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  • The Tyranny of Conservative Cliches

    In his latest book, The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, Jonah Goldberg argues that liberals hide their ideology behind tired aphorisms such as “violence never solved anything” or the Constitution is a “living document.”

    Unlike liberals, conservatives admit to having an ideology (although we prefer the term philosophy). We are also comfortable enough with our intellectual history that we don’t shy away from arguments, invoking authorities from the Bible and Publius to Hayek and Reagan. Nevertheless, conservatives use clichés, as everyone does. Here are some we should avoid.

    “America Is a Christian Nation”

    Yes, Christian morals and many biblical principles influenced the American Founders. And, yes, Christianity has thrived in America. But America is not a Christian nation in the strict sense of the term: Christianity isn’t the official religion to the exclusion of all others, nor is it the basis for membership in the political community.

    The better way to defend Christianity’s place in the public square is by arguing for religious liberty. The Founders all agreed that practitioners of every faith have a right to the free exercise of their religion—in their houses of worship and in the public square. They enshrined that right in the First Amendment. Why use an inaccurate cliché when you have the original meaning of the First Amendment on your side?

    “States’ Rights”

    Nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution are states or any other government—federal, state, or local—said to possess rights. Rather, states have powers. The much beloved, if often ignored, Tenth Amendment says that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

    Not only is it incorrect to speak of states’ rights, but the expression was the rallying cry of segregationists. Since no right-thinking conservative abides such arguments, let’s just drop the term “states’ rights” once and for all.

    If you’re concerned about federal encroachments on state sovereignty or the erosion of federalism—as you should be—then speak of federal encroachments on state sovereignty or the erosion of federalism. Or, of the need to restore limited constitutional government, reinvigorate local self-government, decentralize power, and check the growth of out-of-control government.

    With so many great formulations to choose from, why weaken the case for liberty by relying on the phrase “states’ rights”?

    “That’s Socialism”

    American conservatives needlessly undermine their arguments by labeling every liberal program or policy as “socialism.” This claim is incorrect: American liberals are generally progressives, not socialists.

    Conservatives need not rely on the s-word to argue against liberals—there’s plenty wrong with progressivism. Better yet, demonstrate what’s wrong in principle and in practice with a particular liberal program instead of relying on a debatable label.

    “Small Government”

    We conservatives are against “big government,” so we must be for “small government,” right? Wrong. We’re for limited government.

    The Constitution creates a federal government of enumerated (i.e., limited) powers. When Congress acts within its legitimate scope—for instance, national defense—then it can do a lot. There is nothing inherently contradictory about a limited-government conservative supporting strong national defense, because that is within the federal government’s constitutional responsibility. On the other hand, for areas outside of the federal government’s constitutional scope (Obamacare, anyone?), there is no role—big, small, or medium.

    Careful with the Clichés

    Conservatives use clichés—but not because we shy away from arguments or deny having an ideology. Clichés can be true statements summarizing a longer argument. Or clichés can be incorrect arguments masquerading as obvious statements. It’s the latter that conservatives should eradicate from our language.

    Posted in Featured, First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    34 Responses to The Tyranny of Conservative Cliches

    1. Susan Boyette says:

      This article is spot on as far as cliches are concerned.

    2. george4908 says:

      I mostly agree with the author's points, but want to comment on "That's socialism." When government buys into auto companies, or 'invests" taxpayer dollars in Solyndra, that is socialism, so the cliche is apropos. The other factor is that many, if not most, of those who call themselves "progressive" do not understand the difference between what is historically socialism and progressivism. They are merely exhanging what they feel is a pejoriative term for an honorific, because it feels better. And it is certainly true that many self-styled progressive in fact support goverment ownership of the means of production in all sorts of industries, energy being one of the most obvious. So they don't know it but, yes, they're socialists.

      • fazsha says:

        I agree, liberal agendas are socialist agendas, and if Jonah Goldberg doesn't like it because he's Jewish and socialist ideas have historically been associated with Russian Jews, that's too bad. I'm an atheist and I could care less if someone calls this a Christian country; why get all bent out of shape about that? As far as small government is concerned, you're damned right we want small government, including the bloated military. Why is it that the military doesn't even have a budget – and what do you think happens to organizations without the discipline of a budget? They grow to the sky. This is why the libertarian/Austrian agenda is the only one that makes sense; Goldberg is trying to get people open to the idea of government doing A LOT in the areas in which they are entitled to do SOMETHING. Look what they've done to our monetary system; they've wrecked it.

    3. P Acosta says:

      I don't agree nor disagree with most of your observations, except with your comments about Socialism.
      Socialism by whichever name it chooses on any given time, is none the less still socialism, ever since the Fabians put forth the idea that the socialist could better advance their agenda by stealthily dubbing themselves anything but socialist, they have adopted all kinds of names, and progressives is one of them.
      If you disagree with this, perhaps you may want to point out, how exactly does the progressive agenda differ from socialism.

