Words Matter

I’ve written about this image before, and the subtle brilliance of the slogan.  The difficulty of revolution, at least for the revolutionaries, is that it ends, and then they must govern.  “Hasta La Victoria Siempre” literally means “Always Towards Victory.” In other words, perpetual revolution, with the finish line receding as you approach it.  That allows someone like Castro to rule a country for his entire life. A well designed slogan is extremely powerful.

Labels are also powerful, but in a different way.  Where “Hasta La Victoria Siempre” is open ended and inclusive, labels are reductive and restricting. They distil an idea, a group, or a person down to one simple idea or a small set of criteria. Sometimes they even do away with ideas and criteria, describing without describing, manipulating by calling up visceral emotions created in the listener at some point in their only vaguely remembered past.

It is especially important to take care when labeling oneself. One of the first questions asked when people meet is “What do you do?”. Most introductions include some kind of label.  “This is my friend Dave, he is a writer.” The introduction or the answer to that question give you a framework from which to begin communication with the person you are meeting. By eliminating outliers and nuance, a label enables one to enter some sort of relationship with the person one is meeting.

If you answer the question “What do you do?” with a long complicated speech about your entire life and how you got here, most people’s eyes will glaze over. If they listened, they might have a fuller picture of the person you are, but most people won’t. So you choose something reductive and simple. “I am a writer,” or “I was a painter, then a photographer, and now I’m writing a novel,” which is similar to what I often say. 

I don’t say “I am a Democrat,” or “I am a Progressive,” unless the conversation is about politics. When I do self label in such a way, a myriad of assumptions are made by the other person regarding everything from my stance on issues to my moral character. Many of those assumptions will be correct, but many others will not, because, unlike a label, a person is nuanced.

Bernie Sanders would be president now if he had not labeled himself as a “Democratic Socialist.” I don’t know why he chose the label.  I can understand it, based on the policies and philosophies he espouses along with my own knowledge of world political history and economic theory. Bernie’s problem is that the word “Socialist” is misunderstood by most people, including his own supporters. Socialism is not Communism. Making our country more Socialist will not turn it into Cuba or Venezuela. It also won’t make us a Swedish paradise.  We already have a lot of Socialism built into our political and economic structure. All these arguments were made in support and explanation of Bernie in both 2016 and 2020. It didn’t matter.

As soon as Bernie, or AOC for that matter, embraced that label, they handed their opponents a cudgel and knelt down to be beaten over the figurative head with it. It is one thing when the Right hurls the label of “Socialism” at every program they don’t like. In doing that, they dilute the word, just as the Left neuters the power of “Fascism” when they use it at every turn to describe the Right. Imagine, though, if Mitch McConnell came out and said “I am a Republican Fascist.”

Keep imagining that.

Now do you understand why Bernie lost?