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Opinion | Ralph Nader

Politics is a war of words. And the Republicans are winning

Illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe

Whoever controls the language gets a big head start in the battle for public opinion. Choosing words carefully is fundamentally important to effective communication. Being able to control language can make a real difference in public opinion. In this contest, the Republicans and big businesses win hands down. The Democrats mouth the words of their adversaries. Consider some examples:

Gouging health insurance, drug, and hospital chains are called “providers” instead of “sellers” or “vendors.” “Providers” has a charitable connotation. The camouflaged rip-off called “Medicare advantage” should be called “Medicare disadvantage.” As health consultant Dr. Fred Hyde told me: “It’s not what you pay, it’s what you get.”


In 2012, Republican wordsmith Frank Luntz dreamed up the phrase “climate change,” which he said sounded a lot more benign than “global warming.” Democrats picked it up as naturally as cats lapping up milk. Instead they should be using “climate disruption,” “climate crisis,” or “global warming,” to describe intensifying raging floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornados, wildfires, and rising sea levels. As 16-year-old Greta Thunberg advised: Banish the words “climate change.” The Guardian newspaper has decided to do just that.

Business bosses prefer the words “white-collar crime” instead of the dreaded “corporate crime.” Democrats supinely use the former term, even when media headlines are screaming out about crimes related to banks, credit cards, drugs, insurance, energy, auto industry crimes, and chemical companies. Leave “white-collar crime” to describe a teller cheating his bank.

“Tort reform” would usually connote expanding the rights of the wrongfully injured instead of gravely restricting them. A more proper term is “tort deform.” Yet Democrats and, astonishingly enough, plaintiff lawyers, still use the language of their insurance-industry opponents.

The Mueller Report was “redacted” instead of “censored.” The former sounds so mechanically benign. Why won’t the Democrats call it what it is?


The Pentagon takes the linguistic cake. They should put out a dictionary of Pentogonese. It started with changing the name of the War Department to the Defense Department after World War II. This, of course, led the “munitions” companies to call themselves the “defense industry.” Sounds so high and mighty — doesn’t it? — for the most aggressive imperial war machine in the world.

Other Pentagonese, with the help of the munitions and “security” companies, include “detainees” (after 15 years in Guantanamo, when do they become prisoners?) and “troops” instead of the more personal “soldiers.” Companies sold chemicals to the Pentagon for use in Vietnam. Their purpose was called “defoliation” instead of “chemical warfare,” designed, in part, for “village pacification” instead of “village destruction.” Republicans gravitate to these more calming words. Yet many Democrats use them also.

George W. Bush and the malicious Dick Cheney didn’t like the word “torture,” so they spoke about “enhanced interrogation.” That phrase masks the screams of victims — many innocent — of these crimes. Yet when Democrats are in the White House, they don’t jettison such euphemisms.

Then there are the daily usages of the words “leftist,” “moderate,” or “centrist.” It seems that if people like Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren propose reforms, supported by a majority of the people, they’re called “leftists” or “extremists.” Their proposals include a living wage, taxes on wealth, universal health care, and a crackdown on corporate crime. Meanwhile, those politicians standing for agendas more acceptable to the corporate world and a minority of the public are called “centrists” or “moderates.”


Now we’re grappling with the age-old words “socialism” and “capitalism.” Once again the Republicans, charging Democrats as “socialists,” are ahead in the labeling game. In-house Pentagon socialism looms as a large sub-economy of social safety nets for Pentagon employees. In our country, big corporate capitalism can’t fail because socialism is always being invoked by Washington to bail it out in so many ways. Note the giant Wall Street collapse in 2008 and the government’s varied multi-trillion-dollar bailouts.

Corporate capitalism dominates and controls the wealth, while socialism is left with funding long-established public services and returning some of the peoples’ taxes back in such programs as Social Security and Medicare.

Former Alaskan senator Mike Gravel urged that the 2020 presidential campaign include specific discourses between “Democratic socialism” and “Republican socialism.” Obviously, these historic terms — socialism and capitalism — need to be updated to become more specific to today’s discourse.

Confucius said, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.” The Chinese sage gave us over 2,000 years lead time to get our language straight. It is about time we do.

Ralph Nader is author of “Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State’’ and is a four-time presidential candidate.