      • Pragmatic says:

        The author provides a link in the article to how socialism is different.

      • SDJammer says:

        I agree with you regarding your comment about socialism. I think the author is partially correct with her comment that some of us (me included) overuse the word socialism. However, on the other hand conservatives have allowed the progressive liberals to slowly eat away at our system of capitalism over the last century with hardly a spoken complaint.

        Wealth redistribution, socialized medicine, an over reaching educational system, endless unemployment and welfare, an all intrusive federal government and a heavy progressive income tax are all tenets of socialism. Some of them come right out of the communist manifesto. And conservatives have for the most part sat silently by.

        So, I would disagree with the author to some extent on her comments about using the world socialism. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, just perhaps it really is socialism and we need to awaken people to that fact.

    4. zff says:

      I disagree with all these supposed cliches. The socialism one has been adequately answered by others, I would add that socialism desires everything to be centralized and thus make everything fall under the public sphere and does not need to actually own the means of production to accomplish this, merely the power and.or the threat of the government to step in whenever it feels like it. ObamaCare is socialism because it makes health care entirely under the control, direct and indirect, of the government. The description you cite, regardless of whoever wrote it states, actually describes the difference between progressivism and *communism* and not progressivism and socialism which are really one and the same.

      "America is a Christian Nation."

      Actually, most Conservatives say America is a *Judeo-Christian* nation, but I digress.
      Your argument is splitting hairs. No, Christianity is not a official religion nor are Americans required to follow it, but for all intent and purposes, Christianity is the inspiration behind most Americans lives and Christianity (witch grew out of the Jewish tradition, of course) is the basis for our Constitution. Yes, we allow freedom of religion (which is also a Christian idea, as opposed to say radical Islam) but for all intent and purposes the spirit, if not always the letter, of our nation has been and still is of now a Christian one. So regardless if our public officials are Christians or not, when they become officials they are engaging in a Christian ideal and are supposed to defend the Constitution which is steeped in Christianity. It's absurd to argue we are not a Christian nation when a statue of Moses graces our main legislative hall and "In God We Trust" appears on our money!

    5. zff says:

      "States Rights."

      Again you are splitting hairs. Yes, the word power is used in the Tenth Amendment section instead of rights, but what is power if not the right to do or be something? Also, it's an Amendment which of course like all Amendments is part of the Bill of *Rights!* You're reading too much in the choice of a word when it's obvious the term power was used in this instance merely to avoid repetition of a word. Just because some segregationists over 100 years ago abused the term does not mean we should throw it away. Liberals misuse the word liberty all the time, should we stop using that too?

      "Small Government."

      Again, more hair splitting. A limited government by necessity is a small one. A government does not have to be big in order to carry out limited functions and in fact bigness makes carrying out limited powers more difficult. Also, the term limited is inadequate because you could conceivably have a limited government but a bloated (big) one because it has many officials who do little or nothing. Such a government while limited in power and function would nevertheless drain the country due to it's large size.

    6. Donal Cole says:

      "Spot On"? . . .Susan, dahling, please! Since we are discussing Cliche's here, can we just send "Spot On" back to wherever it came from. I think it originated with the Brit media and/or Pols . . . not sure. But, for me at least, hearing the words spoken raises my hackles. It is as annoying as someone scratching a blackbord. Also, it does not "sound" American. I'm just sayin' . . .

    7. Valerie says:

      Unlike Jonah Goldberg, who articulately points out the lazy and erroneous thinking of the Left, this author is merely bothered with with SEMANTICS. Small vs Limited? Rights vs Powers?! PUH-LEASE!!! As the above have pointed out, whether Socialism or Marxism, it IS the reality…MUCH MORESO than the euphemism "progressive."

    8. Klem Kadiddlehopper says:

      While it may be important to avoid cliches like the plague, I think that the lack of effective communication today stems from the fact that, for many people, words are used out of context or with a lack of knowledge as to their real meaning.
      Words mean something.
      Yet too often, even with people whose education should make them better communicators, the misuse of words is commonplace.
      When challenged about the use of words, too often the retort is 'Well..you know what I mean…'

    9. Jody says:

      'American conservatives needlessly undermine their arguments by labeling every liberal program or policy as “socialism.” This claim is incorrect: American liberals are generally progressives, not socialists.'

      I disagree as the origins of "progressives" IN FACT are Fabian SOCIALISTS. Now it's your turn to do the research.

    10. toothful says:

      how 'bout….America's a "Christian culture" and does not and should not surrender to the PC multiculturalists!

    11. Jody says:

      'American conservatives needlessly undermine their arguments by labeling every liberal program or policy as “socialism.” This claim is incorrect: American liberals are generally progressives, not socialists.'

