I am writing this column in the free government library. It’s a beautiful summer day, so afterwards I think I’ll take my kayak over to the government beach. I’ll know the water is good for a swim because the government health department tests it daily. And I can paddle back home without harm because government safety officials watch out for speeding boaters.
Language is powerful, as George Orwell and the cast of “Mad Men’’ will tell you. The choice of one word over another can spell the difference between prose and propaganda. “Death tax.” “Nanny state.” “Partial-birth abortion.” Liberals have long lamented that the right excels at this skill, though “marriage equality” and “pro-choice” are potent exceptions. But conservatives are clearly bolder in wielding the language to frame public perceptions of issues and institutions. Once “benefits” were redefined as “entitlements,” you knew “the end of welfare as we know it” couldn’t be far behind.
Now some wily wordsmiths in Kansas have taken to strategically rebranding public education, the better to quell opposition to deep budget cuts. Just substitute “government” for “public” and backing for the schools will dry up like a field of wheat in a prairie drought. “Our local grade school is now the government school” wrote Kansas state Senator Forrest Knox in a recent op-ed. “Our children are becoming government children.” Never mind that Forrest himself is a government, um, public servant.
The use of “government school” to undermine support for public education is gaining traction. The conservative blogosphere is full of entreaties to parents to pull their children out of school, lest they be subject to political indoctrination, sexual permissiveness, and forced vaccinations. But the more recent rebranding is about money as much as morality: The Kansas schools are chronically underfunded, especially for the poorest students, while Governor Sam Brownback continues slashing income taxes in what he bluntly calls a “march to zero.” Flinging about the pejorative “government schools” is a good way to get Kansas voters to forget that their state is 26th in national education rankings.
Kansas conservatives are enjoying the distress the term has provoked among teachers and others who support public education. Bob Weeks, host of a cable show on WichitaLiberty.TV, was all innocence when he discussed the issue last month. “It is surprising to me that liberals and progressives object to the term ‘government schools,’ ” he purred. “They like government, don’t they?”
Just so. The meaning of “government” needs to be reclaimed from the calumny of critics. Words are symbols; they can have multiple meanings. Maybe “government” doesn’t have to mean oppressive, bureaucratic, or corrupt. Maybe it can mean open, protective, or fair. Maybe it stands for a widening circle of rights and opportunities for all Americans instead of just the lucky or well-connected. Government schools are everyone’s schools — that’s what makes them public.
Reminding voters of this truth is the unstated task of Hillary Clinton and the Democrats during this week’s Democratic National Convention. For all the sputtering fury of last week’s Republican convention, the essential question animating the two parties has been the same since at least the New Deal: What good is government?
It has been attacked and defunded for decades, but government still works to regulate a ruthless market and provides a measure of salve for life’s injuries and injustice. We all — red and blue staters alike — drive on government roads, delight in government beaches, parks, and libraries, enjoy government-graded meat, and yes, learn in government schools. But only one party is willing to say it. Democrats need to stand up and embrace what government provides for us: the definable, concrete benefits of a shared society. Anything less is just words.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.