Is the United States still, as I recently put it, a “Dead Democracy Walking”? That is, is there anything on the horizon that undermines my claim that Republicans will soon turn this country into a one-party autocracy, a democracy in name only?
We learned this week that Senate Democratic holdout Joe Manchin has helped to write a new bill that contains some very good proposals to enhance voting rights and protect the integrity of elections. Nonetheless, there is little reason for optimism—although I continue to hope to be proved wrong. The bill is weaker than it should be, it would probably be passed too late to undo the damage that Republicans have already wrought, and the Supreme Court’s radicalized conservative majority (including Chief Justice Roberts) would probably gut the law, as it did the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Oh, and Manchin still supports the filibuster, which means that he will allow the bill to die, even though he co-wrote it and claims to support it.
Once again, then, I am proceeding from the assumption that it—that is, constitutional democracy and the rule of law in the United States—is all over but the shouting. Although I will soon return to writing columns about policy issues and what post-democratic life will be like in this country, I thought I might devote today’s column to a less overtly political topic, a topic that is interesting no matter whether we yet prevent constitutional disaster or not.
Specifically, I am interested in understanding why people continue to fall back on empty words and phrases, even when they have been convinced that those phrases are empty. There is a surprisingly frequent phenomenon in which people say, “Yeah, that’s right, now that I think about it. But anyway, as I was saying …”
Although I promised that this topic is not overtly political, I should say that it surprisingly ends up being very political. People’s ability to ignore dissonant thoughts makes it possible to offer dishonest arguments and sometimes to commit bad political acts, even when one is not trying to be bad. And to be clear, I am fully aware that this is merely another application of the insights in George Orwell’s timeless essay, “Politics and the English Language.”
Habits of Mind as Filters for Thinkable Thought
The famed linguist Noam Chomsky famously described the concept of “thinkable thought,” by which he meant that there are some ideas that simply cannot be articulated within whatever counts as polite company in any given context. Chomsky was mostly describing how we monitor and censor ourselves in response to fear of being thought to be too “out there.” On the other side of that coin, people feel quite comfortable saying terrible things if they are not worried about being judged harshly.
One particularly awful example of this phenomenon is the Supreme Court’s infamous 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick case, in which a 5-4 majority described the case as a question of whether the Constitution includes and protects a “fundamental right [of] homosexuals to engage in acts of consensual sodomy,” a formulation of the legal question that was obviously loaded to foreordain the result. The question here, however, is not why that decision was so wrong (and was later repudiated). It is why the justices were so unembarrassed to rig the game in the way that they did. The answer is that bigoted assumptions were so rampant that no one even stopped to ask why a more general right to personal freedom (which would also end criminal prosecution of same-sex couples) was beyond the limits of thinkable thought.
Although the stakes in Bowers were quite high, there are also plenty of relatively mundane situations in which people have shared assumptions that remain mostly unexamined. And even when someone else punctures those shared assumptions, as the Bowers dissenters did so clearly, the tendency is for people to return seamlessly to their comfortable prior assumptions.
Consider some seemingly obscure academic examples. I attended a recent work-in-progress seminar where the speaker presented some compelling ideas to improve the fairness of the tax system. In setting up the argument, he invoked a familiar trope in which tax scholars analyze tax questions from three angles: efficiency, equity, and administrability.
It does not matter for current purposes what those categories mean. What matters here is that, during the question-and-answer period, I pointed out that two of the categories—efficiency and administrability—are in fact empty concepts. That is, trying to nail down what they mean inevitably leads an honest scholar to confront the uncomfortable reality that two terms that are supposed to describe objective concepts have no content. They mean whatever a speaker wants them to mean.
If the seminar speaker had disagreed with me, we would have had a spirited discussion in which I would have tried to convince him that I was right, and vice versa. That is not what happened, however. Instead, the scholar completely agreed with me—but then reverted to using those two terms as if they mean what people unthinkingly accept them to mean. Others who joined in the discussion also agreed with the critique, only to fall back into old habits.
I concede that this could merely be a case in which the speaker was humoring me, choosing not to openly disagree so that he could keep the discussion from going off track. In my time, I have done that, too. In this instance, though, the speaker’s response was not a polite brushoff but enthusiastic agreement, which is why I took special note when he later simply ignored the implications of what we had discussed.
I do want to be clear that this is not a criticism of any specific professor. I have seen this too many times to ascribe it to a fault of one person or another. There is something about the comfort of the old tropes that gives them staying power, even after their uselessness is exposed.
I should also stipulate that there are times when a scholar simply ignores the critique rather than taking it seriously. For example, one famous economics professor from a top-ranked university presented a paper early in his career at a conference, only to suffer the indignity of having the official discussant thoroughly shred his argument. (There is no reason to name names, as that is not the issue here.). During the discussion period, the author did not dispute any of the critiques; yet within three years, he published a paper containing those very same arguments that he could not defend.
To be sure, there are plenty of times when a person takes his lumps in the seminar room, thinks more deeply about the critics’ comments, and ultimately uses those objections to strengthen and clarify his original case. We do not expect people to simply abandon an idea after confronting objections. But this was a matter of the author simply ignoring the criticisms and repeating his original argument, not taking criticism into account as a means to sharpen his case.
