Robert W. Welch Jr., co-founder of the
John Birch Society, called Dwight D. Eisenhower a “conscious, dedicated
agent of the Communist conspiracy.” While alliteration provides emphasis,
labeling someone conscious and dedicated is not among the worst of insults.
None of this is to deny the viciousness of anti-Semites or racists. But even
Senator Theodore G. Bilbo, Democrat of Mississippi, perhaps the most hateful
politician ever elected to high office in the United States–he called his
opponent’s supporters “shooters of widows and orphans,”
“spitters on our heroic veterans,” and “skunks who steal Gideon Bibles
from hotel rooms”–relied on language that every backwoods white person in
his home state could understand. We have had more than our share of extremism,
but most of it has been homegrown.

In more recent times, by contrast, when we want to leave the
discourse of liberal democracy behind, we seem to leave English behind as well.
Consider the title of Fallows’s first post on these issues, borrowed from Louis
XIV’s famous declaration, L’état, c’est moi. The first word puts us on the turf of
American exceptionalism: We have no equivalent term in English to l’état, or
for that matter, the German der Staat. Americans call the official apparatus of politics
and policy “government” rather than “the state,” as if to
soften the implications of what it actually does.

Lacking a state, we are uncomfortable with raison d’état,
or, its German relation, realpolitik. We have had practitioners of such arts,
none more adept than Henry Kissinger. But Kissinger spoke with a heavy accent,
as if to remind us that the pursuit of power for its own sake, associated with
him, came from somewhere else. Americans instinctively (or should I say
linguistically?) prefer Wilsonian idealism to Metternichian realism. The world,
we insist, is not composed of states engaged in endless conflict as they follow
their own interests; it ought to be a “league of nations” or, better
yet, a “United Nations.” Americans go to war often, but not, we tell
ourselves, for our own advantage.

It follows that if you really want to attack your opponents
these days, you are best off doing so in another language. When the editors of
the religious conservative magazine First Things determined in 1997 that
the left-wing activism of the U.S. Supreme Court–oh, those were the days–had
made the American government illegitimate, they characterized it as a regime,
or, should I say, a régime. In choosing a French word, they suggested that the
American experiment in self-government had come to an end. We can talk about a
political “system” without raising eyebrows. Régime, by
contrast, as in ancien
régime,
connotes a preliberal, European society characterized not
only by arbitrary rule but also by a corrupt aristocracy unworthy of holding on
to its unearned privileges.

Of course we have no such aristocracy; if we did, our
extreme conservatives would come to its defense. But instead of an inherited
ruling class, we have liberal elites (or élites), who, according to the late
Richard John Neuhaus and others associated with this point of view, constitute
a new class of arrogant planners determined to impose their conception of the
good society upon ordinary people, whether they want it or not. While
neoconservatives balked when Neuhaus, editor and founder of First Things,
called for civil disobedience to the new class, there was no disagreement over
the use of “regime.”

It was, after all, Leo Strauss, the philosopher so important
to the rise of neoconservatism, who had introduced the term. Aristotle’s politeia was
usually rendered as “the polity” until Strauss translated it as
“regime,” or “the order, the form, which gives society its
character.” Any society can have a regime in the sense Strauss meant, and
he hoped that the United
States could find its way to being a
“good regime.” But there can be no doubt that his use of term was
meant to suggest that, for him and those he influenced, much was wrong with the
politics of the liberal democratic West.

Those in the attack mode need not rely just on French and
German. Conservatives are not generally known as sympathetic to Russia, but
when it comes to denouncing the Obama administration, the Russian language is
something they cannot resist. George Will, the conservative columnist,
convinced that the Obama administration is on the verge of lawlessness, has on
more than one occasion used the word ukase to characterize policies he
disfavors.

The Democrats, we are told, conscious of how unpopular those
policies are, rely on czars to oversee them: The Obama administration
“seems to be captivated by the un-American notion of running the country
through Russian-style czars empowered to issue czarist-style ukases,
Phyllis Schlafly, the dean of such discourse, opined in 2009. Townhall.com has
charged the president with having a “czar fetish.”

Given the craze for Russian on the right, small wonder that
conservatives accuse Democrats of engaging in agitprop on the question of birth
control (Jonah Goldberg), filling their policy positions with apparatchiks
(Michelle Malkin), and consigning their enemies to the gulag (Ann Coulter).
About the only thing the Obama administration has not done, if you are a
conservative, is to promote glasnost…

Read the rest at Chronicle.com.

Image by shannonpatrick17, licensed under Creative Commons.

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