When conservatives talk about ideas, they euphemistically rely on abstractions — because it covers up the creepy reality

Yesterday, I briefly alluded to my belief that two of the Republican “rape guys” from this past election, U.S. senate candidates Richard Mourdock of Indiana and Todd Akin of Missouri, who went down in flames following spectacularly knuckleheaded comments about abortion and rape, probably would have won their seats if they’d gotten halfway competent media training. I stand by that claim.

It’s notable that Paul Ryan holds exactly the same wingnutty position on abortion that Akin and Mourdock do: i.e., that abortion should be banned even in cases of rape and incest. The problem with Mourdock and Akin was that, unlike Beltway favorite Paul Ryan, they were unpolished rubes who hadn’t mastered the art of speaking wingnutspeak — i.e., communicating creepy conservative ideas in ways that don’t scare people. They learned, the hard way, that when you’re a conservative, it’s best to keep things at the level of grand, shining abstractions. That way, you sound noble and oh-so-morally-superior. But when you get down to brass tacks — to actual policies and specific examples — you may well find yourself in a world of trouble, defending policies that a pretty hefty chunk of the population is going to consider icky.

That’s one reason why conservative cant is chockfull of grand abstractions: “small government,” “right to life,” “states’ rights,” “free markets,” “right to work,” “judicial restraint,” “family values,” etc. But there are other reasons for the abstract language, as well. American conservatives are more likely to have a strict ideal of what they think the world should be, and which they believe everyone should conform to. They tend to believe society and human happiness would be best served if everyone were straight, Christian, married, living in a patriarchal nuclear family, preferably living in a nonurban area, etc.

Whereas American liberalism, rooted in the pragmatism of John Dewey and other philosophers, tends to have fewer stringent, a priori ideals and is more improvisational, practical, and interested in solving problems on a case-by-case basis. For instance, contrary to what conservatives claim, most liberals don’t have any ideological commitment to big government per se, but we do realize that a strong federal government is often necessary to perform important functions we believe in, such as providing retirement benefits for senior citizens, and universal health care for all. Also unlike conservatives, we tend to believe that people can live happy, productive lives in any number of ways that differ from the approved model, i.e., gay or straight, with or without children, as Christians or as believers in some other religion or as atheists, in families with a working mom or a stay-at-home mom, etc.

But the other big reason for conservatives to rely so heavy on abstractions is that most people disagree with the real-life implications of those abstractions, and conservatives, for marketing purposes, want to soothe voters’ anxieties by covering that up. Consider the ugly reality behind that list of abstract weasel words above:

“Small government” = No Social Security, Medicare, or unemployment benefits, or at the very least, radically reduced versions of same. It also means the rich and corporations paying little or no taxes, and ordinary people paying more. In other words, pretty much no social insurance or wealth redistribution, no matter how frightening the degree of economic instability or how obscene the level of economic inequality.

“Right to life,” all those endless abstract debates over “when life begins” – These terms/debates erase the real-life women who would be forced to live with the tragic consequences of forced childbirth. Those consequences include death.

“States’ rights” = Racism. Period. Though I guess these days it could also mean homophobia.

“Family values” = Women being discouraged from having careers and encouraged to depend on and constantly defer to men, gay people not being able to marry the people they love, people being heavily pressured to get married early and to stay married even if they’re deeply unhappy being so, no unapproved sexytimes whatsoever (e.g., no sex before marriage, no extramarital sex, no homosex, etc.), heavy censorship of media that deals with sexual themes.

“Judicial restraint” = Bringing back the 19th century, more or less. In particular, it means no right to privacy (including no right to contraception or abortion), no rights for women, gays or nonwhites, and the court having the power to strike down any laws involving regulations on the private sector or redistributive public policies they don’t like (be they the New Deal policies or ACA).

“Free markets” = No minimum wage and no rights for workers. The right for all of us to be “free” of consumer safety laws (for food, drugs, other products). And as the economistDean Baker likes to point out, it never means a truly free market in patent and intellectual property laws, or the freedom for professional class workers from other countries to emigrate here.

“Right to work” = Union Busting Iz Us, or, as my friends in the labor movement like to say, the “right to work for nothing.”

“Religious freedom” – This is a new one, or at least, the way it’s now being used as right-wing code is new to me. Example: it violates the religious freedom of the Catholic bishops for women to be able to choose to use their health insurance to obtain birth control pills. Funny, I thought a far stronger case could be made arguing the opposite, that it is a violation of my religious freedom when the bishops of a religion I don’t even believe in want to dictate how I can use my health insurance.

And on and on. Whenever I hear a conservative use an abstraction, I reach for my wallet. Or my (metaphorical) gun.

Do liberals do this kind of thing? To some extent, I suppose we do. “Right to choose” is a euphemism for “abortion rights;” “marriage equality” is the same for “gay marriage.” But honestly, I don’t think we use nearly as many of them! The reason is that most of our ideas are actually pretty popular. We don’t have nearly as much to hide.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee