It’s more than semantics: The trafficking and abuse of language in modern politics

Language matters, and as we move into a post-Trump era, pushing back against framing is critical (Allison Schatz/MEDILL)

By Allison Schatz
Medill Reports

Sunday’s televised debate between Georgia Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democratic candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock was a stunning example of the mounting danger the misuse and abuse of language poses to the future of American politics.

From the outset of the debate, a tedious, monotonous and even robotic Loeffler referred to her opponent as a “radical liberal,” and a “socialist.” Ultimately, she asked him to “renounce” Socialism and Marxism altogether. The ignorance and irresponsibility that ground comments like these seem to be the foundation of the GOP tactic under President Donald Trump, one that plays on the fears of the Republican base, and continues to go largely unchallenged by the media and the left.

Just this past July, on a Fox & Friends segment, Rudy Giuliani described the Black Lives Matter movement as a “domestic terrorist group” whose ideology was Marxist, and whose intention was to lead the country to “pure socialism.” At the Republican National Convention in August, a shrieking Kimberly Guilfoyle warned the audience that “Biden, Harris and their socialist comrades will fundamentally change this nation.”

And in a Tweet following last night’s debate, Sen. Lindsey Graham pandered, “After tonight, the stakes of the Georgia Senate races should be crystal clear: Socialism vs. freedom. I know that patriots in Georgia will show out to hold the line.” Enough. I am not sure if I am more incensed by the constant and continued trafficking of terms like “socialist,” “Marxist,” “radical” and the like, or the fact that so many Americans seem to be devouring this type of misinformation, which speaks to a general lack of critical thinking at work within the American public.

Perhaps a history lesson is in order? To start, Marxism, Socialism and Social Democracy are not the same thing. Marxism is the political and economic ideology founded by German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the 19th-century. There is not any one ultimate definition of Marxist theory, as, over time, the ideology has developed multiple strains that are each unique in their own right. Therefore, to call any one thing “purely Marxist” is at the very least reductive. Going back to its origins, Marx and Engels believed that economic and social conditions affect every aspect of life, and more specifically, class relations. Marx and Engels held a historical view that all of history can be read through the lens of class relations, struggles and disparities. They believed that ultimately the worker, or proletariat, would rise up in violent protest and revolution to demand that they be treated as more than just producers of commodities used to make the capitalist bourgeoisie wealthier. This revolution then would result in the formation of a communist state, where the workers become the owners of the means of production.

So, for Giuliani to claim that BLM is a Marxist organization that warrants terrorist designation is not factual. But it does serve as a dangerous dog whistle that dismisses and marginalizes a movement that has garnered tremendous support in the past year or so. Which, of course, is precisely why he is mounting such an attack: the support BLM has received in the wake of this past summer’s police violence is a direct threat to the GOP. In fact, in a recent survey published by Civiqs, 50% of registered voters in 2020 support BLM. This is up from 37% in April 2017. All it takes is looking at facts, not fiction, to dispel the charge. The fact that one of BLM’s founders, Patrice Cullors, once self-described as a “trained Marxist” does not mean the movement itself is Marxist in nature. On the contrary, a movement is not an organization, and as such, is home to many different flavors of subscribers, some socialist, some progressive, and many like me more centrist. This marked increase can be directly tied to increasing and understandable disgust and frustration over years of unchecked violence at the hands of police, particularly against Black and Brown bodies.

Socialism, on the other hand, is inspired by components of Marxism. It really is a kind of economic system under which items for consumption are produced with the end goal of use as opposed to capital gain by the merchant. This kind of post-commodity system ideally reduces the wealth gap that fuels class disparity. Under Socialism, all production is managed by a democratically elected government, and individual effort and innovation are recognized and rewarded accordingly. But Socialism is one thing. Social programs are an entirely different matter. They should not be confused. And yet, not only are they misunderstood by many Americans, the GOP is acutely aware of this and purposefully exploits this misunderstanding. There are many, many countries around the world, the U.S. included, that deploy aspects of socialism within the structure of their democracies. Within the U.S., the first such program was in fact a disability assistance and pension program designed for Civil War veterans and their families. But the push to bring social reform to the country really came under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had to grapple with crippling economic devastation during the Great Depression. In 1932, FDR made loans and grants available to struggling Americans. The year 1933 saw the first New Deal, which established a wave of new social programs like Social Security, federally sponsored retirement programs, public works programs and more.

These types of social programs are not mutually exclusive to democracy, nor do they threaten to undermine the free market economy. And to frame them as such is to blow the dog whistle of socialism, and to rally voters for or against an agenda without really understanding what they are actually for or against. During last night’s debate, Rev. Warnock referenced the impact that such programs had on his ascent to the pulpit, and to becoming the first of his 12 siblings to receive a college degree. He grew up in public housing, was the beneficiary of Pell Grants, and was raised by parents who relied at times on public assistance to survive.

Claiming social programs pave the way to Socialism is absurd. What they do is provide opportunities for the average 1 in 10 Americans who live below the Federal Poverty Line. And if you are Black, that number increases to 1 in 5. If you are Native American, it becomes 1 in 4. These programs are vital to these populations. The differences among Marxism, Socialism and Social programs are stunning, and understanding these differences is critical to avoid being roused by the GOP’s continued refrains of fear mongering. But my criticism doesn’t end with the GOP; it actually extends to the media and to the responsibility we as journalists have to clarify these errors and push back against the narrative constructs that serve to further marginalize and disparage those who advocate for greater equality, freedom and opportunity.

When we cover events like last night’s debate, correcting claims that cast a candidate or party in a manner that is overtly deceptive and rhetorical, we must not simply repeat the claims as we provide coverage, lest we risk becoming a kind of mouthpiece for disseminating falsehoods. Stanford linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff breaks down the political discourse of conservatives according to a dominant, patriarchal structure with the all-knowing father (the president) dictating policy and asserting a kind of moral authority that is grounded in and expressed through rational self-interest. By contrast, liberal discourse is more akin to a nurturing maternal system that privileges empathy, compassion and community. When I listen to the repeated and relentless assertions by GOP candidates that socially concerned politicians are rabid socialists, or that a fluid and organic movement like BLM is Marxist in nature because one of its founders self-described as a Marxist, I get frustrated. These sorts of claims are not innocent, nor are they correct, and according to Lakoff’s critique, these principles, which in turn frame the messages being disseminated by each party, must be considered through the very language that they use in order to mobilize voters. As an example, when Loeffler repeatedly charges Warnok, as she did, as a “radical liberal,” what Warnok must do along with any media professionals who consider themselves scrupulous, is unpack the framing and challenge it where necessary. Does Warnock’s worldview of maximizing community over self-interest really make him a “rabid socialist?” Or does he just ascribe to a different philosophy of how our democracy should be structured? Allowing this kind of rhetoric
to flourish is a threat to the system of democracy as a system that is forced to define itself narrowly and to insulate itself from varying expressions and ideologies of how governance ought to happen. While America is in fact a capitalist society, it is a blended one that welcomes elements of socialist ideology precisely to support the possibility and potential for upward mobility by those who are less fortunate. One does not and should not threaten the other.

The problem is, when you hammer a message over and over again to a public, as if pounding a nail into drywall, eventually the message sediments into thinking, in the same manner that the nail is driven into the wall. Hammering back is paramount.

It seems as if there are no gatekeepers anymore to discern what is true and what is false; what is fact and what is fiction. As long as you say it, and repeat it enough times, it becomes true in the mind of the listener. America, we can and must do better.

Allison Schatz is a Social Justice & Investigative Reporter who covers mental health at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @AllisonSchatz8.