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I have ranted in the past about the incoherence of the "tighten the belt" metaphor and the mind-numbing inanity of the "-gate" suffix; however, I'd like to introduce a few more words and phrases that should kindly disappear from political rhetoric ("common sense," "balance") or, at least, be put under close supervision ("middle-class") because they have been used and abused into meaninglessness.

"Common sense":  The term "common sense" is a rhetorical device used to evade discussion.  The invocation of "common sense" implies that any rational individuals engaging in debate would ultimately come to your conclusion--if they did not already see it as prima facie.  There is no need, then, to provide any justification for the proposed solution, for it is simply the only one--the only "serious" one, at least.  Substantive debate requires invocations of facts (empirical data) or morals (priorities), and from those facts overlaid with morals---or morals buttressed by facts, we get policy proposals. 

Obama seems to love engaging in the fallacy of the argument from common sense.  We can see this in how he talks about gun safety legislation, immigration reform, and deficit reduction.

Even when I agree with a proposal described as a "common sense" solution, I cringe at hearing the vacuous modifier, the cheap trick for evading debate or staking out moral or empirical claims.

And it's always good to remember that what is sensible is not always common and what is common is not always sensible.

"Middle class":  All of our politicians love to deliver paeans to "The Middle-Class" and to talk about all of the wonderful things they plan to do to help "The Middle-Class."  But, one should ask, what does this term even mean?  Is it defined by income?  By education?  Clearly, the American class system is different from the British one in that we don't have a titled aristocracy (an official one, that is).

The Department of Commerce, for one, has given up on defining the middle-class through income.  In a 2010 report, it defined "middle class families" by "their aspirations more than their income."  

"Middle class families and those aspiring to be part of the middle class want economic stability, a home and a secure retirement. They want to protect their children'€™s health and send them to college. They also want to own cars and take family vacations. However, aspirations alone are not enough; middle class families know that to achieve these goals they must work hard and save."
In other words, "The Middle-Class" consists of everyone who cares about their children's health and future and their own retirement and who want cars and vacations.  In other words, EVERYONE.

We see this loose definition of the "middle-class" in discussions about taxes.  The "fiscal cliff" deal was lauded by many Democrats as a "middle-class" tax cut; however, it cut taxes for incomes up to $400,000.  Apparently, according to Congress, $400,00 is apparently still "middle-class."

Rick Santorum hated the term "middle-class" because in his deluded mind the United States was a classless society.  Tell that, though, to his campaign website, which talked about how he would rebuild the middle-class.

The universal praise of and love for "The Middle-Class" reminds me of early 20th century analyses of why socialism never took off in the United States; writers like H. G. Wells saw the United States, which never had a hereditary aristocracy, as a thoroughly bourgeois nation, and an American Dream defined as "get rich" replaces class consciousness with material aspiration and elides the question of whether those aspirations ever turn into reality.

The idea of the "bourgeoisie of all" allows politicians to avoid addressing how both the continued existence of poverty and the vast inequality of wealth threaten the health of democracy---and to avoid having to think of solutions.

The word "middle-class" shouldn't disappear entirely from our political debate, but I'd say put it under close supervisions until a politician is willing to give an actual definition.  Also, it's always good to see politicians like Bernie Sanders use both the terms "middle-class" and "working-class"; my guess is that he's one of the few in the Senate with a realistic concept of class in the U.S.

"Balance": Obama loves to speak about "balanced" deficit reduction, and so do his surrogates.  The call for a "balanced" approach is a Democratic Party talking point because it sounds nice.  We all love "balance," right? 

What, however, does balance actually mean in the minds of those in the laboratory where political talking points are concocted?

Does it mean an equal amount of spending cuts and tax increases, a 1:1 ratio?  Let's look at the President's plan for reducing The Deficit and replacing sequestration.

The White House plan has $930 billion in spending cuts and $680 billion in tax increases.  That's a 1.37:1 ratio.  If you put 1.37 pounds on one side of a scale, and 1 pound on the other, THEY WOULD NOT BALANCE.

The White House infographic also highlights past deficit reduction measures:  $1.4 billion in cuts and roughly $600 billion in revenue.  That's a 2.3:1 ratio.  The 1.37:1 is only close to "balanced" if we take into perspective the glaringly unbalanced nature of the past rounds of deficit reduction.

It is worthy of note as well that the President's plan cuts more from Social Security and veterans' benefits ($130 billion from "superlative" CPI--as opposed to "comparative" CPI?) than it does  from the defense budget ($100 billion). 

If we want a true 1:1 balance, then we have to go to the House Progressive Caucus's Balancing Act.

But, as we all know, that plan was DOA as was, unfortunately, the CPC's budget, which even a majority of Democrats (shamefully) voted against 78-346.


I wrote this up a while ago and haven't gotten around to posting it until now.  Over the past month, I feel as though the phrase "comprehensive immigration reform" has been following the path to the land of no meaning, and I might write a diary about that soon.

Originally posted to Liberty Equality Fraternity and Trees on Sun Mar 24, 2013 at 12:29 PM PDT.

Also republished by Political Language and Messaging and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  If We Simply Replace Aspiration With Ability, We (3+ / 0-)

    get a definition of "middle class" closer to the old British one: the class of well-off people who nonetheless must work, made up of professionals, bureaucrats and many business owners and upper management, who are easily able to educate their children, have a secure retirement, good health care, and to leave some inheritance to their heirs.

