Translating the Language of Politicians

Those in some professions intentionally adopt language that is obscure and impenetrable to the uninitiated, wrote the late S.I. Hayakawa, a semanticist and former U.S. Senator from California. He surmised that this is done so that the layman will be confused and perhaps be in awe of the perpetrators’ importance. As a lawyer by training, I must concede that the shoe fits many in my profession.

However, there is at least one field where communication is not so much intended to be incomprehensible, but to create a very clear impression in the mind of the listener that what is being said is benevolent and true when, in fact, it is not.

Politicians are masters at using words to describe themselves and their endeavors in ways that make their motives seem beyond reproach. Here are a few of the noble sounding, grandiose terms currently common in “political speak” and their translation into the language of real people.

Shared Sacrifice: This term has become popular both in Washington, D.C. and in Sacramento. In a recent letter to the president, Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist,” wrote supporting deficit reduction through “shared sacrifice.” Reading the letter in its entirety, what the senator was asking for, of course, is a tax increase. So when a politician says, “shared sacrifice” it is probably a good time to get a firm grip on your wallet.

Grand Bargain: This term has become fashionable in the nation’s Capital. It has been used to describe efforts by President Obama to reach out to Congress to promote a tax increase. Here in California, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has picked up on this addition to the political lexicon by calling for a “grand bargain,” whose primary element would be a dismantling of Proposition 13 to allow for — you guessed it — a tax increase.

Investment: In 1993, Bill Clinton called for a major “investment” in America. No doubt guided by his wily consultant, Dick Morris, the words “tax increase” never passed through his lips, but that is exactly what he wanted, a massive tax increase, which Congress approved.

There are a number of other pleasant and/or patriotic sounding terms that, when used by politicians, are actually code for increasing the burden on taxpayers. Among these are “new revenue,” “budget solution,” “fair share,” and a personal favorite from the mouth of President Pro Tem of the California Senate, Darrell Steinberg, “tremendous opportunity to restructure the way we govern.” Then, of course, there is the slightly strange “You didn’t build that,” as a roundabout justification for higher taxes.

Fortunately, most taxpayers are not so gullible as to be taken in by the politicians’ high sounding rhetoric filled with pleasant euphemisms for confiscating more of their hard-earned money. As Ronald Reagan observed, the most frightening nine words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

Hayakawa had a less humorous and more ominous warning about the misuse of language by the political class. In the introduction to his Language in Thought and Action, published in 1949, he urged every citizen to adopt a habitually critical attitude toward language, without which, he warned, “…our political liberties remain at the mercy of any eloquent and unscrupulous demagogue.” His advice remains good today.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association -– California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.