Who's a "conservative"? Not these folks — the word has become meaningless

Describing radical extremists and insurrectionists as "conservative" is an insult to Orwell — and reality

By Robert S. McElvaine

Contributing Writer

Published October 2, 2022 12:00PM (EDT)

Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert and Paul Gosar (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert and Paul Gosar (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The present political chaos is connected with the decay of language.
— George Orwell (1946)

Words have meanings. Words have power. Words influence the way people think and act. Words must be used with precision if the people who read them are not to be misled.

No honest journalist would disagree with any of those four sentences.

Yet one of the reasons why the American experiment in democracy, equality, freedom and diversity is in grave danger is that certain words have been stripped of their meanings — and in some cases have been used in direct opposition to their actual meanings — and are reflexively, almost automatically, repeated in the mainstream media.

At least some journalists, at some point in their education, read George Orwell's 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language." It's time for them to read it again, and pay closer attention this time. 

"To think clearly," Orwell writes, "is a necessary first step towards political regeneration." Clear thinking requires the careful use of words. Language should be "an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought," but as we all know. in politics words "are often used in a consciously dishonest way." Republican pollster and consultant Frank Luntz gave us such intentionally misleading terminology as "pro-life" and "death tax." The wholesale adoption of the former by the mainstream media has contributed significantly to the denial of women's control of their own bodies that we now confront.

What has been even more damaging, however, is the constant repetition of other misleading words, including "populist," "conspiracy theory," "Republican" and, most important of all, "conservative." People in the media mechanically repeat these with no apparent thought to their meanings or their effects on people reading or hearing them. As Orwell says, "bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better." Journalists and pundits may often be "almost unconscious of what [they are] saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church." 

A great deal of political language is, as Orwell puts it, "designed to make lies sound truthful," and it is unfortunately often easier to turn to that "catalogue of swindles and perversions" than to consider what a word means before repeating it. 

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Merriam-Webster defines "populist" as "a believer in the rights, wisdom or virtues of the common people." Affixing the label to Donald Trump and the politicians who adhere to him, who believe nothing of the sort, helps them to deceive those common people. 

Embedded in "conspiracy theory" is the word "theory," which in scientific usage refers to an explanation that has been repeatedly tested against evidence without contradiction. While it's true that in common usage, "theory" has a more general meaning, to suggest that there is a cabal of Satanic cannibal pedophiles who drink the blood of children, headed by Hillary Clinton and various other famous people, and from which Donald Trump will save us, does not qualify as a theory in any sense of the word. Yet the media persistently refers to such patently absurd delusions as "theories," inadvertently carrying them into the realm of potentially serious discourse.

"Republican" is of course still the name used by the antidemocratic, anti-republican and authoritarian forces that have taken control of that political party. Those forces refer to the rump movement that may still believe in a republican form of government as RINOs (or Republicans in Name Only) when that label better applies to them.

But by far the most dangerous manifestation of the media's ingrained tendency to aid and abet the enemies of democracy through the careless use of language, intentionally or otherwise, is the ubiquitous use of the word "conservative" to describe extreme right-wing radicals and their beliefs, which only seek to conserve white supremacy — and more specifically the class or caste supremacy of a small minority of wealthy and nominally Christian white men — and the bloated fortunes of the super-rich.

As historian Nancy MacLean shows in her 2017 "Democracy in Chains," many of those behind the scenes in the far-right movement that has been building for the past 40 years or more do not see themselves as "conservative" in any sense. They were and are radical right-wing revolutionaries. They embraced the term "conservative" as a marketing label, largely in order to conceal their true intentions from a public that would almost certainly reject those goals.

Many of those behind the scenes in the far-right movement of the past 40 years or so do not see themselves as "conservative" in any sense. They were and are radical right-wing revolutionaries.

There are indeed still conservatives on the American political landscape, like them or not: George Will, Bill Kristol, Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney, George W. Bush. But Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, as their recent words and deeds make clear, are not conservatives. Shape-shifting MAGA sycophants like Blake Masters, Kari Lake, J.D. Vance and Mehmet Oz are not conservatives. Openly insurrectionist members of Congress like Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert are not conservatives. Spineless House Republican leaders Kevin McCarthy and Elise Stefanik are not conservatives. The Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and other right-wing militias are not conservatives. Authoritarian-worshiping Fox News personality Tucker Carlson is not a conservative. 

These far-right extremists that media habitually call "conservatives" are conservatives in name only. Start calling them something that actually describes who they are and what they stand for.

"The invasion of one's mind by ready-made phrases," Orwell pointed out, "can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them." It is essential to think about "what impression one's words are likely to make on another person."

Here's a useful reminder: "Conservatives" are by definition not "extremists." Using the former name to describe the latter group only makes it more likely that otherwise normal and sensible people will support them and vote for them. It may be too late to prevent that, but it is never too late to start using words more accurately.  

"The worst thing one can do with words," Orwell writes, "is to surrender to them." In this case, that surrender can also mean the surrender of American democracy. One of the most effective actions that those who use words for a living can take in this moment of dire peril is to call the self-described "conservatives" what they are: radical extremists, who seek the destruction of what we value most about America.

By Robert S. McElvaine

Historian Robert S. McElvaine teaches at Millsaps College. He is the author of "Eve’s Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Course of History." His latest book, "The Times They Were a-Changin’ – 1964: The Year the Sixties Arrived and the Battle Lines of Today Were Drawn," has just been published.

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Commentary Conservatives Far-right George Orwell Language Media Republicans