The First Corruption Is Language

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.


  1. YES – Language is very important. STANDARD English language. NOT all the slang and jargon that creeps in. Lies are lies, not gas lighting etc.. I hope we can return to using REAL words. Standard words. Not crap like woke or anti woke or unwoke. That crap means nothing to most people.

  2. Unfortunately, the standard response to Alice’s reservation about making words mean just what you want them to mean, is Humpty Dumpty’s response: “The question is, which is to be the master.”

  3. For decades the republican party has been using carefully crafted propaganda to take control of state legislatures with the ultimate goal of complete control of Congress. Where has the national Democrat party leadership been? Hiding under a rock? They don’t speak up or speak out against the constant onslaught of right wing lies. We never hear a word from them! It is clear they have no desire to fight the right wing propaganda, let alone actually lead the party.

    The national democrat party leadership must wake up and speak out on every television show and radio station in the country. They need to get a backbone and tell the truth to the republicans that have fallen for the radical right wing lies. They have got to reach out and focus on every rural area of this country because the few of us democrats left in rural areas can’t do it alone. Being a member of the democrat party in a rural area has become increasingly dangerous. We don’t have the power to stop this downward spiral into authoritarianism.

  4. After posting my prior comment I read today’s “Letters from an American” from Heather Cox Richardson. Copied and posted below are a couple paragraphs that speak to my earlier comment.

    “Refugees fleeing Russia for Finland before the last train service between Russia and Europe ended last week told writer William Doyle of a population in Russia gradually coming to realize they have fallen under the iron hand of a dictator as the government cracks down on dissent.

    “The problem is that there are many Russians who cannot admit our mistakes, cannot realize that we are trapped in a nightmare,” an art director told Doyle. “It’s much easier to watch TV and absorb the government propaganda. It’s easier to not think…. You have this vast country with many people who are poor and who have never travelled abroad. They are very isolated, with no communication, only their television. They work hard all day, come home exhausted and the TV is their only source.””

  5. What’s new? The Republicans have been honing their name-calling, mislabeling craft for a long time. Here’s President Truman from the early 50’s:

    Socialism is a scare word they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years.
    Socialism is what they called public power. Socialism is what they called social security.
    Socialism is what they called farm price supports.
    Socialism is what they called bank deposit insurance.
    Socialism is what they called the growth of free and independent labor organizations.
    Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.
    When the Republican candidate inscribes the slogan “Down With Socialism” on the banner of his “great crusade,” that is really not what he means at all.
    What he really means is “Down with Progress–down with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal,” and “down with Harry Truman’s fair Deal.” That’s all he means.

  6. When I worked for the U.S. Department of Labor and was in Washington, D.C. for training circa 2003, the head of our Agency explained performance standards for our work productivity. He premised his words, by saying, that we All Knew – that everyone worked hard (“hah”!) so if we didn’t meet our performance standards for a year, it wasn’t that we failed. We then retroactively changed the standards so we met them! So Logical! This was well before the 2016 Elections!

  7. I don’t think that there is that much difficulty in understanding each other. The problem seems to be the fear felt by those on the right that life is a zero sum game. If you get more, I must inevitably get less. They don’t like to hear that everyone can have more, if we are only open to change.

  8. Nancy’s last paragraph written by Heather about Russians is the same for Americans. The US Media is a tired establishment media that presents viewpoints for targeted audiences; yet, all of which is propaganda.

    If only we had a train leaving for another country, but Americans are trapped because our propaganda posits the bogeyman as living outside our borders. “We Are Exceptional.”

    Therefore, why should we escape our situation when we live in an “exceptional country.”

    However, when we look at the facts, we are anything but “exceptional.”

    The only thing that is exceptional is the consistency of propaganda overlooking our bogeymen and raving about exceptionalism.

    As Nancy said, the architects of the Senate capture and thus the ineptitude in Washington is Charles Koch and his dark network. He funded the 1/6 Insurrection and is the anti-establishment oligarch-terrorist attacking our government from the inside for 40 years while the wimpy democratic party does nothing and the news media never mentions his name except to talk about the billions he’s made personally through his businesses.

