Taking a look at multilingual politics

Posted by: Brenda Holmes  | Thursday, August 25, 2016

English is the language of government in the United States, right? Yes, but knowing English does not really make you truly fluent in the language of government. You must also speak certain dialects.

Dialects? What on earth are you talking about? What I am trying to say is that if you want to communicate effectively about concepts in government, it really helps to understand the various ways such thoughts are communicated. This is growing more critical as the country becomes less homogenous.

In my work as a legislator, I think the three most common “dialects” of government in Indiana are the language of the American founding, the language of free-market economics and the language of Christianity.

To illustrate, let’s take for example the concept of limited government. Let’s suppose that you are in favor of limited government. The way you might discuss limited government in the language of the founding would be to say, “Our Constitution establishes a hierarchy of governments. At the top is the federal government in Washington, D.C. Its powers are carefully set forth in Article I, Sec. 8, and involve issues of national importance such as making and providing the forces for war, coining money, providing for a system of patents, etc. The powers not given to the federal government are reserved to the people or the states by the 10th Amendment and restricted by the Bill of Rights.”

Now, let’s take the same topic, limited government, using the language of free-market economics. Here, you might say, “Governments are simply unable to take into consideration the billions of decisions necessary to keep an economy going. History has shown that when it attempts to do so, it fails miserably. What invariably results are warehouses of items that people do not want and empty shelves of those items they do seek. A free economy, in contrast, reacts instantly to natural disasters, shortages, strikes, or a billion other decisions that come into play in an economy. Accordingly, government must be limited to those tasks it is capable of performing and not do those things it is ill-equipped to handle.”

Finally, let’s consider the language of Christianity — the most practiced religion in Knox, Pike, Vanderburgh and Posey counties. Here, in describing the concept of limited government, you could say, “God ordained certain institutions in scripture to govern humans — the church, the family and the civil government. Each has its own responsibilities. When one institution gets out of its legitimate sphere of influence, it runs the risk of getting in the way of another institution. Hence, we need to be very careful when, for example, the civil government, be it in Washington, Indianapolis or Haubstadt, jumps into a role more properly played by the family or the church.”

A critical point to remember is that not all of us are multilingual when it comes to government. Therefore, it is important to understand what dialect is being spoken when we are discussing concepts of government. Put another way, using the language of Christianity may be unmoving to an atheist; using the language of free markets may not be helpful to a person who is well-versed in the language of the founding. In such situations, being able to translate concepts between the different dialects is very helpful.

Sometimes, simply being aware makes all the difference. The next time you find yourself seemingly talking past someone in matters of government, pause and consider that it might be that a different dialect is in use — and start looking for a translator!


Rep. Tom Washburne (R-Darmstadt) serves has chairman of the Courts and Criminal Code Committee. He represents Gibson County and portions of Knox, Pike, Vanderburgh, and Posey counties.

A high-resolution photo of Washburne can be downloaded by clicking here.