Re-reading George Orwell's classic 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language" with my Global Media seminar, I was struck by how closely his argument about the mutually corrupting relationship of language and politics fits the often incoherent sloganeering of the Republican campaign trail. Euphemistic jargon is still used to hide uncomfortable truth, as when torture is disguised as "enhanced interrogation techniques," and perfectly respectable words are still rendered meaningless by repeated misuse. For Orwell, "the term fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable.'" These days socialism is the meaningless all-purpose Bad Thing. Its recent reappearance perfectly illustrates Orwell's dictum that just as foolish thoughts lead to inaccurate language, so inaccurate language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts.

Neither John McCain, Sarah Palin, nor Joe "The Plumber" Wurzelbacher seem to have any idea what distinguishes socialism from progressive liberalism, communism, or for that matter 'compassionate Conservatism.' Nonetheless, Barack Obama's off-hand comment that it would be good to "spread the wealth around a bit" was all the evidence they needed to accuse him of being a socialist. Asked if this was a fair inference, McCain assented because spreading wealth around is a tenet of socialism. By the same logic, we might reach the absurd conclusion that John McCain is a Stalinist because he advocates a strong army, a tenet of Stalinism. But logic does not seem to operating here.

Sarah Palin elaborated: "Senator Obama said he wants to quote 'spread the wealth.' What that means is he wants government to take your money and dole it out however a politician sees fit. But Joe the Plumber and Ed the Dairy Man, I believe that they think that it sounds more like socialism. Friends, now is no time to experiment with socialism."

Compare Palin's definition of socialism with John McCain's description of his latest economic proposal, the Home Ownership Resurgence Plan, which will: "take some of the money that Congress has already committed to saving our financial system and use it to give millions of homeowners a new mortgage." The plan, (at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $300 billion) "will purchase mortgages directly from homeowners and mortgage servicers, and replace them with manageable, fixed-rate mortgages..."

Got the picture? When Obama takes your money and doles it out as he sees fit, that's socialism. When McCain takes your money and doles it out as he sees fit, that's a great idea. When Alaskans receive approximately two dollars of Federal taxes for every one dollar they pay, Palin is all in favor of wealth redistribution.

It's easy to dismiss this as the routine hypocrisy of a hard-fought political campaign, but I think there's something else going on. To paraphrase Orwell, bad policies can be hidden by sloppy language, but the deeper problem is that sloppy language can then lead to bad policies. Consider McCain's scattershot and contradictory responses to the financial crisis. One day he declared he would not support a government bailout of A.I.G.. Next day he declared he would. He announced he would set up a commission to determine the causes of the crash, then immediately declared the causes to "greed and corruption" on Wall Street. But neither McCain nor his research team could come up with a single concrete example of corruption. And what, exactly does greed refer to? Defined as "an excessive desire to acquire or possess" it defines conservative economic philosophy. One might quibble about what's excessive, perhaps suggesting it means "acquiring more than one needs" but this comes from a man with seven large houses. The "greed and corruption" cliché is utterly meaningless, a stock phrase McCain pulled out, telling us less than nothing about the real crisis.

Palin is just as muddled. During the vice presidential debate she told us: "We need to make sure that we demand from the federal government strict oversight of those entities in charge of our investments." Within a few minutes she was demanding "Government, just get out of my way..."

Neither McCain nor Palin seem to have the intellectual tools to articulate a nuanced response to complex issues of political economy. This is not a matter of brains but of language. They have been repeating the mantra "Government is the problem!" for so long they are incapable of formulating ideas about the relationship between government, the people and the economy that go beyond empty slogans. As any Bowdoin Government major can tell you, there is a vast, rich literature on what governments can and can't do, but McCain and Palin are addressing college-level problems with an elementary school vocabulary.

The problem is not, of course, confined to Republicans or presidential candidates. We are all too often guilty of misusing language, pasting over our ignorance with empty, ready-made phrases and allowing others to do the same. As scholars at this great College, though, we have no excuses for so doing. It will be nice when the election campaign is over and we can, perhaps, begin to have serious discussions about serious national problems. In the meantime, I commend to you Orwell's timeless piece.

Henry Laurence is an Associate Professor of Government and Asian Studies.