    It's perfectly reasonable to extend that definition of middle class into incomes of half a million or so.

    The New Deal period through the Great Society brought this middle class lifestyle to much of the working classes and so we began referring to middle income as middle "class."

    The Reagan Revolution has withdrawn the middle class lifestyle from most in the working classes, most of whose children now go into debt if they are educated, are unlikely to have secure comfortable retirement or to accumulate anything to pass on to heirs.

    So given the way the American economy has been operating for almost half a lifetime, "balance" in policy means taking from the people more than from the rich and their enterprises, or at best helping the people less than the rich and their enterprises.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sun Mar 24, 2013 at 01:19:07 PM PDT

    •  Yeah (1+ / 0-)

      The "middle class" thing has always annoyed me, as I take it in it's more original sense: the space between the working class (proletariat) and investor class (bourgeois.)  Hence, the true middle class is almost exclusively small-business owners or artisans: those who own the means of production but still labor at it themselves.

      Those who support banning cocaine are no better than those who support banning cheeseburgers

      by EthrDemon on Mon Mar 25, 2013 at 10:47:37 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks for the effort to bring some clarity into (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    the swamp of dishonesty that is the argument over who gets to grab all the cookies off the platter.

    "Is that all there is?" Peggy Lee.

    by jm214 on Sun Mar 24, 2013 at 03:42:36 PM PDT

  •  To make an obvious allusion, one of Orwell's signs (5+ / 0-)

    of totalitarianism was the emptying out of language.  Of course, Orwell was sophisticated and honest enough to admit that the Nazis and Communists had no monopoly on the propensity to say, at best, nothing with rivers of political speech and, at worst to use such speech as a way to justify or obfuscate murder.

    "If you don't read the newspapers, you're uninformed. If you do read the newspapers, you're misinformed." -- M. Twain

    by Oliver St John Gogarty on Sun Mar 24, 2013 at 05:30:26 PM PDT

  •  Y'all can argue with me on this one... (4+ / 0-)

    But I'm tired of hearing about the War on fill-in-the-blank. I know that there are many different forms of warfare, but what are we supposed to call the explicit, physically-destroy-the-other-guy scenarios we find ourselves in? For that matter, what are supposed to call the assault on women's rights?

    Maybe the English language needs a few more words. Or maybe I shouldn't let myself get so upset when I hear O'Reilly and friends say stupid things like "War on Christmas", "War on Christians", and "War on Easter."

    •  I also don't really like "war on poverty" (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      scott5js, k9disc

      I get that "war on poverty" was supposed to refer to the scale of investment and attention, but I always feel somewhat uncomfortable comparing social campaigns to "wars."  The language almost seems to frame war in a positive light, and the act of othering involved in framing the object of the war often reflects how such "wars' end up anything but progressive (and if mildly progressive, not lasting).

      •  Me, too. What you said about social campaigns and (1+ / 0-)

        "wars".  I agree with you, that it's hard to get anything done when we don't agree on what the vocabulary means, and some use it to deliberately obsfucate.

        When people talk about balance like it's a state of Nirvana, I want to ask where we're placing the fulcrum.  That actually makes a difference, as you point out more eloquently.  I should just stop with my first five words. ;)

        I'm looking forward to your "comprehensive immigration reform" diary.

        Do you suppose politicians and pundits take a class in how to use words so that they sound like they mean something smart while in actuality the words can mean anything and nothing at the same time?

        "In politics stupidity is not a handicap." Napoleon Bonaparte

        by citylights on Mon Mar 25, 2013 at 02:32:40 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Its really a war on the poor n/t (0+ / 0-)
    •  O'Reilly uses rhetoric to frame an issue (0+ / 0-)

      We can defuse this kind of behavior by being as clear and simple in our meaning. It may seem silly at first but it begins to call these people out for who they are: bullies.

      O'Reilly and others do this to create an image of aggression and fighting (usually Liberals). They are first class bullies and they love to promote an imagine of fighting because they think it gives them strength. We can turn the tables on this if we think clearly.

      Simply asking, Why do you have to turn everything into a fight? Aren't we all citizens who are seeking the common good for everyone? Doesn't sound as powerful but that is exactly what it is. Seeking ways to treat women with respect and dignity is a positive image. Attacking that image can leave a very bad impression.

  •  "Leadership" has taken on a blanket meaning (1+ / 0-)

    It is a word that people have come to always think means good leadership but we have the best example in the Bush administration of bad leadership.

    Last week we saw example after example of how people can be misled by rhetoric to go to war. In addition to expecting better leaders we need to be better followers.
    We need to be ethical followers who challenge unethical  leaders.

    Ethical followers demand the best of their leaders. They show courage and tolerance and should expect that of their leaders. Those who voted against the Iraq war showed courage to stand up to bad leaders who were really strong but not ethical and were ridiculed and had their patriotism challenged.

    Its obvious if a leader is not promoting the common good and is instead protecting the 1%, there needs to be a challenge from the followers (citizens) of this country.

    If we see ourselves in a strong ethical roll instead of
    just as sheep, we understand how important we are to preserving our democracy.

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