      First of all 'Progressive' is the new term for liberal. Second, Progressives are IN FACT Fabian SOCIALISTS. Research it.

    12. blogagog says:

      Isn't calling liberals "progressives, not socialists" a distinction without a difference? To me, progressivism, socialism, Marxism and communism are just facets in the same gemstone. I realize there are techincal differences, but they all result in an overbearing bloated government redistributing wealth and telling us what we can and can't do "for our own good".

      I use them fairly interchangeably. Do you have good reason why I should stop?

    13. chatmandu002 says:

      I call it progressive socialism.

    14. Obsidianram says:

      Re: "States' Rights" ~ So your whole argument relies on the weak tactic of poisoning the reader's opinion through the use of a single term used as a dirty word (segregationist). The Bill of Rights and The Constitution only exist because the States collectively empowered them into being. States do indeed have powers, but just as individuals enjoy Rights, so do States. Let's take the 2nd Amendment and the Right to Self-Defense for example. A person has the Right to defend their home, property and their person/family. In a broader scope within the same logic, in the face of an unresponsive Federal Government, States have the Right to defend their Citizens and Sovereignty against hostile foreign incursions across their border(s). The Federal Government exists because the States collectively allow it – not the other way around.

    15. Allen says:

      I disagree with your terminology. Yes Conservatives also are for small government, we can still have a smaller government and a strong national defense, the two do not preclude one another.
      Small government also means smaller state and local governing too!

    16. Tom says:

      I see others have already stated what I was going to, that progressives ARE socialists, for all intents and purposes. The Soviet leadership during the Cold War referred to itself as "progressive." That should tell you something. That, and it's what the liberal left is calling itself. Just look up an organization called "Democratic Socialists Of America." It proudly pronounced that 70 members of the Democrat Party were card carrying members and listed them. If you look, it's the who's who of the far left. Charles Rangle, Dennis Kucinich, Maxine Waters, John Conyers, etc. Their values are in line with this organization which is decidedly socialist, which claims it's socialist, and which claims it's progressive. So, he's wrong on this one point. The fact is, Socialist = Progressive. Progressive = Socialist.

    17. Spikeygrrl says:

      Yow. With "friends" like Ms. Shaw, who needs enemies?

    18. Patrioticnut says:

      While this article may be correct about the use of these cliches I feel the larger point is that the conservatives argue the points and not the overall ideology. Attempting to point out that their entire thought process is flawed only serves to anger folks, even if they are idiots you should refrain from pointing that fact out to them. Win the small battles with them and change their overall thinking, if they are capable of rational thought at all.

    19. Wayne says:

      Both George and P Acosta are correct. Progressivism is just another name for socialism.

    20. Government IS the problem for all who are not part of it because of its parasitic power monopoly status. A constitutionally limited one is therefore still a problem, although obviously a lesser one than that of the tyrannical kind, but none-the-less still a problem, and an unnecessary one to boot as Hans Hoppe shows in his book Democracy-The God That Failed in which he explains why a pol-free America would the only one compatible with the concept of actual liberty for all.

    21. Government IS the problem for all who are not part of it because of its parasitic power monopoly status. A constitutionally limited one is therefore still a problem, although obviously a lesser one than that of the tyrannical kind, but none-the-less still a problem, and an unnecessary one to boot as Hans Hoppe shows in his book Democracy-The God That Failed in which he explains why a pol-free America would be the only one compatible with the concept of actual liberty for all.

    22. Bobbie says:

      How about this one: "to each his own." Which breaks down "to his own" life and personal resources?! Self governing! AMERICA!

    23. blackyb says:

      The States do have rights. One being the rights to exist as a state. The state is the people within the boundry of that territory that is given a right to govern the people in such a manner as to give them Justice alloted to them to insure the state and local laws and ordinances are kept in such a manner as to provide Justice for all people. That is a right. The "power" enables the citizens to have the rights to belong under the laws and protections of that state. The person is a rightful citizen and would be refered to as a "North Carolinean" or which ever state they reside in. The laws of this state provides equal protection under the law that is not to be ursurped by the federal government unless it is in the wrong of the persons rights guaranteed by the Constitution. A person has a right to sue, to right to press charges and collectively these individuals are the state. States have rights because the people have rights. states are the people within their boundaries. Each person is a representative of that state as a citizen of that state and collectively they make up the state. The people have the power and the rights as the state to be the state. So don't tell me states do not have rights.

    24. blackyb says:

      People have rights who make up the state. The state is the people who represent the state and who have representatives of themselves to keep everyone from being in Congress because of the number of people in each state. If the people have rights, then the state who are the people have rights.

