Sheila Kennedy: Word games prevent honest policy conversations

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Charles Maurice de Talleyrand famously said that man was given speech to disguise his thoughts. In a much-quoted admission, the late campaign consultant Lee Atwater explained how Republicans applied that insight in order to win the votes of racists:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. … ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’”

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

If policymakers were really discussing economic systems, rather than using labels to hide their actual motives, they would define their terms.

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

Socialism isn’t communism. Communists believe that equality is defined by equal results. All property is owned communally, by everyone (hence the term “communism”). In practice, this meant that all property was owned by the government, ostensibly on behalf of the people.

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

Socialism also isn’t fascism. Some of our dimmer policymakers like to say Nazi Germany was socialist because fascism was sometimes called national socialism. However, the two are very different. In fascist systems, the nation is elevated—a fervent nationalism is central to fascist philosophy. Although there is nominally private property, government controls business decisions. Fascist regimes tend to be focused upon a (glorious) past and to uphold traditional class structures and gender roles as necessary to maintain the social order.

The problem with using words to disguise our real motives isn’t just that it’s intellectually dishonest. It’s because such labeling allows us to avoid conversations we ought to be having—conversations about the basic questions of governing: What should government do and for whom? What should be provided communally, and what should be left to the private sector?

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

Use of economic terminology to obscure our real motives has left the United States with the most dysfunctional—and expensive—health care in the developed world, thanks to Republican success in labeling national health care as socialism and socialism as un-American.

The GOP’s opposition to a mischaracterized “socialism” is explained perfectly by Atwater’s admission: Too many white Americans are unwilling to see their taxes used to benefit “those people.”•


Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI.

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7 thoughts on “Sheila Kennedy: Word games prevent honest policy conversations

  1. Professor Kennedy has managed in very few words to identify one source of the dysfunction in our political system. She assumes political leaders should want to have meaningful conversations in search of political solutions rather than manipulating language to ensure their hold on power. Given the current self-serving, self-interested ethos dominating our social life her appeals to reason seem unlikely to have much effect, but I support her efforts. Maybe we could just begin by realizing that we are all “those people”.

  2. Since the goal seems to be to work together, please show a bit of the language from both sides. “Women’s health” has come to replace a serious discussion of abortion. “Unfettered capitalism” is used in political discussions, where is that practiced? “Government controls business decisions” – look around, that is happening in many, many aspects of business, and more so with the reason of the pandemic (close your business by 10pm, etc..) Any tax cut or reduction of government is equated with the use of a racial pejorative? Oh my, yes this article is a serious call for honesty (sarcasm for the clueless.) I agree with the premise of the article, but a little humility and self-awareness from both sides would go a long way. It’s like calling for unity once your side wins an election (now who would do that?) when “resistance” is the word of the day when an election does not go your way. Sigh.

    1. Thanks, John M. Well said.

      From her writing: “Socialism is what we call economies where the social safety net is much broader and the tax burden somewhat higher than in the United States.”

      Funny but understandable from leftist Ms. Kennedy: Her use of the words “much” and “somewhat” in that sentence. How about if she exchanged her placement of those words in that sentence to be more honest? (I wonder if she ever listens to herself after she writes this nonsense and thinks the reader will be stupid enough to believe she is objective.)

  3. I can’t believe your assessment on the phrase “Women’s health”. The phrase”pro-life” has been misused for decades. It’s not a “pro-life” movement. It should be called “anit-abortion”. The movement cares about no one’s life other than the unborn. Children and women don’t matter after conception. I do agree that humility on both sides would go a long way, though. The Democrats need to recognize the country isn’t as socially left as it should be, while the Republicans need to stop pretending we live in the 1950’s.

  4. The entire context of the second paragraph was contrived by the politically correct progressive liberals that SSK embraces. It is obvious that the Robert Byrd, LBJ, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton wing have used every lie, scam and political tactic to suppress the Black population of this country. With amazingly dismal results. The war on poverty in the under served communities has only been exacerbated by the politically correct tolerant language of the progressive left. And SSK may want to take a look at what the progressives have in mind with the “Great reset” proposed by the socialist/communist United Nations. The progressives new favorite; Defund the Police really means Nationalized police force which means take it out the peoples hands and centralize the power.

  5. Anything to make people reliant upon the government for basic needs… This is the left’s fundamental basis for acquiring their voting populace. Socialism or otherwise, once the foundational strongholds of family, religion, and education are undermined, this populace grows more and more dependent upon government handouts. Fear tactics are implemented to perpetuated this control, thus eliminating our middle class by removing the tools and abilities of individual to take control of their own lives and “rise up”. Under new progressive government, there are only two classes – the elite and the oppressed. Never has this oppression been more evident than it is today. I see it endorsed in most of Ms. Kennedy’s articles.