America’s Political “Bilingualism”

Does your “torch” require batteries to produce light?  Do you take your prescriptions to a “chemist” ?  Do you have a hangover after “getting pissed” ?  If so, you are probably one of our British friends.

As George Bernard Shaw observed in the November 1942 edition of Reader’s Digest:  “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.”

Politically, I think it can now be asserted that “America and America are two countries separated by the same language.”

I believe that “political bilingualism” in America is at the core of the reasons Mitt Romney and many conservative Senate candidates lost the 2012 election.  These conservative candidates were saying one thing, but a large and growing portion of the electorate was hearing quite another thing.

In fact, it may be that 2012 marks the first election in which, when conservative candidates spoke, more than 50% of the electorate had its ears tuned to an alternate wavelength.

Here is an excerpt from the conclusion of the 2007 revised edition of Thomas Sowell’s excellent book A Conflict of Visions:

“[p 254]  Whatever one’s vision, other visions are easily misunderstood – not only because of the caricatures produced by [political debates] but also because the very words used (“equality,” “freedom,” “justice,” “power”) mean entirely different things in the context of different presuppositions.  It is not merely misunderstanding but the inherent logic of each vision which leads to these semantic differences, as well as to substantively different conclusions across a wide spectrum of issues….

[p 255] One consequence of this is that those with different visions often argue past each other, even when they accept the same rules of logic and utilize the same data, for the same terms of discourse signify very different things.”

Paraphrased from various chapters of Dr. Sowell’s book, here are some examples of the opposite definitions of common words in politics and sociology, as interpreted by the voting citizens of our two different Americas:


To conservatives and libertarians, equality means equivalent availability of opportunities and avenues to achieve success, with results dependent upon the effort and creativity expended.

To liberals and progressives, equality means equivalent results regardless of the process followed, even if authority-based force must be used to equalize outcomes.  Without equal results, freedom is believed to have been withheld.


To conservatives and libertarians, freedom means to be free from coercion, and free from the arbitrary power of other men – but NOT free from the inherent restrictions of circumstances that arise in the experiences of daily life.

To liberals and progressives, freedom means the absence of limitations that arise from real-life circumstances that would reduce a person’s range of choices.


To conservatives and libertarians, justice means the logical application of “due process.”  It is not to be tailored to individual situations or population groups, but is to be applied consistently, objectively, and unemotionally.  The predictability of traditional “rule of law” and impartial rewarding of productive behavior, rather than the perceived current “fairness” of the outcomes, provides stability to society.

To liberals and progressives, justice means the achievement of equitable social results and solutions.  The appropriate outcome is to be subjectively judged and authoritatively dispensed for each case uniquely.  This compulsory enforcement of social justice is viewed as a matter of humane decency.  The conservative view that social assistance is better achieved through charitable acts of voluntary kindness is seen by progressives as forcing humiliation upon the recipients – “adding insult to injury.”


Holding the above examples firmly in mind, now please listen to a typical conservative politician explaining free market economic principles in the traditional ways that were effective before the 2012 election.  I’m asking you to listen to these words as if you are honestly sympathetic to the liberal/progressive perspective:

[Quote of Mitt Romney from the 2nd debate on Oct 1st.]

“And why do I want to bring rates down, and at the same time lower exemptions and deductions, particularly for people at the high end? Because if you bring rates down, it makes it easier for small business to keep more of their capital and hire people.

And for me, this is about jobs. I want to get America’s economy going again. Fifty-four percent of America’s workers work in businesses that are taxed as individuals. So when you bring those rates down, those small businesses are able to keep more money and hire more people.”

Do you trust what you hear?  Why should you believe that small businesses would use the money they’re allowed to “keep” for hiring people?  Since private sector job creation is not mandated by the government, how do you know business owners wouldn’t just “keep” that money for themselves?  If more money is left in the hands of private-sector companies, how could the results be guaranteed to be equitable for all?  How is a policy of letting small business owners decide how to use the extra money in a way that’s best for themselves guaranteed to be better for the unemployed or underemployed?  How would this be assured to be socially fair?

The entrenched progressives and the swing voters who are newly-leaning liberal sympathizers are probably in excess of 50% of the voting population now.  Conservatives MUST address their concerns satisfactorily and honestly.  Conservatives MUST learn the nuances of the new American political bilingualism.

In the 2012 campaign season, they failed to do so.


