The Language of Politics: Aristotle, Ronald Reagan, and Bernie Sanders

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Bernie Sanders at George Washington University: Reshaping America’s political language

M. Davout

In his book, The Politics, Aristotle expressed a famous claim that political science textbooks have been quoting for generations: man is by nature a political animal. Less appreciated has been Aristotle’s follow-up assertion that “man is the only animal that nature has endowed with the gift of speech, [which gift] is intended to set forth the advantageous and disadvantageous, the just and the unjust.”

With these claims Aristotle is reminding us that speech counts for a lot in politics. One need only consider how the language of politics in the post-New Deal, post-Great Society U.S. shifted so that it became a matter of course for millions of modest income Americans to vote for politicians who promised to cut, eliminate, or privatize government programs (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) that have kept so many vulnerable Americans from going under. Foundations such as the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, Richard Mellon Scaife Foundation provided financial support for scholars and pundits willing to make the libertarian argument for an every-man-for-himself society for which, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan in his first inaugural address, government is the problem, not the solution.

Funded by wealthy interests and individuals, these foundations and think tanks developed the rhetoric (e.g., “death tax” instead of “estate tax”) and ideas (e.g., cutting taxes increases government revenues) that would be picked up and propagated by conservative politicians across the country. Reagan himself, who began his national political career on the pundit side of conservative politics as a paid spokesman of General Electric giving speeches at GE plants across the country, paid homage to the decades-long conservative struggle to change the political conversation when he said, “The American Enterprise Institute stands at the center of a revolution of ideas of which I too have been a part…”

While it is too early confidently to guess which of the democratic contenders for the presidential nomination will face off against Trump, it is not too early to appreciate how much the speech of a certain senator from Vermont has changed the national conversation. Every time Bernie Sanders appears in public and speaks, whether at a televised debate, on a union picket line, on the stump in Iowa or New Hampshire, or on a college campus, his words serve to enlarge and invigorate the space of political discourse in this country. His relentlessly on-message campaign in 2016 for a $15-dollar-minimum (“living”) wage, Medicare-for-All, tuition-free public colleges and universities, highlighting global warming as an existential threat, a political revolution against a corrupt system, had discernible impacts in local, state and national races in 2018.  Consider as well the leftward policy positioning of several of his fellow candidates for the 2020 nomination; their language and positions often echo those of Sanders.

And while it is also too early to tell whether his recent speech at George Washington University successfully immunized the word, socialism, from the taboo status it has labored under in American political culture since at least the post-World War One Red Scare, Bernie Sanders’ evocation of FDR’s “Economic Bill of Rights” and his enlargement of the notion of being free to encompass having adequate health insurance, for example, or having access to a college education without sinking into paralyzing debt continues his crucial efforts to change the language of U.S. politics.

In helping to reshape the language of American politics, Bernie Sanders may go down in U.S. history as the presidential candidate who did not need to win to get his most important work done.

M. Davout, a professor of political science, teaches in the American South.

9 thoughts on “The Language of Politics: Aristotle, Ronald Reagan, and Bernie Sanders

  1. A saying I learned is “politics is the art of the possible” (Otto von Bismarck). But what is “possible” is often defined or shaped by language. When you change “estate tax” to “death tax,” it makes it more difficult for the government to tax the richest families as they pass their wealth down the generations. When health panels become “death panels,” people begin to believe that socialized medicine is itself deadly. The manipulators of language know this.

    Bernie Sanders has been very effective at changing political discourse in America, but I’m not sure he’s doing it with language. It’s his convictions that matter. His passion for fairness — his belief in the working classes. He believes in justice. It’s Bernie’s passion that’s helping to redefine American politics: he’s helping to shift the needle about what is possible in this country, which is why so many powerful interests are aligned against him, including the mainstream media.

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    1. I would agree Sanders has changed the political discourse. Language is a part of it, his fervor in delivering the message is readily apparent. He has a command of political history. His track record is through the years been consistent. Sanders has not gone Left, he has always been there.

      The DNC Corporate Empire has recognized the Twin Threats of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and brought out of semi-retirement Corporate Joe Biden. K. Harris came out punching. Pop, Pop, Corporate Joe took one jab after another, he had this confused look on his face and went into shell. Corporate Joe’s counter punching attempt simply left him open for more Pop, Pop.

      So, now I wonder if K. Harris after being admonished by the Corporate Media for making Joe Biden looking helpless, will back off. You have to wonder if K. Harris can make Corporate Joe look foolish, what would President Agent Orange do to him.

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      1. How true, ML. Trump would eviscerate Creepy Uncle Joe.

        Tulsi Gabbard, I believe, has the best chance against Trump, but the Democratic establishment hates her. They’d rather lose with Biden or Harris than win with a true progressive, whether Gabbard or Warren or Bernie.

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  2. Regarding language, I liken we the people in the Obama years to a guy on a lounge chair on the beach, enjoying the gentle breeze (Obama’s words) as behind him his clothes, his wallet and his car are being stolen by people bugged that they have to leave the lounge chair.

    We’ve hit the bottom with Trump. He’s sleazy as can be, is obsessed like a child with any criticism, thumbs his nose at the people (no, we may not look at his tax returns), makes decisions on whims rather than reason, has given us a succession of fools for addressing the press and continues the people punishing but business pleasing placement of industry hacks at the head of the regulatory agencies. All the while he is boldly self-dealing, cleaning up in his businesses as a result of his holding office. He lets us all know his incomprehension of ability by putting his family into top positions.

    With this symbol of corruption our leader, if ever there was a time to put forth progressive ideas with a will and drive for the goal, it is now. We’ve lost control of our government to wealth then put in a man who is dedicated to wealth to lead it. That there should be any thought that he will be returned to office is testimony that we the people have dropped responsibility for the political system that we claim to hold in high regard as a wrecker swaggers before us expecting the votes to continue his destruction.

    It’s been wisely said the strength of democracy is not in getting good people into office, but in having the power to eject the bad. We have our chance to prove it, first by putting the mediocre (Biden) out to pasture and then showing the people have had enough abuse and are back to take charge.

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  3. Pete Buttigieg is a thousand times more inspiring than either Sanders or Warren. His big policy ideas (including his Douglass Plan and his suggested architecture for national service) are better thought-out and more practical than Sanders’ and/or Warren’s trillion-dollar nonsense (free college for billionaires!), while his ability to refrain from sneering, scolding, and finger-wagging just highlights the fact that he’s of an entirely different generation than the screeching, self-righteous oldsters to his left. Also: Taking health care from people who have a private plan they like and want to keep is not only politically asinine — it hands Trump an issue on which Dems have ALREADY WON — but morally disgusting. The self-importance and arrogance of so-called progressives (“Shut up and let us ban your private health care, people. We know what’s good for you.”) is absolutely breathtaking.

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    1. Does anyone “like” their private health care plan? Insurance premiums are going up, co-pays are increasing, so too are deductibles. Ever have to fight with a private provider for an MRI or CAT scan? Ever discover that your private provider simply won’t cover a procedure that you need? It’s no fun out there.

      If you have a great private plan, you are very lucky …

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