George Orwell knew what he was talking about when he described political language as “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Today, we’ve become so accustomed to the distortions of political speak that we hardly notice. But as the midterm elections near, we might benefit from a booster shot of skepticism.
Both parties are guilty of verbal distortion and manipulation, but I dare say the left is more clever. Republicans tend to rely on dog whistles, loaded terms that prompt negative messages in the collective subconscious mind, while Democrats paste smiley faces on unpleasant messages, cloaking meaning in Orwellian frocks of emotional distraction.
A dog whistle might be the mention of, say, the “food stamp president,” as Newt Gingrich called President Obama during the last presidential election. Protests that this is not racist are noted and dismissed. The term calls up a certain image and everyone gets it.
Sometimes both sides of an issue select language that essentially cancels out the other. This is because both are equally attractive to the ear, even if their meanings are quite different. Exhibit A: Pro-life and pro-choice. Who is against life? Why, no one! But, who is against choice? Again, no one. Of course, one chooses to protect unborn life and the other selects termination. Enough said.
Moving along to today’s headlines and “income inequality.”
This may be one of the most brilliant turns of phrase yet. Not one single American, gun to head (figuratively speaking), would say, “I’m for inequality” or “inequality is good.” But is inequality what we’re really talking about?
When you step back and examine the concept closely, what becomes clear is that roughly 99.9 percent of Americans — even North Korea’s favorite son Dennis Rodman — actually like income inequality. This is because we value merit, talent and hard work, and all people aspire to be commensurately rewarded. What, after all, is the opposite of income inequality? Income equality.
That said, let us stipulate that we do have a growing poverty problem in this country, the contributing factors of which are many and complex. But the poor are not poor because Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are rich. No one thinks that Oprah has caused people in Appalachia to be destitute.
But solving our problems is far more difficult than raising public consensus (aka rabble-rousing) that the rich should be less rich so that the poor can be less poor, a feat that can only be accomplished through redistribution of wealth.
Some of the factors contributing to the income gap are, indeed, tough to tackle, and Obama is not, in fact, a god, as he now seems comfortable conceding. These factors include the loss of jobs for low-skilled workers and the apparent inability of this population, for whatever reasons, to become more skilled. (Perhaps legalizing marijuana will help. If it doesn’t provide enough jobs, at least more people will care less.)
Other factors include: A growing retired population, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the population; a dearth of entry-level jobs for college grads saddled with $1 trillion in loan debt (which the government guarantees); the appalling rate of children born out of wedlock, a now-systemic condition that condemns a new generation to another cycle of poverty, as Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out five decades ago and that Obama has reiterated.
Add to these the grinding down of low-skill wages thanks to a global economy that rewards the professional class — lawyers, doctors, engineers and, yes, television talk-show hosts. And, voila, a growing income gap.
But is it inequality?
What is missing from the trumpeting of income inequality are the hundreds of billions in annual government redistribution that already takes place. How much will be enough to satisfy the inequality camp? When incomes are equal?
In the end, fairness isn’t the issue. The issue is justifying policies — government intervention, higher taxes, spending and redistribution — that can’t otherwise be easily sold. How about this for a midterm catchphrase, reflective of true circumstances — the need for a higher-skilled labor force that pits no American against another and qualifies people for jobs that are actually available: “Learning for Earning.”
It’s not as emotionally evocative as inequality, but it just might do some good. Other suggestions welcome.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post.