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Decoding the Political Buzzwords of 2012

Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg gives his analysis of this year's top political words.

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But the phrase was co-opted at the beginning of the twentieth century by opponents of the labor movement, who wanted to depict themselves as defending the interests of workers, rather than of employers. One of the earliest examples of this use of the phrase that I’ve found came from a 1903 editorial entitled “The Right to Work” in the Baltimore American, which attacked labor for paralyzing business and denounced their demands for fair wages and limited work hours as a kind of tyranny: “Any organization, whether or laborers or capitalists, which interferes with a man’s right to work when he pleases, where, how long, and for what wages, is unjust and un-American.” In the decades following that, the phrase became a watchword in the fight against the closed shop and the union shop, until “right to work” laws were sanctioned by the Taft-Hartley Act over President Truman’s veto in 1947. Now you have George Will praising the Michigan Republicans for “striking a blow for individual liberty,” which could have come from that 1903 editorial.

Feeney: Okay, so how should progressives talk about these laws?

Nunberg: Labor and its supporters sometimes call them “right-to-freeload” laws. That isn’t inaccurate but it stresses the conflict between workers and makes bad guys out of the ones who won’t pay union dues, while it leaves the employers off the hook. Others have called them “ corporate servitude laws.” That plays well to the liberal benches, but it’s not going to be very persuasive to the people in places like Michigan or Wisconsin who are on the fence about these questions — including a fair number of Republicans, as the California Labor Federation discovered in its successful campaign this year against a Republican-backed proposition that would have virtually banned union political activity. Those voters are sympathetic to working people but they don’t bristle whenever they hear the word “corporation.” And they don’t think of working as a Wal-Mart associate as “servitude,” just as a really crappy job. Like too much of the rhetoric of the left, the name is designed to make liberals feel good about their moral values, rather than to widen support or dispel the image of liberal sanctimoniousness.

There are a couple of points you need to make about these laws. First, they’re designed by employers to break the power of unions by pitting workers against workers. And the laws tilt the playing field — employers can effectively compel stockholders to contribute to their agendas, but unions are blocked from calling on their members in the same way. But I don’t know that we need a new name for them — that’s all covered by that fine old phrase “union busting,” which was the criticism raised against Taft-Hartley — and not just by Labor, but by Dwight Eisenhower. Even in a bad era for unions, the phrase still sounds ugly and makes opponents of labor defensive (it played a bit part in the anti- Prop 52 campaign). Of course “right-to-work” is so deeply anchored by now that a lot of the media are going to keep using it, but in that case you at least you can insist that they prefix it with “so called” or stick it in quotation marks—as in “so-called ‘right to work’ states,” and so on.

Feeney: Many think that the Newtown shootings have changed the climate around guns. Have you heard any shifts in language?

Nunberg: Language does a lot of work here. “Gun control,” “confiscation,” “gun violence” — each of them trails a whole stream of associations. One thing that’s very striking, though, is the way words are used to smuggle dubious premises into the conversation that you couldn’t get away with bringing in by the front door. Take the charge that liberals have been “politicizing” the Newtown shootings, which is what you often hear in these situations. The idea is that people’s emotions are being exploited to advance an extraneous political agenda. But you can’t politicize what is already a policy concern. Saying that gun control advocates are politicizing mass shootings is like saying that advocates of stricter food standards are politicizing salmonella outbreaks.

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