Against “The War Against X”
I’ve been complaining about the framing of the various “War(s) Against X.” So I thought it worth talking a bit about why.
Listening to political discussions, there seem to be wars everywhere. There’s a war on women, a war on voting, a war on the poor. (The right has their wars too, like the war on Christmas, but I assume ones actually related to policy are meant to be taken more seriously.)
To begin with “War on X” rhetoric seems purely defensive. That is, it is only useful for critiquing Republicans, not for advancing any sort of positive agenda. In addition, it implies status quo was acceptable . It suggests the goal is, for example, to stop SNAP cuts, not to ensure food security, or stop new abortion restrictions, not ensure access. The War Against Voting is about new voting restrictions, but does that mean that only old voting restrictions are acceptable? There’s some implication, maybe, that we are for autonomy, or freedom and equality, or democracy. Implication enough for those who want to find it to hear it, not enough for anyone else to. In reality, I saw innumerable commercials for Terry McAuliffe, and the only thing conveyed was that Ken Cuccinelli was extreme and McAuliffe was in favor of abortion rights in cases of rape and incest.
A special case is the War on Drugs, which is used by its proponents as well as detractors. It too doesn’t tell us what sort of world we want to live in, although in that case, it’s because proponents want to obscure it. As a general rule, shouldn’t we avoid using our opponents’ framing when challenging their approach? But more to the point, adopting that wording isn’t helpful. Opposition to the War on Drugs is largely about its impact on human beings, which remain hidden in this frame.
I’m not suggesting that fighting these battles isn’t worthwhile. They are. But they aren’t enough. And framing your arguments solely around defense makes going on offense more difficult. In addition, by constantly being on defense, you allow the right to consistently move what were previously extreme positions into the mainstream.
What’s more, by designating a series Wars, we fail to see the deep connections across these battles. The most important is that voting restrictions make other, unpopular, conservative policies more viable. But there are also deep connections between the idea that women shouldn’t have control over their own bodies and that workers should be under the thumb of employers. All these things are about enforcing the power of the privileged over the disadvantaged. At the very least, it’s terribly inefficient if arguments are too narrowly tailored.
For politicians, there are some definite upsides to War On rhetoric. It allows them to mobilize their supporters against the GOP without committing them to doing anything other than not being Republicans. That makes it easier to act without constraints from the public. But if we actually care about these things, then we should use language that conveys what it is we want, and that facilitates achieving it. And in the process, we should make demands of politicians, even if they are our putative allies.