The Chronicle Review

The (Foreign) Language of American Politics

October 22, 2012

James Fallows, former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter and a longtime national correspondent for The Atlantic, is generally known as a liberal-leaning but hardly flame-throwing commentator on politics. In June, Fallows, who had been writing for some time about Republican efforts to create a 60-vote "supermajority" in the U.S. Senate, posted a blog entry called "5 Signs the United States Is Undergoing a Coup." That headline lasted about three hours. On further reflection, Fallows said in a corrective message, using the word "coup" in his headline gave the wrong impression. He changed the title to "5 Signs of a Radical Change in U.S. Politics."

His concern was not just with the filibuster. Fallows also asked whether we can call a society democratic if unelected judges determine a presidential election, after which the newly installed president appoints similarly minded judges, who then use their position to change the rules to favor their party.

Fallows's alteration raises two fascinating questions: At what point should we start describing our liberal-democratic heritage as under threat? And what should our appropriate language be for discussing it?

Was Fallows right to use the word "coup"? Before we can answer that question, we must first consider another. Fallows had taken the word from a slightly earlier post he had written, titled "Scotus Update: La Loi, C'est Moi." Readers asked, Why the French words? Fallows did not really answer, except to say something about The Atlantic's policies involving capitalization. Let me try.

Perhaps because the United States was created during a liberal era, as the late 18th century truly was, our language lacks words that convey the full force of reactionary politics. From time to time, we required terms to describe the old order, such as when we denounced King George as a tyrant (itself a word derived from Old French). But our demagogues, rhetorically, have generally confined themselves to the English language.

Father Charles E. Coughlin, the controversial right-wing priest who had a popular radio program in the 1930s, called Franklin D. Roosevelt "the great betrayer and liar" and Jews "Christ killers" and "usurers." Robert W. Welch Jr., co-founder of the John Birch Society, called Dwight D. Eisenhower a "conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist conspiracy." While alliteration provides emphasis, labeling someone conscious and dedicated is not among the worst of insults. None of this is to deny the viciousness of anti-Semites or racists. But even Senator Theodore G. Bilbo, Democrat of Mississippi, perhaps the most hateful politician ever elected to high office in the United States—he called his opponent's supporters "shooters of widows and orphans," "spitters on our heroic veterans," and "skunks who steal Gideon Bibles from hotel rooms"—relied on language that every backwoods white person in his home state could understand. We have had more than our share of extremism, but most of it has been homegrown.

In more recent times, by contrast, when we want to leave the discourse of liberal democracy behind, we seem to leave English behind as well. Consider the title of Fallows's first post on these issues, borrowed from Louis XIV's famous declaration, L'état, c'est moi.  The first word puts us on the turf of American exceptionalism: We have no equivalent term in English to l'état, or for that matter, the German der Staat. Americans call the official apparatus of politics and policy "government" rather than "the state," as if to soften the implications of what it actually does.

Lacking a state, we are uncomfortable with raison d'état, or, its German relation, realpolitik. We have had practitioners of such arts, none more adept than Henry Kissinger. But Kissinger spoke with a heavy accent, as if to remind us that the pursuit of power for its own sake, associated with him, came from somewhere else. Americans instinctively (or should I say linguistically?) prefer Wilsonian idealism to Metternichian realism. The world, we insist, is not composed of states engaged in endless conflict as they follow their own interests; it ought to be a "league of nations" or, better yet, a "United Nations." Americans go to war often, but not, we tell ourselves, for our own advantage.

It follows that if you really want to attack your opponents these days, you are best off doing so in another language. When the editors of the religious conservative magazine First Things determined in 1997 that the left-wing activism of the U.S. Supreme Court—oh, those were the days—had made the American government illegitimate, they characterized it as a regime, or, should I say, a régime. In choosing a French word, they suggested that the American experiment in self-government had come to an end. We can talk about a political "system" without raising eyebrows. Régime, by contrast, as in ancien régime, connotes a preliberal, European society characterized not only by arbitrary rule but also by a corrupt aristocracy unworthy of holding on to its unearned privileges.

Of course we have no such aristocracy; if we did, our extreme conservatives would come to its defense. But instead of an inherited ruling class, we have liberal elites (or élites), who, according to the late Richard John Neuhaus and others associated with this point of view, constitute a new class of arrogant planners determined to impose their conception of the good society upon ordinary people, whether they want it or not. While neoconservatives balked when Neuhaus, editor and founder of First Things, called for civil disobedience to the new class, there was no disagreement over the use of "regime."