    25. Mourning in America says:

      I agree with Acosta, rightly or wrongly, many progressives themselves think economic collectivism (socialism) is what they like, indeed almost CONSTITUTES what is progressive, indeed didn't even Communists rebrand themselves as Progressives for a generation ?

      Except that our modern/post-modern progressives, lacking any nod in the direction of God or a transcendent standard have ridden, no, driven our cataclysmic moral decline to its current depths.

      Historic Progressives like Dewey, Croly, 'Fighting Bob' LaFollette never came out for legal abortion that I know of. And had Teddy Roosevelt advocated the legitimacy of same-sex marriage his likeness might have still been etched onto a hillside, but would have been um, less flattering than the one on Mt Rushmore.

      But while we're at it, let's drop two more cliches:

      (1) "Companies will just pass on the cost of government regulations to consumers in the form of higher prices"
      (If companies could just raise prices any old time they'd never go bankrupt. They'd just raise prices. Now regulations may in fact shrink a whole industry by DESTROYING weaker companies, raising prices in the end. In fact STRONGER companies often favor increased regulation for this reason)

      (2) Liberal Political Candidate X "never had to meet a payroll"

      ("What ? Payrolls have to be "met" ? You mean they might NOT be, on any given week ? Then you're making employees INVESTORS who should be compensated for their risk exposure above and beyond their ideas, labor, etc OR employers should be required to post a bond to secure payment for labor already performed)

    26. As a lifelong conservative, I'm not quite sure what the general meaning of conservatism stands for in 2012….

      I am compelled to believe, that my sober conservative views as they relate to fiscal and monetary policy, national defense, civil rights, healthcare, technology, science, and religion, would be viewed as blasphemous, if not treasonous and evil, by the main stream who identify themselves as conservative. Conservatism in America has transformed radically from the conservatism that I espoused over the last 50 years. I just don't understand the radical anxiety and the moral indignation that today's so called conservatives project toward globalization, cooperation and trade, in an overpopulated planet with scares resources… Why all the fear, why all the indignation….?

      • Bobbie says:

        read the constitution, life long conservative. Then tell me what relation to fiscal and monetary policy you mention really relate!!!!

        "why all the fear, why all the indignation?" that you'll have to answer yourself if you're truly American at all.
        I don't believe you're at all conservative…

      • Mourning in America says:

        Of course, many would dispute that the planet is 'overpopulated', see wikipedia's 'Cornucopian' entry, Google up wired magazine's article, 'The Doomslayer'…

        Resources are scarce in the basic economic sense that you can't have your cake and eat it too, economics, design, planning involves trade-offs, rewards efficiency. Not true, or not meaningfully true, that we're running out of minerals, oil, etc.

        If globalization means Columbian coffee, French wine, or Japanese cars, conservatives do not object. They do object to Brussels' Eurocrats imposing standards on the US through the UN etc.

        In your view, can the US continue as a healthy, modern, growing, sovereign nation in your version of 'cooperation' ?

        If so, conservatives are with you. If not, it's rather doubtful about you're being a lifelong conservative

    27. aharris says:

      No, America wasn't exactly founded as a Christian Nation because that would imply that is was founded only for Christians which is not true. However, it was founded with the idea that we as a people would more or less share a common morality which would help keep the need for legal intervention low. A moral people police themselves and are capable of self-government. Now, let's look at today. Today, it's very popular to say that there is no objective right or wrong and that we shouldn't judge others. Think about the chaos it necessarily causes when there is no common morality and we are not allowed to even attempt to advocate for one. It is also popular to tell us that we should not attempt to legislate our morality, but that's precisely what's happening on all sides. People are not allowed to find a common morality so they attempt to use the law to enforce one on others. And so, we slowly approach tyranny with government claiming more and more power to tell us how to live.

    28. Jonah Goldberg is correct. These cliches weaken our conservative arguments. I'm guilty, and I'm changing my dialogue to be more fair and accurate and persuasive.

    29. Tom says:

      Good article. I agree completely that conservatives need to starting coming up with better ways to communicate our ideas instead of using loaded cliches which actually hurt our arguments. Here are my comments on the ones Julia mentioned:

      States Rights: I totally agree that this term needs to be retired permanently and replaced with something like "State Competition" or "The Free Marketplace of State Ideas". "States rights" does not convey any benefit to the average citizen and it has all the negative connotations of succession/slavery associated with it.

      Limited/Small Government; It doesn't matter what you call it, but it should be limited/small FEDERAL government. I can care less if a particular state (other than the one I live in) has a big or small government. The problem is when the monopolistic Federal is big. We need to limit the monopolistic FEDERAL government and the states will take care of themselves through natural competitive forces.

      I'll add another one: We need to convey that a large monopolistic federal government is economically enslaving us, but without using the loaded word "slavery". For now I have been using the accurate, but less powerful "economic serf". Any other suggestions?

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