    Hey, but what about those Russian oligarchs surrounding Putin? LOL

  9. continued party affiliation with the /DNC/RNC etc, who choose to push,or demand who gets the brass ring has made this whole goverment a flat of lawyers. seems when i have time to Cspan my few open hours a day and because 1000 channels still isnt enough, i see and hear the rehetoric and or fabrication of words between whos being questioned,or debated,or, told, whats black is really green. kinda like being in court and hearing trained people telling you how to think. theology aside, maybe not, its convincing people how to think when in discussion. bring the facts in,and ive seen how one barrister can convince a whole jury,that can of tuna is really a gun. the wordmonger has used thier rehetoric today in the halls of congress to oppose our own form of goverment in many words,or just afew cheap slants against the masses. now brow beat the little person who doesnt understand,and votes,and they start to believe the guys in the suits,are correct…in thier demanding style of mongerism. looking at world goverments who agast the news media with orban like spews(get a daily piece of euro style news,,and follow it),,all i see is a common agreement,nothing done,nothing that amounts to change. democracy is by the masses,until its too busy being worried about how someone smells or looks. as a whole,now, the masses get their information and or headline brews,(yep) thru social/mass media. it is a new kind of mind jargon,our brains havent developed to grasp the whole bucket of crap being dumped into ones brain at once,overloaded baby.(like the guy at the highway weigh station tells me..) now throw in a cell phone for demand attention,and trying to live on a less than adiquate means of support,and needs to be done,you have what we have today. im sure in our past,like 30 years ago,, we were more atuned to what was our primary existance, a nation for all.
    today we have been hijacked by a few who, spew the crap and we eat it…best wishes all..
    my lottery tickets are still 0..

  10. U.S.Commerce dept :last week.
    not since 1952 has the stock market gained so much,,,now tell me its inflation?
    its profiteering,plain and simple. and we elected it..

  11. So-cial-ism:
    the republicans word for anyone who disagrees.
    a word used by those who do the work, and demand better.
    word used by billionaires to deny we exists.

  12. Tennessee’s proposed Basic Education Program is said to prioritize students over systems. In my view, parents not students, are prioritized over systems.

    Assigning tax dollars to the student is merely a ploy to funnel money to Christian and private school parents. This is not a new tactic. Follow the language and follow the money.

  13. I feel very inadequate in this, but I do think one aspect of what the Chinese claim is worth pondering: My Chinese friends claim that major policy issues are thoroughly discussed at every level, and everyone participates. I don’t know how true this is, but when I visited Cuba in 2019 there was certainly a lot of robust conversation going on everywhere we went about proposed policy changes, and clearly interest and input levels were high. I don’t know to what extent this is real in either China or Cuba, but I do know the US has had low levels of participation for a long time. The aspect of this I think is important is the idea of Participation (genuine input) levels being a measure of the health of a community. I think that can be illuminating here. US democracy with low levels is unhealthy.

  14. It can be said that democracy is simple. It is government wherein the people governed regularly hire and fire those governing.

    What we know though is that in order for we the people to do that effectively we have to be well informed about how prospective hires will perform for us. We have to interview them as any business will attest. We have also to know about the issues facing our country. Also, what the state of the world, and in fact, all of the layers of government above and below the one in question are that must be adapted to and accommodated. In short, we must have the truth about many things well beyond our senses. So democracy out of the reach of competent, free and fair, and professional journalism is an illusion.

    That’s exactly as true here as it is in Russia and China.

  15. From Tallyrand to Boebert is quite a stretch, but we do use words to conceal as well as to unconceal. Motivation on choice of words is involved, i.e., attempts to influence, elicit a desired response etc. Cusswords and high faluting language may also be in the mix. Word abuse is rife.

    How use or misuse of words and phrases is utilized is demonstrated by advertising, political promises, pretended opinions, putdowns etc., and I plead guilty to all charges of use and misuse of the lexicon in matters political and economic and my only defense is that I know of no one who is not guilty as well.

  16. The dumbing down of society is nothing new!

    When the Roman empire was on the rocks, what did they roll out? Bread and Circuses!

    If the folks had a full belly of bread, and were able to get their angry aggression out by watching gladiators murdering each other or animals ripping each other apart, it was better for the government. The elite highborn, those who divided up power, always fell back to the tried and true techniques that worked for centuries, until it didn’t!

    Russia? China? North korea? Nazi germany? Fascist italy? Myanmar? Syria? Hungry? Belarus? Even Pol Pot and his Cambodian Khmer Rouge slaughterhouse, claimed to be for the people and supposedly provide a safe quality of life. And even though the above mentioned were responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths; murders, tortures, executions, starvations, you name it, the people still wanted to be led. First they wanted to be led by those who annihilated their populations and society, then they wanted to be led by those who claimed to offer something different, to rescue them from their first choice.

