­The latest rhetorical battle in Washington is about “Income inequality” versus “income opportunity.” The Republicans, as usual, have the better word branding. The Democrats, concerned with not being perceived as too liberal, won’t advocate for “income equality” because that would be communist. “Opportunity” is a better word than “not-inequality.” After all, who doesn’t mind a little opportunity? Never mind that income inequality stifles opportunity, or that Republicans don’t actually want to give poor people any opportunities; they’ve got the better phrase.

At least we’re not talking percentages anymore. It was illuminating to see how pie gets divided in this country, and it was a bold, stupid stance for the right to scorn the 47% and cheer the 1%, only to have a majority of the 99% vote against them, but that was a lot of numbers. Also, the percent sign always looks like some computer glitch on the page. Too many tiny bits. Most of my research indicates that, like all written language, it’s derived from accounting, essentially a division equation, though there is one uncorroborated account saying it’s a pseudo-superstitious symbol from the dark ages to help merchants combat the public fear of numbers. I like the story. Let me know if it’s true.

Before we were going on about percentages, we had a splash of what Sarah Palin calls “that hopey-changey stuff.” Obama, dead set on not scaring anyone, was deliberately vague about his economic plans, at least when it came to hanging a name on it. Fortunately, the nation entered a second Great Depression, so we were given words like “bailout” and “stimulus” to bat around. These became terms of vilification, because it’s morally abhorrent to try to mitigate the causes and effects of a depression.

It looks like we’re calling this economic stretch we’re still in the Great Recession, which is a shame, because despite Reagan’s quip (recession is when it happens to someone else, depression is when it happens to you), no one really knows what a recession is. We don’t Roman-numeral our sequels anymore, because Hollywood no doubt figures that if they’ve got a franchise, they can get a few extra views from stoners  who can’t remember which Matrix movies they’ve already watched, so the Great Depression II is out. Also, it’s not as bad as the first depression (Because of the bailouts! Because of the stimulus! They worked, partly sort of!), but I could go with the Great Depression Reloaded.

Before he ruined our economy, George W. Bush (remember him? no? I’ve blotted it out from my memory too) thought he had a winner with “Compassionate Conservatism,” which meant privatizing social security. People love alliteration, one of the reasons social security is wildly popular (besides its being an efficiently run and necessary safety net) even though it’s got the word “social” in it. Compassionate Conservatism could have had legs if W hadn’t turned out to be the worst president since Polk.

Clinton talked about the rich paying “their fair share.” The conservatives countered that he wanted to “soak the rich,” a strange chestnut that had been bouncing around since at least 1935. Seems counterintuitive to me. Soaking means something is absorbing liquid. You should be saying Clinton wants to wring the water from them. “Wring the rich!” It’s got alliteration, but it doesn’t quite have the right ring to it, so they went with soak.

George H. W. Bush had “a kindler, gentler” America, which Michael Dukakis countered with…who knows? I’m just proud I remembered Michael Dukakis’s name.

That “kindler, gentler” may well have been Republicans’ first venture into pretending to care about anyone other than the rich. It came of a recognition that Reagan’s contempt for “welfare queens” and the like was leaving a bad taste in people’s mouths. Reagan didn’t need to care to beat Carter, a president already beaten by inflation. Reagan just said he’d cut taxes, and in 1984 when Mondale said he’d raise them he got trounced. Reagan lowered taxes, making everyone happy until it was time to balance the budget. Since then Republicans sometimes pretend to care about the poor and Democrats sometime pretend they’re Republicans. Neither does a particularly good job, but at least now we’ve got a Republican-concocted national health care plan (it was supposed to be a joke!) and a few good turns of phrase.

Democrats do have a real opportunity with “opportunity.” Steal the rhetoric. Go back to before Reagan, when everything was “new,” like deals and frontiers. Skip “square”: Truman almost lost with the “square deal.”  Offer the American people a New Opportunity.  Or at least offer a Real Opportunity. Just don’t offer Opportunity Zones; evidently they don’t work.

Whatever opportunities the right and left take, this endless debate will come back, time and again, using new poll-tested phrases and terms. They’ll be trotted out on the Sunday-morning talk shows like models on the runway. Some will be timeless gems (class warfare!), some will be clunkers (makers and takers), but the search for innovative and expressive new terms will continue forever.

It beats actually doing something.

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  1. […] men” such as Paul Ryan, who are selling warmed-over Reaganomics as if they were new solutions to income inequality, when we need real solutions. Also, we’re burning the planet into a dystopian nightmare, and […]

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