Words can skew policy

December 7, 2013

Viewpoint GuyLanguage affects understanding, and policy.

When I wrote for IBJ last year, the word causing me the most difficulty was “progressives,” which I used in order to ask, “Where are all the progressives?” meaning persons willing to advocate street repair and other basic investments to improve our lives.

Big mistake. A reader hit the ceiling and, in a letter to the editor, compared the word to “socialists” and worse. As a result, he, and probably others, did not understand my point.

“Obamacare” first appeared in campaign speeches. Mitt Romney appears to be the first to use the term, in an early primary campaign speech, then in the general election. He was attempting to defeat both the president and the program.

It is a euphemism for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the former being easier to remember and more useful in partisan discourse, thereby changing the debate from cost and benefits to a personal attack on philosophy.

Like “progressive,” the word “socialistic” is powerful, perhaps because it was attached to the Red scares of the 1920s to 1960s. In the health care context, it delayed reform more than 60 years.

In 1944, California Gov. Earl Warren had a kidney infection. Treatment was expensive, beyond the means of most Californians. Therefore, he proposed a state-operated insurance pool in which costs were to be shared.

The California Medical Association hired political consultants Whitaker & Baxter to defeat the program. By advertising that Californians would be treated by state doctors, in a system “born in Germany,” having “the opiate” of socialized medicine, and the logo “keep politics out of medicine,” the measure was defeated.

A comparable program suggested by President Truman met a similar fate. Instead of debating costs and benefits, the electorate was forever saddled with a burden that lasts to this day: the label “socialistic.”

On advice of consultants, candidates claim they will “fight” for or against, as if casting a vote is war-like. The metaphor has produced distorting rhetoric, such as “The War on Women.” The most expensive and least productive war in American history came out of political campaigns. It is the “War on Drugs.”

“Abortion” was not always a divisive word. In the 1960s, the big concern was unsafe illegal abortions. Between 1967 and 1970, 17 states lifted restrictions on the procedure. Roe vs. Wade (1973), was non-controversial, a 7-2 Supreme Court decision that aroused little pushback until 1979, when GOP strategists Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich seized on the issue to win Catholic votes. In so doing, they created a powerful divide in American politics.

“Fiscal cliff” are the worst words of 2013. They are so bad that the 90-year-old mother of a friend was not able to sleep—literally—out of fear.

The term started with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke during a February 2012 speech, immediately raising the image of Thelma and Louise going out in a blaze of glory over the cliff. (It goes back to the silent-movie era. The original cliffhangers were in serial films like “The Perils of Pauline,” where the heroine Pauline found herself dangling off a cliff at the end of one installment; you had to tune into the next one to find out what happened to her.)

Words matter. They should be used with care.•


Guy is president of Wealth Planning & Management LLC, and the author of “Middle Man, A Broker’s Tale.” Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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