A look at the history of budget-busting, job-killing, and other variants of mud-slinging malarkey.
For the past month, “job-killing” has been the insult du jour in Washington. Everything about President Obama and his administration was described with this catchy adjective: job-killing legislation, job-killing federal regulations, job-killing tax hikes, etc. I’m amazed no one denounced Bo the First Dog as a job-killing pooch.
In the wake of the Arizona killings, there’s been a slight toning down of rhetoric: “Job-killing” will apparently give way to “job-crushing” and “job-destroying.” Perhaps these word changes will lead to meaningless revisions of the bill "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act” and the triple-buzzword-titled report “Obamacare: A Budget-busting, Job-killing Health Care Law” (PDF) If you threw in a “razzin-frazzin” and a “varmint,” those words would sound at home in the mouth of Yosemite Sam. But such talk should sound familiar for other reasons that are equally cartoon-y yet frighteningly real. Words like “job-crushing” and “tree-hugging” have long been lexical clubs used to bludgeon liberals and Democratic politicians. When it comes to word games—especially the blank-blanking kind—the right always seems to play meaner and smarter than the left.
In terms of rhythm and meaning, “job-killing” would fit right into one of the best book titles ever: Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show. In this 2006 book, the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg looked at how:
...the left has lost the battle for the language itself. When we talk about politics nowadays—and by ‘we’ I mean progressives and liberals as well as conservatives and people in the center—we can’t help using language that embodies the worldview of the right.
Nunberg talks about the demonization of “liberal,” the power of framing (a la George Lakoff), and terms such as “big government” and “compassionate conservatism,” as well as how language structures themselves come to embody political ideas and stereotypes. A very successful strategy has been the linking of the word “elite” to liberals: You rarely ever hear about the conservative elite, even though such creatures obviously exist. Terms like “latte-sipping liberal” are a type of “product placement” (as Nunberg puts it) reinforcing “liberal” and “elite” as synonyms.
These slurs serve the broader agenda of driving the masses and liberals apart by associating the latter with fancy-pants food and products like sushi and Volvos—or brie, as in “brie-eating liberal,” a close relation of the cheese-eating surrender monkey. Nunberg notes that brie “...stands in perfectly for the right’s stereotypes of liberals—soft, pale, runny, and French.” The disciplined repetition of liberals as brie-eating or tree-hugging or job-destroying paints a picture of the left as a bunch of Pepe le Pew-like varmints in Birkenstocks who hate America and your bank account. It’s immature, inaccurate, and effective.
But this trope goes deeper than silly mud-slinging. On Language Log, Nunberg explains that:
...you could trace the whole history of the right's campaigns against liberals via those compounds—from tree-hugging and NPR-listening back through the Nixon era's pot-smoking, bra-burning, draft-dodging, and America-hating, until you finally excavate the crude origins of the trope in nigger-loving, the ur-denunciation of white liberal sentimentality.
So if we measured all these terms with an evil-ometer, “job-killing” (or “job-whatever-ing”) would actually be one of the least awful.
Besides playing on fear and hate, most of these terms are built on a foundation of BS and lies. What we know about the health-care bill doesn’t seem job-killing at all. These word games are indifferent to facts and tell you a lot about the people using them. As Steven Pearlstein put it in the Washington Post:
...the next time you hear some politician or radio blowhard or corporate hack tossing around the ‘job-killing’ accusation, you can be pretty sure he's not somebody to be taken seriously. It's a sign that he disrespects your intelligence, disrespects the truth and disrespects the democratic process.
Sadly for us all, a politician disrespecting the democratic process is about as newsy and shocking as a dog disrespecting the bathtime process. Many hoped the Arizona shootings would create a moratorium on inflated political invective, but Sarah Palin and her “blood libel” squelched that idea fast. Other absurd rhetoric should follow soon. The right loves to use deadly language—as Leslie Savan writes, “job-killing” is of a piece with “death tax,” and “death panels”—and “job-crushing” and “job-destroying” show that the blank-blanking form is too tempting and effective to abandon.
Someday soon, I’m sure President Obama will be slammed as a “baby-eating, Thor-worshipping grandma-stabber” or a “Satan-licking, immigrant-spooning secret werewolf.” Those on the right have worked hard and dirty to make the blank-blanking form their own. They aren’t going to give it up without a fight.