(photo credit)  (photo credit)  (photo credit)

About Necessary and Proper

Jeff believes in the Individual's ability to excel when liberty and freedom of choice are protected. Also believes in the Community's ability to take care of the vast majority of its own issues and needs when the federal government leaves the Community's resources and sphere of control alone. State and local choice produce better results than centralized federal control.
This entry was posted in Our Political Economy, Politics in Practice and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to America’s Political “Bilingualism”

  1. Interesting. I also agree that there are certainly times the problem lies in the “translation”.

    A couple of quick things… Coincidentally my plan for my next look at gay marriage involved the different interpretation of “equality” which fits right in with what you suggest.

    In the “real” world, just tonight I was discussing Akins “legitimate” rape story and how it had been misinterpreted…Unfortunately the discussion became rather heated with one of the main points being that Akins had never come back and explained what he “really” meant. Of course that was untrue and he asked for the proof, which I have bookmarked for later. Point being, he got all his news from progressive sources and accepted his interpretation of the original remarks as the only one possibly valid.

    Nice essay.


  2. bullright says:

    Yea love Sowell.. Obama has a knack of using euphemisms and such vague words to be interpreted how people know he meant them. Then when he’s challenged, he claims what you interpret is not what he said. blah blah. (even though you heard what his base heard too)


  3. You’re very right here. Terms like “justice” and “freedom” used to have a universally understood meaning, but no longer do. I think going forward it will be our task to either define the terms when we use them, or find new terms to convey our meaning. I’ve found in some of my online conversations that it IS in fact very easy to talk past each other just due to the definition discrepancy.

    Regarding equality, I’ve heard progressives claim that “luck” should not be rewarded, which if I am not mistaken is an idea that began with John Rawls. I think most progressives would still concede that hard work and creativity should be rewarded, unless of course a perfectly egalitarian society is their goal (which in some cases, I suppose it is), but luck, due to its unpredictable nature is considered unfair. Just adding a little extra context to your excellent article here.


    • Thanks for the elaboration, EC.

      I once polled all the contacts in my email “rolodex” and asked them what their definition of “The American Dream” is. I got a variety of answers. One that liberals like to say is “To leave for our children a better life than we had.” This is vague, because “better” is a relative term, not an absolute term. One of us ought to do an article exploring the phrase “The American Dream”, and its properties as one of those “in the ear of the beholder” terms.

      Years ago, among the many things Earl Nightingale taught his listeners (including me) was that “Luck is what happens when preparedness meets opportunity.” I recommend clicking on this link and reading about the power of positive attiitude and several other related topics. He was a broadcasting and motivational speaking legend from the ’50s to the ’80s, but many folks today have never heard of him.

      – Jeff


      • I’m with ya..but….the problem with taking more things into account and seeing the “whole picture” is that the explanation necessarily becomes more complicated.

        The liberals dispense with worrying about integrating various relevant factors into one thread by simply pronouncing them as being irrelevant and concentrating on the immediate effects of just the one.

        Simplistic…but effective.


      • RME KRNL says:

        Another oldie but goodie common sense commentator was Paul Harvey with “the rest of the story.”


  4. rmekrnl says:

    Good article, Jeff, and you’d be hard pressed to cite anyone whose analysis or opinion I respect more than Dr. Sowell’s.


  5. Brads Drift says:

    Conservatives operate using a balance of six moral values and liberals operate using three. Justice and Freedom are minor moral values to liberals – they see freedom as not being oppressed by businesses. Liberals are much more tuned to Care/Harm and Fairness as it relates to equality (Oppression/Freedom is the other moral value liberals identify with). Conservatives are less tuned to Care/Harm than liberals and think of Fairness in proportionality – not equality as Jeff has mentioned.

    I believe that overall, the conservatives have the ability to identify with more voters using their 6 moral values ( Care, Fairness, Oppression, Liberty, Authority, and Sanctity) but sometimes the message comes across as pro-business/economics and anti human/environment which liberals do not understand at all and are offended by. People in the center are torn between an outpouring of care and “wouldn’t it be nice if we all just got the same results” and pro business rhetoric that seems devoid of care outside of “well let’s give everyone a job” that is too easy for liberals to show doesn’t work.

    I believe conservatives overreacted to the immediate economics of this election year and overemphasized business and economics. I believe that if conservatives return to the balanced six moral values, voters will “return”. If all issues end up somehow being framed in a business vs human or business vs environment perspective where conservatives are seen as pro business and liberals are seen as pro human and pro environment – the center will continue to vote for the liberal agenda. Conservatism is NOT anti human nor anti environment… it’s time we get back to our roots!

