As we enter the fall political season, we will hear a great deal of rhetoric from both major political parties and their many candidates for office. It’s important for us to remember, however, that words can be made meaningless by misuse or overuse. And when we as citizens allow politicians to obscure the truth by distorting words, we diminish ourselves and our nation.
For example, we’ve all heard politicians use the words “democracy” and “freedom” countless times. They are used interchangeably in modern political discourse, yet their true meanings are very different. They have become what George Orwell termed “meaningless words.” Words like “freedom,” “democracy,” and “justice,” Orwell explained, have been abused for so long that their original meanings have been eviscerated. In Orwell’s view, such words were “often used in a consciously dishonest way.”
Without precise meanings behind words, politicians and elites can obscure reality and condition people to reflexively associate certain words with positive or negative perceptions. In other words, unpleasant facts can be hidden behind purposely meaningless language. As just one example, Americans have been conditioned to accept the word “democracy” as a synonym for freedom. Thus we are conditioned to believe that democracy is always and everywhere benevolent.
The problem is that democracy is not freedom. Democracy is simply majoritarianism, which is inherently incompatible with freedom. While our Constitution certainly features certain democratic mechanisms, it also features inherently undemocratic mechanisms like the First Amendment and the Electoral College. American is a constitutional republic, not a democracy. Yet we’ve been bombarded with the meaningless word “democracy” for so long that few Americans understand the difference.
If we intend to use the word freedom in an honest way, we should have the simple integrity to give it real meaning: Freedom is living without government coercion. So when a politician talks about freedom or liberty — regardless of the issue being discussed — ask yourself whether he is advocating more government force or less.
The words “liberal” and “conservative” have also been abused. “Liberalism,” which once stood for civil, political, and economic liberties, has become a synonym for omnipotent coercive government. Liberalism has been redefined to mean liberation from material wants, always via a large and benevolent government that exists to create equality on earth.
“Conservatism,” meanwhile, once meant respect for tradition and distrust of active government. But in recent decades conservatism has been redefined as support for big-government grandiosity via military adventurism, corporatism, and inflationary monetary policy. The modern political right has redefined conservatism into support for an all-powerful central state, provided that the state furthers supposedly conservative goals.
Orwell certainly was right about the use of meaningless words in politics. Our task, therefore, is to reclaim our language and reclaim our liberties. If we hope to remain free, we must cut through the fog and attach concrete meanings to the words politicians use to deceive us.