Those who own the language rule the world. Words can ignite the spark of hope; they can also light the fires of fear.
Take, for instance, the phrases "redistribution of wealth" and "class warfare." The visceral response in the American psyche is fear -- fear of communism. And those who cry the loudest are those who have already waged class warfare, albeit quietly.
Wealth in America already has been redistributed. The only question is whether to let that redistribution continue, or to "re-redistribute" the upward distribution that has already taken place.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is a rare voice of clarity. "Mr. President," he said in last week's Senate debate on extending the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, "in the year 2007, the top 1 percent of all income earners in the United States made twenty-three and a half percent of all income ... more than the entire bottom 50 percent." Polifact.com checked Sanders' claims and rated them "true."
Redistribution of wealth has already happened in America, but no one calls it that. It has been in the making for decades. How and why did it happen? How did the 99 percent allow it to happen?
It was a quiet class war that appealed to the middle class belief that one day we, too, could be rich. It was a war of words that sparked the fear that a far-off dream would be taken away. It was a class war in which no one fought back. It was waged and won not by force of arms but by the use of code words like "redistribution of wealth" that hinted a sinister communist or socialist agenda. The result was the slow decimation of the progressive tax structure that once ensured the nation's fiscal health and that sought some measure of fairness and well-being for all people in America.
One of Minneapolis' wealthiest people invites me to lunch at her club. The club itself is a place of power and privilege, but I have learned to expect the unexpected there. My host has a conscience. She does great things with her accumulated wealth, but she is clearly troubled today. She wants to talk with her pastor about the drift of things in our state and across America, about her income taxes, and about her faith.
"It's not right," she says. "I should be paying more. I'm not alone in feeling that way. More should be expected from those who have so much. We're not carrying our fair share of the burden. I want to pay a higher rate. I don't need a tax break!"
Like others who have signed on with Wealth for the Common Good and Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength, she knows that she did not produce her wealth. Middle class and lower class wage earners did.
The 2008 election offered hope that finally the people of America had awakened to the redistribution of wealth and power. In 2010 that hope is all but gone, held hostage by a Congress and a president who claim that, for the sake of extending middle class tax cuts and unemployment insurance for the unemployed, they must also continue the tax breaks for the wealthy, the growing deficit notwithstanding. The redistribution of the redistribution cannot garner the votes to pass in Congress.
The Democratic Party went down to resounding defeat in the 2010 election in no small part because it had lost its vision and courage. It lost because it rocked back on its heels at the charge that health care and financial reforms were acts of "class warfare" and "redistribution of wealth." It lost the war of words. No one fought back to reframe the discussion until Bernie Sanders, America's only socialist senator, spoke the truth of the terrible, growing disparity of wealth in America. He dared to speak truth: The question before the Congress is not whether wealth will be redistributed. The only question is how. Will the current redistribution continue? Or will there be a re-redistribution?
Words matter. Language matters. Ideas matter. So long as the American people remain easily manipulated by code words and slogans that distort reality like a funhouse mirror, and so long as elected officials and candidates recoil defensively instead of leading, the re-redistribution won't stand a chance. It will be stillborn. The war of words will continue to be lost. Those who own the language run the world.
Is there a preacher in the White House who will finally dare to use his "bully pulpit" to put the issue squarely before the American people? If the word were to come from the Oval Office that the real crossroads is not a redistribution of wealth but the re-distribution of the redistribution that has already taken place, would it reignite the spark of hope in the American soul?
The facts are already there. What we need is a word from the bully pulpit.
Gordon C. Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska and moderator of First Tuesday Dialogues: examining critical public issues locally and globally. He is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.