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Politics and Language


 We live in an era of what seems to be one of increasing nastiness and pettiness, especially perhaps in politics.

Last week, for example, Michigan’s Speaker of the House denied a routine request from the minority leader to name a particular member ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

Speaker Kevin Cotter refused to so designate Brandon Dillon, even though that wouldn’t have changed the balance of power one bit. This angered Democrats, and pretty much ensured that any chance of bipartisan cooperation ended before it began.

Why did Cotter do that? Well, it is no secret that Dillon is outspoken and known for sharp-tongued attacks on Republican policies. He also was in charge of Democratic House campaign efforts last year, and organized a challenge that brought Cotter himself close to defeat. So this was payback time.

But I noticed something else yesterday when Cotter’s press spokesman attempted to defend this, saying, “The Democrat committee members have chosen to stand together in abandoning their responsibilities to the people of Michigan.”

Forget the issue. What is this “Democrat members” language?  Why not “Democratic?” Simple. In order to demean the opposition, Republicans are now often refusing to call them by their proper name. Instead of saying the “Democratic Party,” they prefer the insulting and harsher-sounding “Democrat Party.”

Turning words into slogans is, of course, nothing new. George Orwell described the phenomenon in a famous brilliant essay, “Politics and the English Language,” nearly seventy years ago. There’s always been some of this.

Conservatives were largely correct years ago when they complained that the press was too quick to use the term “right-wing Republican.”  These days, however, the right seems to have gotten the upper hand in the language battle.

Probably the best example is the way in which virtually the entire media has adopted the anti-abortion side’s language in framing that debate.

Those in favor of banning abortion call themselves “pro-life.” The implication is clear. Those who believe a woman has the right to make that difficult decision for herself are somehow “anti-life,” even though the official term is “pro-choice.”

Actually, in the interest of fairness, we should call the anti-abortion activists what they are: Anti-abortion.

But somehow, that hasn’t happened. If you don’t think this sort of grammatical warfare has an impact, consider this:

Remember that the nasty Bolsheviks managed to triumph over the more moderate Mensheviks in their power struggle in Russia a century ago? 

There were a number of reasons for this, but the word Bolshevik in Russian means majority, Menshevik, minority.

They were both factions of the same party, and these were nicknames given them after one side got more votes than the other in one obscure vote over the composition of an editorial board.

Ironically, there were probably more members on the Menshevik side. But if you are saddled with the name “minority party,” I’d guess it doesn’t help your future prospects.

Years ago, a young member of Congress was rebuked by his leader for referring to the other party as the enemy. “Son, they aren’t the enemy. They are the opposition,” his senior said.

Whatever your politics, I think we would all be better off with a little more of that spirit today.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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