Loaded Terms

In a finding that helps explain the infernal influence of people like focus-group-manipulator-supreme Frank Lutz, Gallup has published reactions of Republicans and Democrats to key terms often tossed about in the battle over economic policy. Turns out, unsurprisingly, that the former feel fondly towards “big business” and “capitalism,” while the latter vibrate positively when hearing “federal government” and are marginally positive about “socialism.” And yes, all God’s children like “small business,” “free enterprise,” and “entrepreneurs.”

The “socialism” finding will provide grist for many a conservative column and blog post, though it’s mostly a testament to how words change meaning when they are deliberately distorted for long periods of time. If championing moderate Republican policies from the 1990s or even the last decade makes one a “socialist,” as conservative agitprop would have you believe, then it can’t be all that bad, right?

More interesting is the contested nature of “small business,” “free enterprise,” and “entrepreneurs,” who serve as cover for “big business” in conservative messaging, and as the beneficiaries of “federal government” intervention in markets and yes, even of “socialism” in liberal messaging. It’s no accident that Republicans invariably justify their opposition to a high top marginal income tax rate by touting the impact on small businesses that don’t bother to incorporate, while Democrats consider a variety of progressive policies, from anti-discrimination laws to bank regulation, essential to the success of small entrepreneurs and to the very dynamism a “free enterprise” system demands.

This hotly contested verbal ground undoubtedly adds to the confusion of low-information voters who hear both sides talking as though the entire domestic agenda depends strictly on the welfare of the dry cleaning business or coffee shop or convenience store down the street. We’d have a more meaningful national political debate if Democrats and Republicans could manage to explain their values and policies in terms of the interests of the entire U.S. population. But that would make for some long, expensive political ads, wouldn’t it?

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.