The Right Word

Back during the Soviet Union’s radiant past, the great Polish philosopher Leszek Koakowski once noted that part of what made communism so oppressive was that it left its fingerprints on everything—the economy, the military, the media, the arts, even the sciences. I sometimes think that’s true of today’s extremist conservatism, even if you have to think hard to come up with a famous artist who’s a conservative.

Today’s right-wingers have their own TV network, their own branch of Congress, and their own Supreme Court (which unfortunately is ours, too). They have their own Jacobins in the Tea Party and their own shadowy financiers in the Koch brothers (who are presently, or so I’m told, attempting to wrest control of SPECTRE from Ernst Stavro Blofeld). They have their own science (Intelligent Design, global-warming denial) and even their own “stupid things,” as Ronald Reagan once famously called facts.

They also have their own language—you betcha, they do—and they wield it with such demagogic effectiveness that George Orwell himself would stand in awe. Connoisseurs can only admire the right’s talent for sly obfuscation, from coining the term “death tax,” that punchy pejorative for the federal estate tax, to labeling it a “tax increase” when you close a loophole or let a temporary tax cut lapse. In fact, hardly a day passes without a striking new coinage (“Obama-care”), a retooled golden oldie (“class warfare”), or a familiar term (“consumer”) that was once used neutrally but is now charged with ideological meaning. With that in mind, what follows is a first stab at creating a glossary of 21st-century conservative-speak.

Assault on business: Anything that interferes with the orderly making of money—Unions, workplace-safety rules, environmental regulations…

Budget Deficits: An opportunity, not a problem. When Republicans are in power, they should feel free to spend freely. (Dick Cheney: “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.”) When Democrats are in power, deficits can be used as a reason to cut Entitlements, shrink Government, and gut Public-Sector unions (cf. Governor Scott Walker’s groundbreaking work in Wisconsin). It’s hard to know what’s funnier: Bill Clinton setting aside his LBJ dreams in order to wipe out the deficits from Reagan and Bush I or the speed with which Bush II wiped out Clinton’s budget surplus on his way to running up the biggest deficits in history. Which Barack Obama is now stuck trying to fix.

Class Warfare: This Marxist concept now refers to any attempt to increase taxes on the wealthiest 10 percent of the population, regulate their financial transactions, or suggest that in amassing their fortunes, they haven’t always worked in the public interest. Correct Usage: “The Buffett Rule is class warfare, pure and simple.” Incorrect usage: “Cutting programs for the poor, while lowering taxes for the rich, is class warfare.”

Consumer: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word dates back to 1425, when it referred to a person or thing that devours, wastes, or destroys. By 1692, John Locke was using it as a term for one who purchases a commodity. Although it picked up some negative connotations in the 20th century (e.g. “mindless consumerism”), modern conservatism is finally giving this concept its rightful due—by letting it colonize everything.

To be a consumer is to be a free Individual (see below) who spends his or her life buying goods and services. Hence, art lovers are “arts consumers,” patients are “consumers of medicine,” and college students may appear to be students, but they’re actually “consumers of education” who are quite right to complain when, having paid a pretty penny for a professor’s services, she tells them things they may not want to hear. This ever-expanding use of “consumer” reminds us that social life is essentially a series of transactions bound together by what Thomas Carlyle dubbed the cash nexus, although, as the kind of conservative that is now hopelessly dated, he seemed to think this a bad thing.

Consumer-Rights Organization: A betrayal of the lone human being in the marketplace. Here, consumers forsake their individual freedom (see Unions) and band together for an Assault on Business. Such organizations are to be opposed in most cases, except possibly for the ones involving E. coli and killer toys. When in doubt, ask a lobbyist.

Entitlements: Unnecessary, expensive, character-sapping government programs. The word itself should be used as often as possible because it manages to be at once vaporously abstract (voters don’t know what programs you want to cut) and vaguely negative (don’t you just hate people who feel entitled?). Incredibly, liberals, including the president, often employ this same ugly shorthand as they defend popular programs like food stamps, Medicare, and Social Security. Save entitlements now! Save entitlements now! Catchy, huh?

Equality: Beyond ensuring basic legal rights (give or take), this is none of the government’s damn business. Cf. Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.” Just because he was being ironic doesn’t mean he wasn’t right.

The Free Market: Theological concept referring to an economic arrangement that, although it never has and never will exist, guides our economic lives with a care and benevolence nothing else in this fallen world ever could.

The Future: The past.

Government: A largely unnecessary evil that confiscates hard-earned wages through taxation (see The 16th Amendment) and performs a handful of useful functions, some of which might be better outsourced (see Privatization). Since The New Deal, it also undertakes social--engineering tasks so misguided that, when in power, one has an obligation to do them incompetently until they wither and die. In the ’90s, the Democrats tried to co-opt this idea (Bill Clinton: “The era of big government is over”), but they didn’t really mean it, despite throwing those single mothers off welfare (don’t be fooled by that “big”). The truth here, as so often, comes from Ronald Reagan: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

Homosexuality: Evangelical: A sin against God and man that the government should work to limit if not prohibit. Libertarian: A lifestyle choice that the government shouldn’t interfere with—not that there isn’t anything wrong with it.

Incentive: In its original use, this referred to something meant to rouse one to feeling or action. But since the 1940s, its meaning has become more deeply anchored in the fundamental truth of human nature: It now refers to a financial inducement to do something. Correct usage: “If you take away his annual bonuses, a CEO has no incentive to run his company well or make the world a better place.”

Independents: Voters you try not to scare with what you actually think.

Individual: 1. A lone, isolated human being who, born independent of society and owing nothing to it, is the constitutive unit and measure of all things (cf. Margaret Thatcher: “Who is society? There is no such thing!”). A Consumer. 2. A corporation, be it a single person who has incorporated for tax purposes or a multinational, multibillion-dollar company that, like Wal-Mart, employs 2.1 million individuals (see definition 1). Not yet established in common speech, this term is being popularized by, among others, the U.S. Supreme Court and Mitt Romney: “Corporations are people, my friend … of course they are.”

Mandate: Our side winning an election by one vote.

Market-Based Solution: The solution to everything. Details to follow. See Privatization, Tax Cut.

Nanny State: Coined by Conservative British MP Iain Macleod in 1965, the term is a pejorative for bureaucrats trying to control every aspect of our lives, from the foods we eat (Shut up, Michelle!) to our jet-skiing in national parks to our right to refuse vaccinations during epidemics. Note: Not applicable to issues of reproduction, sexual preference, recreational drugs, artistic freedom, or personal privacy.

The New Deal: Made the Great Depression worse. This is the period when America started going terribly wrong, FDR’s mistakes initially disguised by victory in World War II and 30-odd years of economic growth, the greatest period of widespread prosperity in human history. To be rolled back, if not erased.

Obamacare: Originally a mocking conservative nickname for the health bill signed by the president in 2010, it has now become ordinary parlance for what the tin-eared Democrats officially called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (or even less memorably, the PPACA). The term’s success is due in no small part to most Americans’ not having the slightest idea what’s in Obama’s health-care package or how it might make their life better.

Privatization: The solution to everything. Just ask the Russians. See Market-Based Solution, Tax Cut.

Public-Sector Unions: A cabal defending the “right” of sullen, inefficient, and overpaid government workers to drain the state’s coffers, leading to higher taxes.

Regulation: Any government law that business dislikes, be it ending child labor, requiring seat belts in cars, imposing clean-air rules, or, as Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson pointed out, putting constraints on the financial sector—“Excessive regulation slows innovation, imposes needless costs on investors, and stifles competitiveness and job creation.” True, he said this on November 20, 2006, but things were different back then.

Ronald Reagan: The iconic hero who fought abortion, refused to raise taxes, and toppled communism through strength instead of negotiation. Not to be confused with Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, who did none of these things.

Shock Doctrine: Not a crazy left-wing critique but a conservative instruction manual.

The 16th Amendment: Actually, come to think of it, this is the moment when America started going terribly wrong. I mean, we’re talking about the income tax here.

Socialism: Any attempt to raise the highest marginal tax rate to 39 percent—10 percent lower than its average during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Tax Cut: Always the correct policy. Self-evidently, the surest way to increase government revenue.

Unemployment: Who cares? So long as the rate stays high until next November.

Unions: An assault on the right of the Individual to freely sell his labor at whatever wage his employer is willing to pay, never forgetting that his employer might be able to pay less by moving the company to Bangladesh, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, or Texas.

Voter Fraud: An assault on democracy so cunning in its insidiousness that no examples can be found. Requires vigorous legislation to protect the ballot from those most likely to misrepresent themselves at the polls. You know who they are.

This glossary is a work in progress. I would appreciate your help in expanding it. If there are words or phrases that have struck you—and perhaps made you crazy—please let me know at


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