Noah Harrison: Against buzzword politics

Monday, November 25, 2019 - 6:01pm

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In recent years, several trends have defined American politics: the rise of populism, exacerbated polarization and talks of impeachment, to name a few. A less frequently discussed trend, however, is the proliferation of buzzwords and empty rhetoric in political discourse. The rise of “buzzword rhetoric” cheapens our political discourse and impedes policy formation. If left unaddressed, buzzword rhetoric could fundamentally change the way this nation debates and discusses politics for the worse, and its effects could linger long after the current wave of populism recedes.

As with many trends in today’s politics, buzzword rhetoric is embraced by President Donald Trump. Trump has never been known for his eloquence or detailed policy proposals, but he is especially prone to using buzzwords. Trump regularly dismisses opposing ideas and inconvenient realities as “fake news” — in the first year of his term, he averaged one “fake news” or related variation every day. When confronted with specific policy issues or challenges, Trump habitually distorts the issue at hand with inflammatory buzzwords. Immigration at the southern border is referred to as an “invasion” and trade agreements are reduced to zero-sum games where America is “winning” or “losing.” Special interests and neutral career bureaucrats are lumped together as “The Swamp,” and Democratic opponents are accused of being a part of “The Deep State.”

On many matters Trump can be considered an anomaly, but Trump’s proclivity for buzzwords is shared by many of his fellow conservatives. In response to criticism for his blocking of election security measures, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., accused his critics of “McCarthyism.” Ironically, McConnell accused critics of diminishing “our ability to debate public policy” despite being the one who responded to policy-specific criticism with grandstanding.

Another prime example is the right’s effort to paint Democrats as “socialists.” The conservative campaign to link Democrats to socialism is nothing new — Barack Obama was regularly denounced as a socialist — but the campaign was reinvigorated by the rise of progressive politicians like Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. To be fair, some of these left-wing figures do embrace the label of “democratic socialism,” but equating progressive proposals, such as universal health care and higher taxes on the wealthy, with the brutal collectivism of communist regimes is both inaccurate and irresponsible.

There are plenty of legitimate criticisms of progressive proposals — such as their cost, efficiency and efficacy — but these critiques are usually voiced by the center-left rather than conservatives. Regardless of the merits of progressive policies, the blanket dismissal of these policies as “socialist” lacks nuance and fails to address the policy issues that these proposals respond to.

Of course, the usage of buzzword rhetoric is not exclusive to conservatives. Trump critics frequently slip into using buzzwords and hyperbole when denouncing his policies and conduct. Former Massachussetts Gov. Bill Weld, a libertarian and Republican presidential candidate, accused Trump of treason in response to revelations that Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine in order to pressure Ukraine’s president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. The Constitution defines treason narrowly as waging war against the United States or assisting U.S. enemies in wartime. Trump’s request abused power, spawned an impeachment probe and likely constitutes a crime, but it was not treason, as Weld had implied. 

Similarly, several Democrats have likened Trump to Adolf Hitler, the fascist dictator of Germany who murdered millions. These comparisons are completely inappropriate and blatantly disrespectful to Hitler’s many victims. Moreover, these comparisons counteract legitimate criticisms of Trump’s xenophobia, his hostility to the media and his attacks on the rule of the law.

Clearly, buzzword rhetoric has become widespread in American politics, and its prevalence could have serious consequences for the state of political discourse. Buzzwords, in limited dosage, have a place in politics: They can simplify complex policy ideas into understandable phrases and slogans. However, the over-usage of buzzwords crowds out meaningful discourse and erodes the political literacy of the general public. Americans are widely uninformed on politics, and while buzzword rhetoric is not fully to blame, it certainly doesn’t help when political discussions frequently devolve into buzzword-filled talking points. Moreover, candid and substantive discussion is needed for political discourse to actually lead to policy formation. Buzzword rhetoric distracts from policy issues and serves as a barrier to policy-making. 

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., 20th century U.S. Supreme Court justice, wrote about the role in free speech in creating a “marketplace of ideas,” in which the best ideas will naturally gain prominence and popularity. Holmes’ words were wise, but increasingly, the prevalence of buzzword rhetoric is creating of marketplace of noise and empty slogans that cheapens our political discourse, drowns out substantive voices and weakens the ability of our democratic system to form policy.

Noah Harrison can be reached at noahharr@umich.edu.