English and the Political Language

Among the strangest phenomena of American political life is one politician accusing another of “playing politics.” This terrible locution is bipartisan, employed as often by liberals as by conservatives, and I don’t know of another area of human activity in which practice partly consists of denying the existence of the very activity you are engaged in. To accuse a basketball coach of “playing basketball” or an egineer of “playing engineering” would be nonsensical, and yet in politics we routinely hear such accusations leveled.

Like any piece of widely employed nonsense, this phrasing does, of course, carry a certain kind of semantic content, one conveyed not so much by the phrase itself as by the fact of it being uttered. What does it mean, to “play politics?” That depends on where and how you split the phrase. In its naive usage, “playing politics” is normally used to signify that one’s opponent has taken a “non-political” question and rendered it political, somehow. For example, liberals are often accused of “playing politics with the troops” when either attempting to curb American warmaking abroad or provide some support for returning soldiers domestically; by the same token, conservatives will be called out for, say, “playing politics with women’s lives,” when attempting to enact limits on reproductive rights.

The paradoxical nature of the “playing politics” maneuver is its ubiquitous deployment by political actors engaged in the political process of achieving political goals. What is the question of, say, reproductive rights, if not a political issue? The actions of politicians carried out in the course of their professional work are almost definitionally “politics,” and the attempt to prevent the political success of an opponent is, again, definitionally political. So: what purpose does it serve? On my reading, one operation accomplished by the accusation of “playing politics” or “politicization” is the suggestion that politics itself is a kind of alien enterprise that no one should engage in. At the same time, by deploying this rhetoric, its user seeks to position themselves on the ground of consensus: all reasonable non-political people acknowledge the universal rightness of my position, and it is only the political operative who disagrees. Thus: to be political is to stand in fundamental disagreement with a presumed rightness. And more: to be political, to politicize, is to acknowledge conflict where the accuser demands recognition of trans-political necessary truth. It’s not just that the personal is not held ot be political, but even the political itself is transformed into a dishonorable practice.

That’s the “politics” fork of “playing politics.” What about the “playing?” To accuse someone of playing is, firstly, to accuse them of a sort of insincerity. You are not truly a fan of 1960s avant garde Czech cinema; you are merely playing at being one for nefarious purposes (hipster cred, presumably). In politics, that translates as follows: you are not really concerned about the issue that you claim to be concerned about; you are merely putting on a sort of act by pretending concern. While it’s certainly true that political debates are full of what might generously be described as concern-trolling, we do have a language for calling bullshit on those things: we merely say that the speaker is lying. Whether true or not, an accusation of lying is at least intelligible and, presumably, open to some sort of independent adjudication with reference to the facts at hand. But “playing politics” is precisely the kind of slippery non-phrase that can never be proven or disproven. Are we truly concerned or is our political face merely another actor’s mask we wear on the face we present in everyday political life? How can you tell the dancer from the dance? This of course is an unanswerable question, with unanswerability being just the point: the goal is not to establish a fact but to sow doubt.

A secondary, complementary meaning of the accusation of “playing” is to imply that the accused regards the process as a kind of game, games being the sorts of things you play. In other words: the accused may or may nor really care about the issue at hand, but is really employing it as a kind of point-scoring maneuver in a game that has no purpose beyond itself. This dovetails neatly with the first fork, which seeks to convey the sense of politics as a fundamentall alien activity. If politics is, in fact, alien, that is, if it has no real relevance to our lives, then of course any political engagement can only be understood not as an expression of particular principles, but rather as just another game in which the goal is not to achieve any particular end, but rather to “defeat” whatever opponent stands in your way. Couple that to the accusation of insincerity, and more doubt is sown. The irony of this reading is that there really does exist an entire class of people for whom politics really is something of a social game; it’s just that this class overwhelmingly comprises various pundits and other political hangers-on (e.g. David Brooks, Tom Friedman, Maureen Dowd, etc.) for whom actual political practice would entail, well, too much work. But the people actually doing the work, whether you deem that work good or bad, are not playing but practicing.

The reason I object so strongly to the use of this formulation is because, like all euphemisms, it crowds out meaningful understanding of its subject. To insinuate that politics is something apart from life is to mistakenly assume that it can be bracketed off from your existence; to accuse an opponent of being engaged in a kind of sophisticated pretense is to misjudge their motivations and the strength of their convictions. The accusation of “playing politics” serves to conceal the existence of genuine, perhaps ultimately irreconcilable conflicts by removing those conflicts to a realm of seeming abstraction inhabited by people who are not engaged in anything real.

Unfortunately, American political discourse is fundamentally infantile, conducted on a level that should be embarrassing to a sixth-grader, much less to grown adults. So we get constructions like this, in which the very act of achieving a political end takes the form of denying that politics exists at all. Our political language is in quite a bad way.

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