Jeffrey Isaacs, a distinguished professor of political science at IU Bloomington, had a very thought-provoking essay in Common Dreams.It was evidently triggered by the issuance of a Chinese State Council position papers asserting that China is a “democracy that works.” The paper argued that the “Chinese model” is superior to the “Western model,”–that it is more efficient, promotes solidarity, and is not “an ornament to be used for decoration.”
As Isaacs notes
Most readers of the piece will rightly focus on the manifest hypocrisies of the Chinese power elite and its intellectual supporters who justify terrible violations of human rights.
But this rhetorical appeal by authoritarians to the values of “democracy” is nothing new. It has antecedents in the official rhetorics of Italian fascism, German Nazism, and Russian Communism—all of which claimed to represent a “higher form” of “folk democracy” or “proletarian democracy” or “people’s democracy.” In more recent times, Hugo Chavez presented himself as a proponent of an anti-imperialist “protagonistic democracy,” and Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian regime, famously declared in 2014 that Hungary was an “illiberal democracy,” pointing to Singapore, China, India, Turkey, and Russia as his models. And we must not forget, of course, that Vladimir Putin long extolled his regime as a form of “sovereign democracy” that placed national traditions above global commitments and regarded “human rights” as a “Western” abstraction.
As Isaacs goes on to discuss, the Chinese claim to be a democracy is just the most recent iteration of a longtime debate over what the term means. “Democracy,” as he reminds us, is a “complex and essentially contested” concept, and arguments over the connections between liberalism and democracy have been central to modern politics.
But we don’t need to look to mid-20th century totalitarianism, or current-day anti-liberal authoritarians in China or Russia or Hungary, to see versions of this contestation. For it is taking place before our very eyes in the U.S., in the form of a Republican party that is deliberately assaulting core norms and institutions of liberal democracy and doing it in the name of . . . democracy itself.
In the essay, Isaacs highlights a critical and too-often overlooked element of America’s current political impasse: the misuse–the intentional corruption–of language in service of propaganda and power.
He reminds us that GOP “leaders” from Tucker Carlson to Mike Pence have made it their business to commune with Viktor Orban, and that Republican efforts to “Orbanify” U.S. politics don’t just adopt Orban’s authoritarian legal tactics–they also mimic his rhetorical ones.
Isaacs is quite right that when Trump and his MAGA supporters pontificate about “democracy,” they mean something quite different from American liberal democracy.
They mean the popular sovereignty of “true Americans.” They do not mean by this universal adult suffrage, they mean voting restrictions designed to limit the participation of “undesirable” and “un-American” people. They do not mean by this a system based on robust debate and free and fair party competition. They mean a system that opposes “fake news” and “liberal science,” that privileges their own media and their own academics and their own partisan advantage, and regards any alternatives as “enemies of the people.”
This essay–well worth clicking through and reading in its entirety–reminded me of the following exchange from Alice in Wonderland between Alice and Humpty-Dumpty:
When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less. ‘ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
Communication is difficult even when the participants to a conversation agree on the meanings of the words they are using. Tone, body language, professional and “hip” jargon can change the connotation of otherwise simple exchanges, even when no misdirection is intended. When language is is corrupted–when, in the words of Tallyrand, words are chosen “to conceal true thoughts”–we no longer have the critically-important ability to engage in productive conversation.
Language is what allowed humans to emerge from caves, to collaborate, to investigate, to create. It’s not only essential for intellectual and emotional expression, it’s the primary vehicle through which humans transmit culture, scientific knowledge and world-views across generations, the way we link the past with the present.
When words no longer have objective content–when we lose the ability to understand what other people are really saying–the resulting chaos empowers the worst of us.