The Democrats' Dog Whistle Slogan
Given the left's propensity for calculated projection, and amid all their talk of conservative code words and "dog whistles," perhaps we ought to take a good look at the use of coded language at the Democratic National Convention. For while the GOP's alleged code (e.g., "golf" for "wayward black man") is so ingeniously concocted that even the GOP can't decipher it, I believe that the left's current campaign vocabulary is indicative of the extent to which they are going for broke on their dream of completing America's fundamental transformation over the next four years.
Political "code words" are terms used to communicate a tacitly understood meaning among compatriots, while masking the more unpopular or controversial aspects of that meaning from the broader audience. In other words, they are euphemisms.
Euphemisms are interesting things. They have a life cycle, much like metaphors -- a comparison well worth considering in light of the Obama campaign's peculiar choice of "Forward" as its slogan, and now of "Progress for People" as the motto of the Democratic National Convention.
In his important essay, "Politics and the English Language," Orwell explains that a fresh, vital metaphor helps to reveal one's full meaning, whereas a dead metaphor -- one which has been so widely used that it no longer produces any mental image (Orwell offers "iron resolution" as an example) -- has in effect ceased to be a metaphor at all, and may now serve as part of our everyday vocabulary. Between these two extremes of living and dead metaphors, however, Orwell identifies a noxious middle category, the dying metaphor. These are expressions that, rather than sharpening our meaning, actually obscure it, turning the political speaker into a kind of robot churning out prefabricated phrases in lieu of original thought. These dying metaphors, Orwell argues, are the essence of that form of mindless sloganeering that passes for political speech in modern times.
Political euphemisms, or "code words," admit of a similar classification. Euphemisms are the alter-ego of metaphors. Whereas a metaphor's purpose is to reveal one's meaning, and a poor metaphor is one that fails to do this, a euphemism's purpose is to conceal meaning, while a failed euphemism is one that reveals too much.
Living euphemisms, equivalent to Orwell's living metaphors, still serve their intended purpose -- namely, to mask ugly realities by portraying them in a softening, or even ennobling, light. Current examples would be "stimulus" (crony capitalism), "quantitative easing" (printing new money out of thin air), and "deficit reduction" (adding $1.2 trillion to the debt this year, when last year you added $1.3 trillion).
Dead euphemisms, by contrast, have ceased to mask anything at all, and are now simply part of the ordinary political vocabulary. For example, "liberal" was once used to mask and aggrandize a worldview hostile to any form of individual freedom apart from the absence of moral restraint. Now everyone understands this once-masked meaning; phrases such as "Hollywood liberal" (i.e., a libertine with no concept of moral order) demonstrate the death of the euphemistic value of the word "liberal." That is why most leftists run from this label, which was once meant to serve as their public shield.
But there is also a middle ground among political euphemisms, analogous to Orwell's category of dying metaphors. These are euphemisms that have worn thin over time, so that they no longer really mask anything, but that have not yet simply become common synonyms for the concepts they were intended to conceal. In other words, these are "code words" from a code book that has been captured and studied by the other side. They are "dog whistles" that any attentive listener can hear.
To continue using them might seem foolish, as they no longer serve the proper purpose of a euphemism. They do, however, have a function, once again similar to Orwell's dying metaphors. They allow the user to say what he really wants to say without quite using the real, perhaps objectionable words. That is, they allow him to expose his true meaning while maintaining just enough plausible deniability to save himself if there should actually be a general outcry against that true meaning.
One benefit of such dying euphemisms is as trial balloons. The radical uses these worn-out masks with a wink, as if to say, "They'll never be able to pin it on me." If the general audience accepts this riskily thin phraseology without blinking, then the speaker knows he has won the rhetorical battle and can move forward with the meat of his plans.
Speaking of moving forward, "Forward" itself is one of these dying euphemisms upon which the Obama team has staked its bold pitch for a chance to finish the job of disemboweling the constitutional republic. "Forward," closely tied to the idea of "progress," is a well-known leftist battle cry, rooted in Marxist dialectical materialism, with its notion of history's inexorable march towards the workers' paradise. "Forward" has a distinguished pedigree among communists and socialists. (See here and here.) The idea that no one among the White House staff or campaign apparatus was aware of this unfortunate association with Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Lenin, and Mao is absurd. One wonders whether any of these people were not aware of it.
The political history of the slogan "Forward" is, of course, quite consistent with Obama's agenda of taking over industries, punishing the wealthy, rallying citizens along class lines, assuming control of health care, and "sharing prosperity." And Obama, raised and educated by communists and socialists, knows this. His campaign's catchword is meant, in part, to tease his opponents, like a child waving a cookie just beyond the reach of a dog on a leash. Everyone knows what he is saying, but no one can "pin it on him."
And now, at the Democrat Convention, we have the slogan, displayed above the stage, of "Progress for People" -- dying euphemisms all around. First of all, we have "progress," which is now widely understood on all sides to be the kinder, gentler term for "socialism." Then, of course, we have "People."
There are two Koreas. ROK stands for "Republic of Korea." DPRK stands for "Democratic People's Republic of Korea." Does anyone need to be told which one is North Korea? We have the People's Republic of China, "power to the people," "people over profits." In modern politics, everyone understands, at least vaguely, that the word "people" has, since the 1960s, been a common trope of leftist class warfare, of anti-capitalist propaganda, of "the struggle."
So the Obama campaign is rallying its supporters with a wink -- it's "Forward" with "Progress for People." The heart of today's Democratic Party is undoubtedly all for this -- in truth, they would probably prefer to get past all this clever wordsmithery and just get on with the revolution. The electorate at large, on the other hand, is being tested. Can it bear this barely veiled language of leftism? If Obama can win with the least euphemized declaration of socialism any U.S. presidential candidate has ever made, there will be nothing to prevent him from going "forward" with those aspects of his agenda that he has hitherto regarded as too far out of the American mainstream to reveal outright -- even farther out there than ObamaCare, EPA drones, nationalized auto companies and student loans, bankrupting debt, and presidential fiat.
The 2008 campaign was all about concealing Obama's personal history, his affiliations, and his past statements, and portraying him as the model centrist. "Hope" and "Change" were living euphemisms, and they served their purpose well. This time, after four years of inescapable exposure, the Democrats are trying to beat the Tea Party to the labeling punch at election time. They are now prepared to define Obama as the leftist that he has always been, but to do so in a benign fashion, under the clever partial cover of dying euphemisms.
"We all know what the words mean -- but surely he doesn't really mean them that way."