THE BLOG

Rhetoric -- Ours or Theirs?

05/05/2013 05:38 pm ET | Updated Jul 05, 2013

Reform: I can remember when that word encompassed a lot of hopes and dreams for bending the arc of justice. It was less threatening than revolution, more encompassing of all of us together. So what does it mean now? How has the media changed its meaning? "Reform" is a word we have lost and conservatives have taken over. Reform has become a code word for decreasing Social Security and Medicare benefits, for commodifying, marketizing, and privatizing public education, de-funding public higher education, and insuring that no rich child is left behind.

It reminds me of another term that liberals love to use: the social safety net. This wasn't even in our lexicon before Reagan became president. But he wanted to make us think that with the dismantling of the social welfare state, government could and would still provide a trampoline to enable you to bounce back up... if you fell. Hence the safety net.

Let's think about this social safety net. The implication is that you are not supposed to fall. Most people don't need a safety net. They walk across the tightrope and make it to the other side. Only the losers fall. So we are all independent individuals, each of us dependent only on ourselves for our well-being in the normal times of life. Only when we fail will the government bail us out. So government doesn't enable us to be successful, it only helps the losers, the victims.

Of course, this up-ends what government actually does to create the pathways for individual prosperity for the entire society. But if we see government as only helping the losers, and getting in the way of the winners, then we identify government as the problem. Safety nets identify losers as passive and unfortunate, as uncoordinated victims with bad balance. Contrast this to the language of earned benefits (like Social Security), which identify all of us as active participants in social solidarity, realizing both individual and social well-being.

The safety net -- a clever turn of phrase, internalizing the metaphors that undermine government. And we all use it, say it, defend it, speak it. Time for a different phrase, at least if you believe in social solidarity. And especially if you embrace government's role in enabling that solidarity and the individual prosperity and opportunity that we all share as a result of that solidarity. Apparently, commonwealth is too stodgy. Maybe you have a better word or phrase!