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Trite Makes Right

A guide to conservative clichés.

In his new book, The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, Jonah Goldberg argues that liberals “advance ideological agendas that would expand and enhance the State’s mastery over our lives” by parroting hoary maxims and phrases. That bit alleging subjugation by the capital-S State is right-wing cant, but Goldberg’s accusation that liberals often spout clichés is so unchallengeable that I marvel he got a whole book out of it. Yet Goldberg won’t admit that conservatives often do the same. “I do not claim that the conservative mind isn’t bound by clichés from time to time,” Goldberg concedes in his introductory chapter (italics mine). But they don’t do it as much as liberals, because conservatives “make our arguments more openly.” In effect, Goldberg is arguing that liberals are more smug, and, since clichés are the lingua franca of smug people, liberals spout them more. You don’t have to be liberal to find such reasoning a bit ... smug.

In fact, conservatives are no less inclined to peddle clichés than liberals are. In 24 chapters, Goldberg cites about as many liberal clichés, from “slippery slope” to “living constitution” to “violence never solves anything.” With the help of assorted colleagues, friends, social-media followers, and Google, I’ve compiled my own list of conservative clichés. It’s shorter (I have only one page to Goldberg’s 280) but a much better value. Where Goldberg’s compilation will set you back $27.95, I offer mine at the low, low NEW REPUBLIC cover price of $4.95 (gratis, if you happen to read this online or if you bought the paper edition to read something else).

Let us proceed.

The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen. This begs the question: Bigger how? The U.S. government spends more money today than it did a half-century ago, but it employs fewer people.

Broaden the tax base. Code for “increase the available income subject to taxation to offset lowering top marginal rates (already quite low by historic standards) even further on the rich.” The preferred method is to raise taxes on the working poor. Another method (more readily embraced by office-holding conservatives) is to close loopholes, though if you choose this approach you must never specify which loopholes to close because the biggest ones (the tax exclusion for employer-provided health insurance, the tax break for pension contributions, the mortgage interest deduction) are extremely popular.

Central planning. Any decision-making process by the federal government that conservatives dislike. The Pentagon never engages in central planning.

Command and control. Regulation (typically environmental) in which the government tells businesses what to do to achieve a desired result (e.g., reduce pollution). An alternative is for the government to tell businesses what the desired result is and let them figure out how to get there. A newer, more market-oriented alternative is to allow businesses to trade a limited number of indulgences (e.g., cap and trade). Both alternatives were created to appease conservative complaints that command-and-control regulation was inflexible and extreme, but both were eventually labeled similarly because the true conservative goal is to halt or limit all forms of regulation.

If you tax something, you get less of it. Often true, but not always. The most notable exception is land. It will be there whether you tax it or not. Indeed, Henry George argued (in his 1879 book, Progress and Poverty) that taxing land stimulates economic growth by encouraging its development. (To pay the tax, you have to make the land produce income.) Also problematic when applied to the federal fuel tax that funds the highway trust fund. Raise the tax and fuel consumption will indeed go down. But eliminate the tax and interstate highways can no longer be built or maintained, compelling drivers to drive less and oil companies to close refineries. See also: If you subsidize something you get more of it. More reliably true.

Job creator. A rich person. The idea is that one mustn’t tax the rich, because it’s rich people who, through investment, create jobs. This used to be called “trickle-down economics,” and 31 years ago, when Ronald Reagan’s budget chief got caught admitting to The Atlantic that the Reagan administration practiced it, he suffered public humiliation. Today, trickle-down economics is preached without shame.

Kicking the can down the road. Failing to address the budget deficit. Ownership of this cliché has passed back and forth over the years between Democrats and Republicans depending on which party controls the White House. At present, its meaning is generally conservative because the phrase now encompasses the complaint that, during the past three years, President Obama ought to have revived the economy by reducing rather than increasing government spending. Respected economists seldom agree with this argument.

Mainstream media (popular variation: lamestream media). The non-conservative news media, including every TV news organization except Fox and every nationally distributed newspaper except the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal. The term’s usage in recent years reflects the right’s growing comfort with its position on the fringe. Where once conservatives claimed to inhabit the mainstream (as reflected in phrases like “silent majority” and “Moral Majority”), today the right sees the mainstream as so thoroughly compromised (and ruthlessly dominant) that it prefers to define itself as an unfairly besieged minority.

Morally serious. Conservative. When a conservative praises a liberal as “morally serious” he means that person is less liberal than most.

Starve the beast. A Republican strategy to cut government spending by cutting taxes. The theory is that lower tax revenue will force budget cuts down the road. But this doctrine contradicts conservatives’ false-but-cherished belief that tax cuts so incentivize economic activity that revenue will rise rather than fall. Also, in practice, starving the beast hasn’t lowered spending at all; it has merely increased the deficit.

War on Christmas. A seasonal favorite. The idea that liberals’ desire to maintain a separation between church and state masks a desire to eliminate Christianity’s most popular holiday. Although the ostensible principle is that no religion should be banned from the public square (yet another cliché), many of the same conservatives favor laws banning the imposition of sharia (already forbidden under the Establishment Clause).

Timothy Noah is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the June 7, 2012 issue of the magazine.