(Editor's Note: This piece first appeared in the Washington Examiner on October 27, 2017.)
The Republican Party is gearing up for a critical push to reform the tax code. After the spectacular collapse of its seven-year effort to repeal Obamacare this summer, the GOP is in desperate need of a victory.
And according to Republican leaders, that victory is all but assured. Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., observed, “If there’s anything that unifies Republicans, it’s tax reform.”
But it’s far from clear that’s the case.
Conspicuously absent from such platitudes is any indication of what, exactly, tax reform means.
That’s because it means different things to different people.
And therein lies the problem for Republicans. The vague language they use to communicate with voters implies a level of agreement within the GOP that may not exist.
In the past, so-called regular order would have reconciled members and their constituents to suboptimal outcomes as the tax bill made its way through the legislative process. But today, rhetoric routinely supplants that process as the primary means by which we adjudicate issues.
Throughout history, politicians have tried to shirk responsibility for the consequences of their actions by using vague and euphemistic language. In confusing the issue, politicians make it harder for the people to hold them accountable for their actions.
Bad political speech is thus the enemy of accountability. It lacks clarity, which makes it easier for politicians to shirk responsibility for the role they play in making undesirable policy outcomes possible in the first place.
To paraphrase George Orwell, the author who helped popularize the term doublespeak, the language we use to talk about politics makes it easier for us to have foolish politics. That is, it turns people into empty-headed citizens who readily embrace the established orthodoxy peddled by insincere politicians.
Orwell also believed politicians could be vulnerable to the baneful influence of political speech. “When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases,” he wrote, “one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy.”
To counter this, Orwell urged the use of clear and concise language grounded in words deliberately chosen for their concrete meaning. By adopting these simple practices, politicians can help improve the quality of our discourse.
Yet despite this, politicians continue to ignore Orwell’s simple advice today.
Take the effort to repeal Obamacare. A worrisome feature of the debate was the ubiquitous use of imprecise and misleading language to describe almost all the Republican proposals under consideration.
The Republican proponents of those proposals alleged that they would, in fact, repeal Obamacare. Such assertions were intended to signal that Republicans were following through on their seven-year commitment to eliminate the law.
There was only one problem: Many of those Republicans did not want to repeal Obamacare. Instead, they wanted to fix the healthcare law so that it would work more efficiently. Their rhetoric was not aligned with their preferred policy position.
The result was that repeal lost all meaning in the context of the healthcare debate. To again paraphrase Orwell, the word repeal now has no meaning except insofar as it signifies something desirable for Republicans (and undesirable for Democrats).
The problem is that the word repeal has a concrete meaning. It is unambiguous.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, repeal means “to revoke or annul (a law or act of parliament).” Merriam-Webster defines it as “revoke or abrogate by legislative enactment.”
Of course, the Republican proposals did not meet this definition because they neither revoked, annulled, nor abrogated Obamacare. They reformed it. Like repeal, reform has a concrete meaning. In this context, to reform means to “make changes in (something, especially an institution or practice) in order to improve it.”
Had any of the Republican proposals been signed into law, they would have left in place many of Obamacare’s tax increases and all its insurance regulations. Yet despite the plain meaning of the words "repeal" and "reform," politicians persisted in their use of the former to describe legislation that did the latter. The result was to confuse the difference between the GOP’s efforts to fulfill its longstanding rhetorical pledge and the actual policy position of Republicans in Congress.
The GOP’s inability, or unwillingness, to clearly describe their legislative proposal left people unable to fully assess the policy changes under consideration. Those on one side of the debate were prevented from determining whether Republicans were delivering on their promise to repeal Obamacare. And those on the other side were encouraged to overstate the extent to which the GOP’s efforts would have eliminated a law they supported.
The broader consequences of the tendency to confuse are severe. For starters, it makes it harder for the public to hold their representatives accountable. Muddying the differences between political combatants rewards insincerity and prevents the development of a common understanding of where they differ on the underlying issues in a debate.
Conducting politics in this manner forestalls the kind of contentious debates over deeply divisive issues that are needed to resolve disagreements and craft compromise legislation. While politicians may prefer to avoid such debates, the effect of doing so routinely through use of misleading language corrupts our thought and poisons our civic discourse.
Reversing this trend depends on improving our ability to communicate. Better discourse leads to more rigorous thinking, which ultimately leads to healthier politics. Returning to Orwell, political speech should be used “as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”
Foisting an imperfect plan on the public at the last minute and declaring it a rousing success regardless of the details didn’t work when Republicans tried to repeal Obamacare. And it’s unlikely to work in their attempt to reform the tax code.
If Republicans really want to prevail in the tax debate, they should start by being honest with themselves and voters about what victory means in practice, not in theory.