    PS – This does not mean that economics and business should be forgotten in conservative progress – it just needs to be more in balance with the moral values the conservatives were founded on…


    • Brad, welcome back…haven’t heard from you in awhile.

      Interesting comment. I’m interested in reading more from whatever source you’ve paraphrased here. Two of your sentences are of the type that deserve footnotes for us political junkies that want to learn more: “Conservatives operate using a balance of six moral values and liberals operate using three.” and “…using their 6 moral values ( Care, Fairness, Oppression, Liberty, Authority, and Sanctity).” Please share a reference or two.

      I agree that conservatism is not directly anti environment. (Personally, I am not anti-environment…I recycle, I conserve water, I don’t litter and I pick up others’ litter regularly, etc.) But the conservative philosophy is against political overreaction to environmental dogmatism. And it is my observation that environmental activists are particularly energetic advocates of getting government to pass policies that kill mosquitos with sledge hammers, so to speak. And they’re welcomed into the Democrat tent because big government torch-bearers salivate over any environmental issue, since they believe in the axiom “never let a crisis go to waste.” Case in point: In January 2008, Barack Obama said “Under my plan of a cap and trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket.” I’m ecstatic that the House turned back to Republican control in 2010 in time to prevent Cap and Trade from becoming the law of the land. Their blocking of Cap and Trade doesn’t make Republicans anti-environment…it makes them anti-irrationality.

      I just don’t buy into the idea that environmental extremism is worth literally crashing America’s economic vitality over. Pragmatic, balanced solutions are worth seeking…but sudden, sweeping, disruptive policy changes aren’t healthy for our economy. And economics is not some side-track that the Republicans focused on too much in 2012. Economics and capitalism are the circulatory system for our American culture of liberty and freedom.

      So as I see it, the challenge with conservatives getting back to their roots, including espousing environmental values, is that they will be demagogued at every turn by the hyper-energetic environmental advocates. The vocal environmental advocates aren’t concerned about the economic health of the U.S.A., so they’re not interested one whit in compromise and moderation.

      I reiterate, I would like to be able to read more about the ideas you brought up regarding the catalog of conservative and liberal values. I don’t just accept the quantities 6 & 3 at face value. I’d like to understand the underlying explanations first.

      – Jeff


      • Brads Drift says:

        Hi Jeff,

        The reference is a book by a psychologist, Jonathan Haidt entitled “The Righteous Mind – Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”. This book was very informative and laden with study results. I believe that the author is liberal and not tied to a religion so some of his examples and conclusions were “scientific” and out of my belief system but I thought he did a good job of presenting a balanced position. Obviously, it is a theory but it is the best theory I’ve heard and well backed up by historical and recent studies.

        As for the environment, I agree with many of your points. I’ve encountered many in my professional experience who are not interested in the science (both for and against their particular position) and only want to state and fight for their position – pro environment or absent (I don’t say anti environment here because I don’t think there are many – if any – who are actually anti environment). Absent, to me, better defines those who would like to take the environment out of the costs of their business and pretend that impacts do not happen.

        There billions of dollars being spent by tax payers to mitigate serious environmental impacts perpetrated by companies in which the owners have reaped a huge profit and closed down the business.

        I think there are ways to incorporate environmental impacts into the market to let the market hash it out. Since this is the area of my education and experience, I have a biased view and may place more weight on the environment than most conservatives. However, as my clients would attest, I’m a realist in that I know that we need to use our natural resources. However, I also believe as I interpret in Genesis, that our God given job – our first job – is to steward God’s creation. Therefore, I strive to find solutions that allow for needed use of a natural resource while finding the most sustainable manner in doing so. I’ve found that when both sides of the environmental fence focus on that – that there are very simple and innovative ways to accomplish both objectives. Obviously that involves compromise. If someone is dead set at maximizing development of a natural resource even if it doesn’t make sense to do so – it doesn’t work and if someone is dead set at absolutely no change to current conditions – it doesn’t work. I’ve found that there are “evil developers” and “unrelenting tree huggers” but there are much fewer than publicized by either side.

