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The Power of Words and the War on Democracy

Photo Credit: John Gomez /

Even single words have enormous power to shape our world. So, with our democracy in crisis, it’s critical to rethink terms undermining democracy and to take care in choosing words that further the values and interests of most Americans.

Though largely invisible, an anti-democracy movement bankrolled over decades by a handful of extreme-right families has been strikingly effective in choosing their words to rig the rules of our democracy, as documented by journalist Jane Mayer, among others.

A key to its success is its simple storyline, spread widely: “Government is our enemy. It takes our money and wastes it on the undeserving. Our freedom is in the marketplace, fairly sorting out winners and losers.” It’s a message stoking shame and blame, suggesting that those struggling financially must be slackers. It handily blinds us to what would otherwise be obvious: that our market economy is hardly “free.” Rather, it is driven by a single rule: do what brings the highest return to existing wealth. Consequently, Americans now try to make ends meet in a society in which twenty people control as much as the combined wealth of half our population.

This destructive message is, however, being increasingly challenged by an emerging Democracy Movement. Its core message goes something like this: “Stronger together, we’re the owners of our democracy, so we can shape our government and market economy to serve us all.”

But democracy’s champions—among whom we proudly count ourselves—can get much better at communicating democracy’s premise and promise. Toward that end, our goal here is not to come up with the “right” message but to spur conversation about how to communicate the values and goals of a rising, bipartisan citizens’ movement for inclusive democracy.

Because even single words have tremendous power, we might well start by reclaiming those that anti-democracy forces have twisted:

Freedom is one with special power, as in our culture it’s been actively whittled down to a narrowly defensive meaning—freedom from government interference. Yet, freedom means so much more: An active, positive understanding of freedom includes real opportunity in, for example, education and employment and in having a meaningful voice in governance.

So, democracy advocates can expand the limited, defensive freedom of “Get out of my way” to embrace the positive freedom of “I have a real say.”

Free market is another fraught term, used by the Right and progressives alike to describe the economic status quo. Yet a “free market”—i.e., one not governed by rules—is fiction.

Market exchange evolved over eons in communities in which economic life was embedded in family, community, and religious obligations and rituals. Over time, the market was extracted from community norms and, in recent decades, reconceived and described in 1984 by Ronald Reagan as, well, “magic.” To be sure, with magic no one wants to spoil the fun by peeking behind the curtain. Mystery is a kick. But once we stir up the courage to probe, we discover that there’s nothing magical about our market. It is governed largely by a single rule, as noted, returning wealth to wealth and leading the US to become the most economically unequal among high-income countries, and even more unequal than dozens of others, including, say, India or Liberia.

So, let’s ditch “free market” altogether and try “rigged market” to capture what is dominant in the US today. Or, we propose “one-rule market.” Yes, it would elicit some blank stares, but that could be a good thing, an opportunity to pause and explore how all markets involve rules, and that our one-rule market is taking us to a place few Americans want.

From there, a useful conversation could begin, focusing on what specific rules we create democratically to keep wealth fairly and widely dispersed—rules, for example, covering the minimum wage and other labor laws, tax rates, and tax havens now hiding wealth, as well public investments, for example, in health and education.

Redistribution is a related word typically used by anti-democratic forces to suggest unfairly taking what’s been earned by hardworking Americans and given to the freeloaders. Actually, redistribution goes on continually; only, in our “one-rule” economy wealth increasingly redistributes upward. Since the early 70’s, for example, workers have hardly gained ground while executive compensation has soared sixteen-fold. So, let’s define the goal as “fair distribution,” not redistribution.

Let’s also put the word regulation on the chopping block.

Regulation hasn’t always been a near curse word. According to American Amnesia by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, from the forties through the sixties, the New York Times was twice as likely to use “regulation” in a positive than a negative context. In the following decades, though, that ratio reversed and “regulation” began to convey only restraint. Soon the much-hyped epithet “big government” became a rallying cry for many Americans.

Since oversight and rules are needed to protect our health, safety, and environment—not to mention to uphold competitive enterprise by preventing monopolies—we need a good alternative to the tainted term “regulation.” So, what about safeguards and standards, suggesting the life-enhancing purposes of rules we choose and commit democratically to enforce together.

Neoliberal is yet another problematic term, in this case invading progressive lingo. It refers to a raw form of get-government-out-of-the-way capitalism that took off in the 1980s. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund pushed the doctrine worldwide, dismantling government programs in the Global South, including Latin America. There, it carries a specific and, for many, a negative connotation of neo-colonial imposition of a destructive economic doctrine.

But in the US “neoliberal” doesn’t work. Those unaware of the term’s origin would assume “neo” and “liberal” combined just mean “new liberals,” while the term actually refers to a market-market fundamentalist doctrine. How confusing. Let’s retire “neoliberal.”

Capitalism itself is another tricky word referring to particular form of market economy, one run by those who control capital. If you attack it, however, some will believe that you are anti-market altogether, seeking to replace it with government control. Ears close. To make a pro-democracy message understandable in the US we propose calling what we have now “brutal capitalism,” an extreme form of a market economy extracted from democratic accountability. Using “brutal capitalism” opens doors to exploring examples of markets in which those other than capitalists also have real power—including those in which trade union have real power, as well as cooperatives, community-owned enterprises, and public utilities, often proven less costly than private.

Our label “brutal capitalism” seems appropriate for an economy that leaves one-half of all newborns dependent on public aid for their sustenance; and where, over almost half a century, laborers’ real wages have hardly budged. “Brutal” captures the horrific consequences that flow from a doctrine presuming that the best we humans can do is to let a power-concentrating market determine not only social wellbeing but, increasingly, political outcomes as well.

Which takes us to the word democracy.

Useful discussion of this much-abused term begins with distinguishing America’s failing form of governance from democracy that meets deep human needs, even beyond the physical—our need for power, that is, a real say in the direction of our communities, as well as meaning in our lives and connection with others. Thus, to convey “democracy” capable of meeting human needs, we add descriptors—preferring to speak of “living democracy,” “inclusive democracy,” or “accountable democracy,” terms that better capture the notion of governance aligned with what humans require to thrive.

To repeat, our goal is not to prescribe a lexicon but to provoke discussion about how best to frame the nature of today’s crisis and to generate together—in face of widespread despair—a compelling, believable vision of democracy that works for all.

It’s worth the effort, for a single word can communicate a whole worldview.

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