It was, after all, Leo Strauss, the philosopher so important to the rise of neoconservatism, who had introduced the term. Aristotle's politeia was usually rendered as "the polity" until Strauss translated it as "regime," or "the order, the form, which gives society its character." Any society can have a regime in the sense Strauss meant, and he hoped that the United States could find its way to being a "good regime." But there can be no doubt that his use of term was meant to suggest that, for him and those he influenced, much was wrong with the politics of the liberal democratic West.

Those in the attack mode need not rely just on French and German. Conservatives are not generally known as sympathetic to Russia, but when it comes to denouncing the Obama administration, the Russian language is something they cannot resist. George Will, the conservative columnist, convinced that the Obama administration is on the verge of lawlessness, has on more than one occasion used the word ukase  to characterize policies he disfavors.

The Democrats, we are told, conscious of how unpopular those policies are, rely on czars to oversee them: The Obama administration "seems to be captivated by the un-American notion of running the country through Russian-style czars empowered to issue czarist-style ukases," Phyllis Schlafly, the dean of such discourse, opined in 2009. has charged the president with having a "czar fetish."

Given the craze for Russian on the right, small wonder that conservatives accuse Democrats of engaging in agitprop on the question of birth control (Jonah Goldberg), filling their policy positions with apparatchiks (Michelle Malkin), and consigning their enemies to the gulag (Ann Coulter). About the only thing the Obama administration has not done, if you are a conservative, is to promote glasnost.

The surprise in Fallows's column is not that he dropped the use of "coup" so quickly—but that he used it at all.

This being a large country, one can always find examples of people on the liberal end of the spectrum invoking harsh terms, some of them adopted from other languages, to attack those on the right. But generally speaking, the language of reaction leans more toward Europe than the language of progress does.

Shortly after Fallows posted his entry, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Obamacare because one of its members, Chief Justice John Roberts, decided that he was a conservative first and a Republican second and not the other way around. I, for one, am glad he did; had the court overturned such a signature Democratic achievement on purely partisan grounds, I believe the case for using a term like "coup" would have been clinched. Roberts, in his own way, must have understood that. As one commentary written before the Obamacare decision put it: "If the judiciary continues on its present course, if it does not restrain itself, and if there is no way to restrain it, we are witnessing the end of democracy." That was First Things—denouncing not the decisions of the Roberts Court but those of the one before it.

Should we, then, breathe a sigh of relief that Roberts spared us further talk of a coup, or, if you prefer, a putsch? As to the meaning of the words, I believe the answer is yes. Either term implies a takeover, carried out in the night by the military and its allies, for the purpose of ensuring that the rich and powerful get their way. As radical as the conservative majority on the court has been, it still works within an understanding of the Constitution that does have precedents in American history.

On the larger question of whether the words imply that our political system is deeply threatened, by contrast, I do think Fallows was correct to call attention to the matter in the most significant fashion he could. There really are major changes taking place in the United States, and they do require new terms to characterize them.

The strenuous efforts during this year's presidential election to prevent voters from voting, like the "birther" issues that preceded them, tell us that a fairly large group of Americans will not be prepared to accept the results if Obama wins. That is dangerous territory. Democracy works through peaceful transfers of power. Actions and words that label members of the opposition party as illegitimate or as enemies of America have been with us for some time but, if the recent prevalence of foreign words is any indication, they have taken on a whole new intensity in recent years.

In 2006, I wrote a book, Does American Democracy Still Work? You would not make it a question if you thought it did. Even before then, I saw in the tactics and rhetoric of the right indications that politics was being treated as an endless, no-holds-barred struggle between friends who could do no wrong and enemies who must be denounced. For nonpartisan agreement on that point, see this year's It's Even Worse Than It Looks, by the Brookings Institution's Thomas E. Mann and the American Enterprise Institute's Norman J. Ornstein.

The fact of the matter is that, while we continue to have a two-party system, one of our parties, as Mann and Ornstein demonstrate, is more extreme than the other.

All in all, it may not add up to a coup. But I fear that were extremists to come to power, our future would be best captured in another foreign phrase: Après nous, le deluge. 

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and a professor of political science at Boston College.