This, however, is easily explained as intellectual dishonesty and academic hackery. Such people always exist, sadly, but there is nothing mysterious about their motives or their methods. Instead, I am focused on why people truly learn something new but then talk as if they never learned anything at all.
Consider two further examples. In some areas of tax scholarship, there are extensive discussions of what makes one country’s business climate more competitive than another. “Competitiveness” has thus become a buzzword, with much effort devoted to trying to show how a country can improve its international competitiveness by adopting one policy or another.
Again, without wading into any of the details, I can report that I once witnessed an exchange between scholars in which a questioner appeared to genuinely convince the principal speaker that the concept of competitiveness was incoherent. (Although I was in the room, I was not involved in the discussion.) Again, the agreement between the scholars seemed to be real; but again, within minutes the speaker and the other questioners were using the word competitiveness as if it meant something.
The second example is “sovereignty,” a concept that one of my colleagues has critiqued to devastating effect over the years. Again, the details are not the point here. What matters is that people agree with her but then go right back to mouthing the word sovereignty and acting as if they are saying something meaningful.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is that we tend to think that words must mean something. “We all know what those words mean,” people say. It seems odd indeed to say that “efficiency is such an open-ended concept that it ultimately means nothing at all.” We tend to reject the possibility that relatively familiar words like competitiveness or sovereignty mean nothing. If words meant nothing, we should think that people would have stopped using them.
Even so, sometimes words simply mislead us. I had a math professor once who pointed out, for example, that although one can talk about “the largest number less than 1,” that does not mean that there is such a number. We all can be lazy.
Some Political Implications
Having taken a detour through some university seminar rooms, some readers might wonder why any of this matters. Scholars talk to each other all the time, and we do not expect them to agree. So what?
Again, in all but one of the above examples, the scholars agreed with each other. Beyond that, however, the “so what?” question can easily be answered by saying that policy analysis is going to lead us astray if we use words that can be twisted to anyone’s purposes. If we hear a politician say that her policy agenda will make the U.S. more competitive, for example, it ought to matter to us that competitiveness can mean anything or nothing.
Beyond specific policy debates, however, there are words and phrases that people use—often to devastating political effect—even though the words are empty.
Consider accusations of “judicial activism,” which is typically a charge leveled by conservatives against judges who supposedly “invent” new law to advance a liberal agenda. “The word ‘privacy’ appears nowhere in the Constitution,” they condescendingly intone, accusing the Griswold and Roe courts of baseless judicial freelancing.
Almost anyone who has attended law school, and many who have not, is surely aware that the same critique can be made of conservative decisions. For example, the so-called sovereign immunity revolution of the 1990s was based on a blatant misreading of the Eleventh Amendment, with the Court’s conservatives ultimately admitting that their preferred outcomes were not based on that amendment’s text but on the “Constitution’s structure and history” and “fundamental postulates implicit in the constitutional design.” They might as well have used the words “penumbras” and “emanations” from Griswold, which conservatives have mocked for decades.
And to use a very recent example, it would be difficult to think of a more results-oriented mangling of the law than the Court majority’s “shadow docket” decision that allowed Texas’s attack on reproductive rights to take effect. If that is not judicial activism, nothing is. And that is the point: Everything is judicial activism, and nothing is judicial activism, because the concept has no coherent meaning.
Again, my focus here is not on the people who consciously manipulate language to gain political advantage. They remain uninteresting in their single-mindedness. What is interesting, by contrast, is that even people who have been enlightened about the emptiness of the accusation of judicial activism will often use that term as if it means something. Like “sovereignty” or “the largest number less than 1,” surely judicial activism means something, right? It feels as if it has to; but it does not.
The ultimate example of this kind of casual doubling back is when non-conservatives use the term “political correctness.” It is obvious why conservatives abuse that open-ended term (just as they do “cancel culture” and “wokeness”), but why do so many others continue to act as if “we all know” what PC means?
By coincidence, I recently came across an especially good example of how carelessly people use the term political correctness. An animated video series called “People Watching” included an episode in which characters were given the opportunity to offer non-religious confessions. One character admitted that, when one of her friends talks about his depression, “I’m sometimes just thinking: ‘Yeah, whatever dude!’ But I don’t actually say it, because that wouldn’t be PC.”
What? Donald Trump says that being opposed to his Muslim immigration ban is merely political correctness run amok; Ted Cruz says that Dr. Seuss is the victim of PC culture; and this fictional character says that she chooses not to be hurtful to a friend in need, also because of political correctness?
Surely, people who are not deliberately invoking political correctness as part of the culture wars have figured out that many people refer to PC in ways that make no sense (or at least have seen many examples of that happening). After decades in the public consciousness, there is still no actual definition of political correctness beyond “something others don’t want me to say.” But being annoyed by a cultural norm that stops people from saying whatever they want to say does not identify a coherent concept. PC is merely an epithet, and conservatives’ political use of the term is enhanced by everyone else’s careless affirmation that there must be some meaning in a meaningless term.
No matter what happens politically in this country, we will be much better off if we stop using words and phrases that have no meaning. What is especially important to emphasize is that people need to relearn and remember when they are saying words that communicate nothing, or they might lapse back into reinforcing meaninglessness.