Sun. Jan 23rd, 2022

There are a variety of commonly used phrases in news media when discussing political ideas. Even as an avid nonwatcher of news, I can name several off the top of my head. These phrases are usually succinct ways to put across a positive message of what a politician plans to influence government to do to ensure their constituents that they are looking out for them. However, this form of appeasement of voters can often be inherently nationalistic. These phrases almost always imply that government will shift its focus to those within the nation, particularly at the expense of those outside the nation.

For example, with the recent destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey and Irma around the corner, U.S. Senator Rand Paul is supporting federal funding for humanitarian aid, but is pushing his “America first” amendment which requires that this must be paid for with funds that would otherwise go to international aid.

Let’s look at this phrase, “America first.” This phrase has been used by many politicians in many different contexts. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) often said that we must put America first when looking at our trade deals, as he is against U.S. corporations moving production to other countries.

This reasoning was echoed by both former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Trump during the election period (after Clinton’s flop on the issue). Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) feels similarly about humanitarian aid, that we should keep it within the nation.

This phrase is obviously nationalistic as it explicitly places the nation of America above others. Either use of the phrase, with trade or humanitarian aid, has serious implications in the way we view the worth of human life. With trade, we see the plight of Americans who lost jobs to automation and foreign workers and feel bad, for good reason. However, Sanders’ or Trump’s response, to force companies to move production out of other countries, would remove relatively great economic opportunities for those in developing countries.

Similarly, Paul’s proposed policy would remove a portion of $50 billion, a paltry 1 percent of our federal budget, from aid to these countries where people experience even more frequent natural disasters and are more economically unstable than most places in the U.S. (An important note, a monsoon recently hit India, killing 1,200 as of Aug. 30, receiving little to no coverage in mainstream news).

When one says “America first,” they are perhaps unknowingly saying that they value an African, Southeast Asian, or Middle Eastern person having food in a drought, shelter in a hurricane and a steady job less than they do someone in America.

It is worth it, in their eyes, to remove a factory where a relatively poor person in Mexico is making more money than ever before and to bring it back to America to help a local who is already richer than the Mexican.

There are other phrases like “America first” which fall into a category of international competition, where the good of our nation must be in conflict with the good of others. For example, whenever a politician mentions “national security” when discussing war, they often imply that we must protect ourselves from countries an ocean away by invading them, creating chaos and using drones to bomb “terrorists” but also any innocents that happen to be nearby, usually fairly high in number.

These phrases often come up when people see improvement in other areas of the world and wish to have some of it locally, like with improving economies for developing nations or sending aid to other countries facing natural disasters.

There are other phrases which have a different but complementary meaning—that of national unity. The general view is that “we’re all in this together,” as in all Americans are looking out for each other and our well-being. These phrases, of course, tend to exclude the many other human beings who do not live within America’s borders, or have formal citizenship, but also have the additional quality that they undermine issues that occur within the nation.

To use another phrase tossed around during the election, Clinton said her vote to bail out auto companies and large banks in 2009 was cast to “save our economy.”

Obama’s various bailouts in his early presidency cost hundreds of billions of dollars, money which was provided by American taxpayers. This money, some of which came from the income of America’s poor, was funneled en masse to the richest members of our nation to preserve their capital resources, something the government would never dream of doing for an average business.

Essentially, working-class Americans paid for cars and houses they never received, further worsening their economic conditions than if auto companies and banks were simply left to fail like most businesses.

However, this was necessary for the preservation of the nation’s economy, of “our” economy, further implying the unity of Americans across income levels. The emphasis on “our” economy is significant, as Americans “sticking together” means that issues of economic disparity between rich and poor must be put on the back burner so the banks can survive and begin the cycle of financial exploitation anew.

Similar reasoning can be used for the issues of racism, police brutality and mass incarceration.

The maintenance of the government’s agencies of law enforcement are valued higher than the lives they destroy, and for the sake of national strength we must “support law enforcement” even as they cause great suffering. The very concept of the “thin blue line” is itself absurd, as that line is quite thick with high grade military equipment that makes it hard to distinguish police from an invading army.

Looking at rhetoric with so much scrutiny may seem unnecessary to many people, but it’s incredibly important so that one can at least be aware of how such rhetoric can influence the way you think, even if at its surface these thoughts have good intentions. These phrases have tangible consequences to our lives and the lives of those outside our nation. They simultaneously create fear where it may be unreasonable while quelling it with an illogical faith in the institutions which oppress people at home and abroad.

Mikhail Bakunin, a 19th century Russian philosopher, once said of nationalistic rhetoric: “When the people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called ‘the people’s stick.’”

However, I disagree; we love the people’s stick as it bruises us! It seems that people will support horrible things if coated in the proper language. It takes a lot of effort to look at these issues outside your familiar mindset and deconstruct any illusions that may reside there.

A lot of these issues also remain due to simple ignorance, because who has time to read about every political issue in the world? However, perhaps some analysis of our rhetoric can help us realize some logical inconsistencies we believe in, and can even help us see the people’s stick for what it is: a hurtful weapon.

Alexander Habbert is a second-year student majoring in economics, math and finance.  He can be reached at

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