Long before I ever read George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language I was interested in how the language we use in political discourse shapes the way we think about politics. Probably most haven’t read him, but American right-wingers seem to have understood Orwell intuitively.
The extreme rightists that dominate today’s Republican Party call themselves “conservative,” and most of the rest of us call them that as well. Of course, they’re not literally conservative: a party that wants to repeal much of 20th century social and economic policy isn’t conservative; it’s radical, and reactionary. How can a radical be a conservative? And people who threaten to blow up the economy to get their way when they can't do so through legitimate processes are certainly not conservative. But, since that’s what the rightists call themselves, and since it is a norm of political civility to call people by the label they choose for themselves, we go along with their “conservative” self-description.
I don’t think we should. Attaching the “conservative” label to themselves over the past 60 or say years has been probably the single greatest great propaganda achievement of the right-wing movement. “Conservative,” after all, is a near-synonym for “moderate,” or “prudent.” I see no reason to fall in line with the rightists’ propaganda. Most of us, after all, have learned not to call anti-abortion crusaders “pro-life,” even though that’s what they call themselves. “Conservative” isn’t as blatantly, invidiously propagandistic as “pro-life,” but it is truly misleading. So, you will seldom see me using the word “conservative” in discussing today’s Republicans.
Of course, there undoubtedly are genuine, traditional conservatives left in the Republican Party—people who generally believe in restraining government spending, taxes and regulations, but who aren’t particularly determined to eviscerate the welfare state or the EPA. The New York Times’ house conservatives, David Brooks and Ross Douthat, broadly fit that description. But among Republican public officeholders, genuine conservatives are hard to identify. Few are willing to admit to non-radical views: they fear facing the wrath of the Republican base in their next primary election. And let’s not even talk about actual moderates, who are practically extinct among today’s Republicans.
So, what to call the radical reactionaries who dominate today’s Republican Party?
Robert Reich, President Clinton’s first Secretary of Labor, has proposed the term “rad-cons,” for radical conservatives. That’s too oxymoronic for my taste. I prefer “pseudo-conservative,” proposed half a century ago by the historian Richard Hofstadter to characterize the John Birch society and other right-wing extremist groups of his day. If I want to avoid sounding polemical, I sometimes just use “right-wingers” or “rightists.”
So, let’s change the prevailing discourse: The next time you find yourself referring to conservatives, or extreme conservatives (another oxymoron), try using “pseudo-conservative,” or “rightist,” instead.