        For doomsday environmental response possibly looming in our future, you can either think it’s going to happen or think it won’t happen. If nothing is done, either doomsday will happen or it won’t. The debate is worthwhile. On one hand, we can suppress business and economic success (although I think this is a pessimistic view of needed innovation as described below) and the environment may not significantly change (the debate would then be “would it have still not changed if nothing was done”). However, if we do nothing and the environment significantly changes I believe many of the people laughing at all this fuss will be among those screaming that “the government or somebody” should have done something because they had so much information. I personally have no idea whether there is significant change on the environmental horizon but I see the ever growing population and the fact that most countries want to have the “success of the US” including our industrialization, technology and convenience. There does not seem to me to be a sustainable way to accomplish that with the way we are currently doing things so improvement can have vast impact on future economics. Instead of kicking and screaming and whining about change, I think the US is in the best position to innovate the new standard which will be the economic engine of the future. Preparing the US for strategic future advantage I believe is a role of federal government even at the near future cost of some big businesses sucking at the breast of the current system.

        In that vein, I also believe that conservatives, ironically, are in the best position to lead this change…. (ironic as conservatives are defined by their reluctance to change and adherence to tradition). I intend to help lead this change and am doing so in my personal and professional pursuits.

        Best – Brad


      • Brads Drift says:

        Sorry for being absent for a while I was in a remote part of the State implementing pilot treatment strategies for acid mine drainage.

        Best – Brad


      • Brads Drift says:

        Do you equate higher costs to consumers as bad – even if that better reflects the actual cost in the market. In the case of electricity – the system is set up to subsidize coal generation of electricity. Removing the subsidies and leveling the playing field for renewables would inherently increase electric rates but provide a truer market free of subsidies and more accurately accounting for environmental impacts and costs that are being incurred by States. The consumer may pay more for electricity but would in theory pay less in taxes mitigating the impacts.

        I have no idea what Mr. Obama was saying or what he meant – I’m just trying to understand your position.

        Best – Brad


        • Brad, please describe in financial terms what you mean by “the system is set up to subsidize coal generation of electricity.” In what ways, exactly, does government expend taxpayer money to subsidize coal power plants? Please show “clickable” references so I can study them.
          – Jeff


    • I cannot agree with the statement that liberals are more attuned to Care/Harm than conservatives. As a conservative, I take Care not to cause more Harm than necessary when addressing someone with whom I disagree. Anyone who has observed politics on the state/federal level, for any length of time, will have to admit that liberals are much more prone to jump on the diatribe wagon and beat their opponents to the ground with a torrent of vituperative, voracious, and (often) explicitly disgusting/profane verbiage. Do I presume that all conservatives are innocent of this belligerence? Absolutely not…one need look no further than Rush Limbaugh for an example of a man who does not always give the greatest care/thought to his speech. However, it is my contention that the “liberals” are far and away more numerous in this arena. Sadly, conservatives are joining them in growing numbers, and it is unfortunate that, if current events continue as they are, a rational debate will no longer be possible.


      • David, (247southernvoice)

        I understand your point. There’s a lot of spiking the football going on right now within liberal circles. I try to surf ALL the political blog posts pretty frequently to keep in tune with what people of all stripes are saying, but since the election it’s been tough because the liberals have unleashed their know-it-all-ness as they pontificate about our know-nothing-ness.

        However, in this case I’m not sure your interpretation of the Care/Harm moral values that Brad introduced is what he meant. That’s why I’m awaiting his answer about what book or article or seminar he’s referencing when he speaks of those concepts, so we can understand the context better.

        – Jeff


      • Brads Drift says:

        247southernvoice –
        The Care/Harm moral is not a measure of how one treats someone else in an argument. Research reported by a psychologist, Jonathan Haidt suggests that liberals are more attuned to being motivated to “help” people that are left behind or being “harmed”. I believe it is where the term “bleeding hearted liberal” comes from. Liberals push for government to act to “protect” people even though over regulation often harms the people they wish to “protect”.

        Anyway – if you’re interested I posted the reference above.


  6. Very good article – I am a huge Sowell fan, but I have yet to get to the bottom of my reading list and read Conflict of Visions.

    The interesting point for me is would a liberal/progressive look at your (Sowell’s) definitions of justice, freedom, equality, and say “Yes, that’s exactly what I believe?” Because obviously, to me, I agree exactly. But I could easily see a liberal/progressive reading those definitions and saying, “You’re misrepresenting our vision because you [Sowell] already disagree with it.”

    I think it’d be interesting to ask a liberal/progressive and say, “What is your definition of those words?”


    • Hi, consideragain. Welcome.

      Dr. Sowell’s book A Conflict of Visions is widely considered to be an unbiased, clinical analysis of what he calls the constrained and unconstrained visions. (If/)when ( 🙂 ) you get around to reading it, you’ll see what I mean. I believe it’s more likely that a liberal/progressive reader would take exception to my paraphrasing than to Dr. Sowell’s book itself — although I DID try to take care to make the “definitions” part of this article unbiased.

