What we talk about when we talk about politics
A case for a new political language
I spend my life in language. And so as I’ve watched the country talk over these many months about legislative proposals to help a hurting country, I was at first struck by something, then maddened by it. We have come to a place in American political life where we no longer talk about the thing. We are always talking around the thing. About the process that might or might not bring the thing. About the players advocating for and obstructing the thing. But we never, ever talk about the thing.
The thing — the things — in play now are very much worth talking about. There are elderly people right now in this richest of countries who cannot see because they cannot afford the eyewear, and, if some of these proposals pass, they will regain sight. There are cousins and spouses and neighbors of theirs of similar vintage who right now cannot hear but, if the program were to be enacted, will. There are grandpas and grandmas who will, if present realities continue, have no teeth in a couple years. Under some of these policies, they will keep their teeth — and independence.
If the most sweeping version of these proposals pass, there are children who will soon taste clean water for the first time in their lives. Imagine their faces. That is the thing. There is someone waitressing at this very hour who has put off community college because it made no financial sense for her. She will go to college at last, and her mother will breathe easier — partly because of that, and partly because the toxic air in her neighborhood will be cleaner. This is the thing.
Someone you know, or someone you don’t, will finally take the medicine they were prescribed in 2011, because a program will make it affordable. A single parent, after years of cleaning others’ homes while lacking one himself, will move into a newly built place of his own. This is the thing. A person with chronic pain who longs to work from home but can’t because of the broadband out where they live — they will be connected. A woman who is proud to have been the first of her kin to go to college, who toiled for that degree, and then wanted also to be a mother, and never wanted to have to choose between those promptings, and then did have to choose, and fell away from the work world, and mourns it: she will get childcare and not have to choose.
This is the thing. These are the things. But, instead, what do you hear on the TV news, on the radio, in the newspapers? What do you hear your legislators talking about? A strange, technical, alienating language utterly removed from your life. Reconciliation. BIF. BBB. $3.5 trillion. Manchin. Sinema. The filibuster. The debt ceiling. This is what they talk about. Seldom the thing. And so you can be forgiven for forgetting, or never knowing in the first place, that the shape of your life is up for debate right now in Congress. What your next many years will look like, what you will know or not know, what your mom or dad’s health will be like, how your kids will breathe after you die, whether or not your dream of that graphic design business or little shop or cafe has a chance. This is, whether they know it or not, whether you know it or not, what is being debated. But it is forgotten, and instead we talk the sterile talk of process.
I was curious how this evasion turns up in what people search. What I found was both predictable and staggering. Process talk so overwhelms the national discussion that people are busy searching online for the meaning of these obscure, obscuring terms, much more than they are searching for the things that will touch and better their lives.
People need worker training — that is the thing — but they are searching far more for “3.5 trillion.” Chasing process.
People need clean energy, but they are searching far more for “reconciliation.”
People need free community college, but they are searching far more for “Joe Manchin.” I don’t take this to mean they are more interested in Joe Manchin than in getting free education. I take this to mean we have so shrouded them in a conversation about what some houseboat owner from West Virginia wants that we have distracted them from the material reality of their own lives.
In what world is it normal for people to be searching “reconciliation bill” more frequently than “free dental?” Where? In America, where those in power perhaps fear that if you tell people what you might do for them, they might hold you to it.
I cannot for the life of me understand why people whose occupation is to win votes, or to cover the country for regular people, or to educate regular people from behind a glass desk on cable news, refuse to talk about the thing. To make it about the thing. To help you see yourself before and after the proposals on offer. This is your life; this is your life on help. Actually, let me amend that. I understand why those who don’t want nice things for you do it. They profit from obfuscation. I am more puzzled by those who say they want you to have these nice things. Do you feel they are speaking to you? Do you follow the words they are saying? Do you feel, can you vividly see, the world they are proposing for you? Can you smell the tomorrow they are legislating? Why have we defaulted to a national political conversation that is about maneuvers and ploys and alliances and fractures and secret letters and late-night meetings? What are we — what are they — afraid would happen if, for once, we talked about the thing?
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