Democracy? I do not think that word means what you think it means


The most abused word in political discourse is democracy. In his classic 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell said that in much political speech, words are separated from any meaning and used to convey an attitude.

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

And the abuse continues today. Glenn Greenwald writes about it using two recent examples, where the military coup that briefly overthrew Venezuela’s elected leader Hugo Chavez was praised by the New York Times as restoring democracy while the recent landslide re-election victory of Evo Morales in Bolivia last month was portrayed as a dangerous sign. Of course, the reasoning behind both is that Chavez and Morales represent policies that favor the poor and are thus at odds with the US preference for countries to be run by authoritarian oligarchs or military leaders who are friendly to the US and will sell out their own people to further the siphoning of wealth to their transnational oligarchs partners

Just as the NYT did with the Venezuelan coup regime of 2002, the U.S. government hails the Egyptian coup regime as saviors of democracy. That’s because “democracy” in U.S. discourse means: “serving U.S. interests” and “obeying U.S. dictates,” regardless how how the leaders gain and maintain power. Conversely, “tyranny” means “opposing the U.S. agenda” and “refusing U.S. commands,” no matter how fair and free the elections are that empower the government. The most tyrannical regimes are celebrated as long as they remain subservient, while the most popular and democratic governments are condemned as despots to the extent that they exercise independence.

When it comes to the abuse of political language, some things never change.

Comments

  1. filethirteen says

    A US college friend recanted how his teacher, on a school visit to a public library, asked the class what type of government the US had. She told them the US was a republic. My friend said that he thought it was a democracy, whereupon she wavered and said she’d have to get back to him.

    I started to explain how she was right the first time, but he wasn’t interested.

  2. khms says

    Recanted? I do not think that word means what you think it means.

    As for republic vs. democracy, at least according to Wikipedia a republic is a democracy without a king. So the US is either both, or neither (it can certainly be argued to be an oligarchy).

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    When it comes to the abuse of political language, some things never change.

    Case in point: the word “tyrant”, which according to some historians originally signified a populist sort of king, often a usurper rather than an inheritor, who built a base among the common folk instead of the aristocrats. The latter, who wrote most of the histories, had a strong motivation to badmouth “tyrants” every way they could – so they did, and it stuck.

  4. mnb0 says

    “Chavez and Morales represent policies that favor the poor”
    Which is another fine example of Orwell’s point – the poor in Venezuela were not better off when Chavez died than they were before he became president. Morales is dubious in this respect.

  5. Nick Gotts says

    mnb0@4,
    That’s absolute crap. Here is the graph of the percentage of people in poverty in Venezuela, from the World Bank – not an organization likely to be suspected of excessive tenderness toward Chavez. Here is the equivalent graph from Bolivia – which unlike Venezuela, has continued to show strong economic growth over the past few years.

  6. Glenn says

    The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.

    Add the word “terrorism” to that list.

  7. filethirteen says

    Recanted? I do not think that word means what you think it means.

    Doh, I don’t even know what word I meant to put in there. I think my brain must have caught a case of democracy.

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