      In addition to asking a liberal/progressive to read my article and then ask them if my definitions were accurate from their point of view, it would also be interesting to rewrite the article…keeping the central core but writing the intro and ending so it is targeted a left-leaning audience. Then post it on a liberal blog site and get their reaction to the same definitions “gift-wrapped” in blue paper instead of red paper. I suspect you’d get different answers in those two cases, because in my experience liberals/progressives choose different phrasing for their beliefs depending on whether they’re on friendly turf or hostile turf. (Frankly though, that’s probably often true of conservatives too…witness Romney’s “47%” comments covertly caught on video.)

      – Jeff


      • I do plan to read it. 🙂 Actually, one of my professors says he assigns the book as required reading for his Economics course I’ll take next year, so I won’t have a choice!

        I agree though, it would be very intriguing to see their reactions. I suspect we do much of the same thing. Political power is gained through defining the terms correctly, and we both try to do that as much as possible. Rightfully so.


  7. Heidi says:

    Sadly, in addition to double-speak and misinterpretation, our nation has become one of needing issues “dumbed down”. To speak with clarity does not equate with a free phone or being told their health care will be free, Obama will pay their electricity bills and rent. Liberals hold their noses when coming upon these kinds of folk, yet they pander to them in their superiority. When they have the masses clamoring to be taken care of, then those with Socialist tendencies have succeeded in getting their message of “more government” across. Liberals have a great tendency to look down their noses at those less fortunate, though, in turn, use them to propagate their nefarious ends towards the Socializing of America.


    • I agree with you Heidi. I’ve recently been using the phrase “playing Santa Claus” for how big government liberals seduce their dependent voters. It’s ironic that, by getting these gullible folks addicted to government subsidies, the big government liberals actually reduce the folks’ opportunities to become self-reliant. The entitlement-dependent folks then become habitual voters for more and more big government. This cycle of dependency can’t solve the voters’ problems. but it sure can keep the liberal politicians, labor leaders, Hollywood entertainers, lawyers, media moguls, and climate change demagogues in power and enjoying the priviledged life.

      I’ve been following your blog, Heidi, and I enjoy it. I hope you visit here again.

      – Jeff


  8. damagodiva says:

    We are “lost in translation” and “playing Santa Claus” at the same time. I’m afraid that four more years will only leave the country more dependent on them and slightly more difficult to bring change in 2016.


  9. Dama,

    Thanks for the reblog…I appreciate it.

    – Jeff


  10. Danny Wright says:

    The problem is fundamental. While liberals see business owners as simply greedy, and so wanting to hoard for their own greedy uses money from any tax breaks, they are only half right. (In reality I think they are projecting onto others what they see as the evil of greed that they have confused with the normal tendency of self-interest resident in their own hearts.) While business owners do want more and more, because that is the natural state of all men, the only way to really get more and more is by hiring people. The liberal should ask himself this question: Would the rich and greedy conservative Richard Hayne be a billionaire if he had remained a sole proprietor? Or for that matter picking on–what would seem to me to be an oxymoronic thing, a Rich liberal–Howard Shultz, CEO of Starbucks. Would he be rich if he’d simply hoarded his “tax breaks”? No. But when one is capable of believing that A is both A and not A at the same time, I suppose anything is possible for them.

    But that misses the point of your post which is words. In that regard you might enjoy this quote from Hayek from “Road To Serfdom” (pg 174-175):

    “The people are made to transfer their allegiance from the old gods to the new under the pretense that the new gods really are what their sound instinct had always told them but what before they had only dimly seen. And the most efficient technique to this end is to use the old words but change their meaning… If one has not one’s self experienced this process, it is difficult to appreciate the magnitude of this change of the meaning of words, the confusion which it causes, and the barriers to any rational discussion which it creates. It has to be seen to be understood how, if one of two brothers embraces the new faith, after a short while he appears to speak a different language which makes any real communication between them impossible. And the confusion becomes worse because this change of meaning of the words describing political ideals is not a single event but a continuous process, a technique employed consciously or unconsciously to direct the people. Gradually, as this process continues, the whole language becomes despoiled, and words become empty shells deprived of any definite meaning, as capable of denoting one thing as its opposite and used solely for the emotional associations which still adhere to them.”

    Another great article here BTW (by that I mean “America’s Political “Bilingualism””).


Chime in! Leave Jeff a comment...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s