    Is it really any different here? How many people die from health-related preventable disease? How many die from lack of nutrition? How many people die from being slaughtered in the streets by military weapons? How many people die from listening to false stories and lies?

    The chicken or the egg? Did the disintegration of society come first? Or, did the lies and deceit, the conspiracies and powerlust come first?

    Every single society on this planet, every single historical power, has had its cohesion cannibalized by narcissistic self-aggrandizing, self idolizing, delusional self-anointed self-appointed God’s who made themselves in their own image!

    It’s everywhere, there is no perfection in this imperfect system. We see it every single day, but when it is actually right in front of us, we don’t recognize it! The rot, the gangrenous spread of decay, the stench of death, somehow escapes the attention it needs to prevent the extinguishing of life from the infected organism.

    That infected organism is humanity and all of humanities efforts. Imperfection cannot create perfection. And why is there so much imperfection? Because, imperfection creates opportunities for the power hungry. It doesn’t matter, that those who are in power are just signing their own death warrant. Undoubtedly, the greed keeps them blind, the power craving keeps their blinders focused on the Golden fleece not being able to see the Hydra.

    What’s different about today than mankind’s previous incarnations of civilization?

    Nuclear weapons and social media! Do we actually want to trust a narcissistic psychopath to do the right thing? I guarantee you, that will not happen!

    The tried and true method of keeping the populations stupid and scared, have worked, and will keep working until they don’t.

  17. “Every single society on this planet, every single historical power, has had its cohesion cannibalized by narcissistic self-aggrandizing, self idolizing, delusional self-anointed self-appointed Gods who made themselves in their own image!”

    I just don’t understand the level of intellectual compartmentalization that produces the above, between bouts of Bible quotes.

    And humans are what they are, like all the other species, adapted to many ecological niches that may no longer exist. We’ve increased so much in population, technology, communication, that the human brain is stumbling under the load.

    I’ll quote Bob Dylan:
    “I been down at the bottom of a whirlpool of lies…” from Not Dark Yet (But It’s Gettin’ There)

  18. I read the essay, incidentally, all the way through, and noted that nowhere does the author remark on the dangers of uninformed voting, or mention social media bubbles.
    I think he’s in one.
    American Democracy was postulated on an informed citizenry. We don’t have that.
    So it’s an “ornament.”
    Isn’t it?

  19. In China the population who resides in the rural areas are denied college educations and are only good for the military, farming construction and low paying jobs. Forget the few immigrants that are in the country. If that is a Democracy then count me out.

  20. Another amazing display of anger by the responders to Sheila’s blog. I failed to find any counter opinion or evidence to the despair demonstrated here. What do the routine protesters on this link do other than complain about the world they made over their many years? Come out, come out wherever you are and do something! Tell us how your efforts today and tomorrow will help move the world in the direction you claim to desire.

  21. I am have a slanted view on China, but that’s because my wife and stepson left.

    Their view is a society of thugs and bullies who are completely corrupt. My late father-in-law received free medical care, but minimal care unless we bribed the doctors. My wife had issues with authorities last time she visited and had to pay a bribe to return here (she was a Green Card holder then, now she is a citizen).

    The first Chinese national that I met was back in the late ’70s. She was a visiting scientist who had had to undergo “re-education” during the Cultural Revolution and was years behind in her scientific knowledge. Her daughter was an actress who wanted to be in a Hollywood movie, but they wouldn’t let her leave until her mother returned to China, missing the opportunity that had been offered.

    Back to my wife’s view – everything is based on bribery and shoddy workmanship is the norm. Again, she left so that she and her son could have a good life here. Her son got a higher quality education, has great opportunities now, — and became a citizen after joining the military (Army Reserves).

    They both vote whenever we have an election – another difference.

  22. Morton Marcus. I suspect the reason there are no dissenting opinions posted here is that you need to have fact and evidence or you will get called out. Most often what we get in the way dissent is name calling or bullying and that does not last long.

  23. Excellent retort Dan! 👍

    Ormond, it isn’t really compartmentalization, it’s reality! There are things men claim are taught in scripture, but what these nationalists believe is nowhere to be found in scripture. The old and the New testament both are in sync with each other. If you really want to know the truth, then one needs to be a student of scripture. And, scripture is absolutely positively against what’s being portrayed as religion today! So, pay attention to scripture and not what men say! They lie and manipulate and misrepresent. And, there are consequences for that!

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