Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Right-Wing Newspeak: "Democrat Party" Versus "Democratic Party"

I have noticed that on many message boards, conservatives constantly correct posts that refer to the "Democratic Party" as such - conservatives prefer to call their opposition the "Democrat Party." This seemingly minor dig is an attempt to separate the party from the meaning behind the word "democratic." Hendrik Hertzberg wrote a very interesting article for The New Yorker back in 2006 that covered why conservatives may have started using this moniker as an insult.
The Democratic Party itself takes this view, and many nonpartisan authorities agree. The American Heritage College Dictionary, for example, defines the noun “Democratic Party” as “One of the two major US political parties, owing its origin to a split in the Democratic-Republican Party under Andrew Jackson in 1828.” (It defines “Democrat n” as “A Democratic Party member” and “Democratic adj” as “Of, relating to, or characteristic of the Democratic Party,” but gives no definition for—indeed, makes no mention of—“Democrat Party n” or “Democrat adj”.) Other dictionaries, and reference works generally, appear to be unanimous on these points. The broader literate public also comes down on the “Democratic” side, as indicated by frequency of usage. A Google search for “Democratic Party” yields around forty million hits. “Democrat Party” fetches fewer than two million.

There’s no great mystery about the motives behind this deliberate misnaming. “Democrat Party” is a slur, or intended to be—a handy way to express contempt. Aesthetic judgments are subjective, of course, but “Democrat Party” is jarring verging on ugly. It fairly screams “rat.” At a slightly higher level of sophistication, it’s an attempt to deny the enemy the positive connotations of its chosen appellation. During the Cold War, many people bridled at obvious misnomers like “German Democratic Republic,” and perhaps there are some members of the Republican Party (which, come to think of it, has been drifting toward monarchism of late) who genuinely regard the Democratic Party as undemocratic. Perhaps there are some who hope to induce it to go out of existence by refusing to call it by its name, à la terming Israel “the Zionist entity.” And no doubt there are plenty of others who say “Democrat Party” just to needle the other side while signalling solidarity with their own—the partisan equivalent of flashing a gang sign.

The history of “Democrat Party” is hard to pin down with any precision, though etymologists have traced its use to as far back as the Harding Administration. According to William Safire, it got a boost in 1940 from Harold Stassen, the Republican Convention keynoter that year, who used it to signify disapproval of such less than fully democratic Democratic machine bosses as Frank Hague of Jersey City and Tom Pendergast of Kansas City. Senator Joseph McCarthy made it a regular part of his arsenal of insults, which served to dampen its popularity for a while. There was another spike in 1976, when grumpy, growly Bob Dole denounced “Democrat wars” (those were the days!) in his Vice-Presidential debate with Walter Mondale. Growth has been steady for the last couple of decades, and today we find ourselves in a golden age of anti-“ic”-ism.
Hertzberg points out that the term is pretty standard for right-wing talk radio and sites like NewsMax.com, which edits the "ic" out of Associated Press articles.
The job of politicians, however, is different, and among those of the Republican persuasion “Democrat Party” is now nearly universal. This is partly the work of Newt Gingrich, the nominal author of the notorious 1990 memo “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” and his Contract with America pollster, Frank Luntz, the Johnny Appleseed of such linguistic innovations as “death tax” for estate tax and “personal accounts” for Social Security privatization. Luntz, who road-tested the adjectival use of “Democrat” with a focus group in 2001, has concluded that the only people who really dislike it are highly partisan adherents of the—how you say?—Democratic Party. “Those two letters actually do matter,” Luntz said the other day.
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought -- that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc -- should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression  to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.
Orwell had gone on to define Newspeak, pointing out the different vocabularies used.  One in particular, the B vocabulary, applies to the subject of this article.
The B vocabulary consisted of words which had been deliberately constructed for political purposes: words, that is to say, which not only had in every case a political implication, but were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them. Without a full understanding of the principles of Ingsoc it was difficult to use these words correctly. In some cases they could be translated into Oldspeak, or even into words taken from the A vocabulary, but this usually demanded a long paraphrase and always involved the loss of certain overtones. The B words were a sort of verbal shorthand, often packing whole ranges of ideas into a few syllables, and at the same time more accurate and forcible than ordinary language.
Sounds like the right-wing renaming experiments like the above mentioned "death tax" and "personal accounts," as well as the renaming of the "heretical" Democratic Party.  Consider even recent events, such as Sarah Palin's "death panels" or "drill, baby, drill."  The right-wing has made a science out of creating short political soundbites to convey their message, simultaneously attacking their opponent while pushing their agenda.

Lee Harris wrote an article in the newest edition of Policy Review titled "The Tea Party Vs. The Intellectuals" in which he referenced Orwell's 1984.
In his most famous novel, 1984, George Orwell envisioned a society in which the ruling elite has successfully mastered the politics of mind control by altering what was formerly known as the English language into a vehicle of subtle propaganda known as Newspeak.  For Orwell, the first and most important step to political totalitarianism was the consolidation of elite control over mass culture.  The more thorough and pervasive the control, the harder it would become for anyone to think outside the box of approved ideas.  Imperceptibly and over time, the elite would shrink the dimensions of this box until people had very little choice but to toe the party line - not because they thought it to be correct but because they could no longer imagine an alternative to it.  The party line becomes their common sense.
Sound familiar?  How many Tea Party candidates do you hear touting their common sense solutions at the same time belting out their right-wing Newspeak, attacking the "Democrat Party" and "death panels?"  As Harris puts it, the groups like the Tea Party are seeking cultural hegemony, seeking to impose their ideals over any who oppose them.  I am also reminded by another recent event - the rewriting of history by the Texas Board of Education.
After three days of turbulent meetings, the Texas Board of Education on Friday approved a social studies curriculum that will put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light.
Very Orwellian indeed.  I can only imagine that this kind of social engineering will continue, increasing in intensity the longer conservatives remain out of power, and now that they have made it this far, I picture that if they ever do return to power, they will only further solidify their propaganda as fact.

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