Republicans, 'amnesty,' and the point at which words lose meaning

People show their support during a rally for comprehensive immigration reform on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., April 10, 2013.
People show their support during a rally for comprehensive immigration reform on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., April 10, 2013.
Just a few months into the Obama presidency, the New York Times ran a report on Republicans reaching for new rungs on the rhetorical ladder. The old insults had gotten stale and lost their efficacy, so conservatives searched for more searing language.
Saul Anuzis, a former head of the Michigan Republican Party who ran for the RNC chairmanship, decided it was time for his party to throw around the word "fascism" to add weight to their condemnations. "We've so overused the word 'socialism' that it no longer has the negative connotation it had 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago," Anuzis said. "Fascism -- everybody still thinks that's a bad thing."
In context, it was clear that Republicans who accused Obama of "fascism" didn't know what "fascism" means, and they didn't much care. The definition of the word was meaningless -- all that mattered, Republicans said in 2009, was "finding something that raises the consciousness of the average voter." If that meant changing the meaning of words, so be it.
More than five years later, in the immigration debate, Republicans are committed to the "amnesty" talking point, since they assume it sounds bad. But when Betsy Woodruff asked GOP lawmakers what the word means, many of them had no idea.

Some of the top legislators who frequently use the term can't actually explain what amnesty is. I spent the past few days asking Republican senators what they meant when they referred to amnesty in terms of immigration policy. The answers I got were intriguing. That's because while Republican congressional leaders are always eager to discuss their opposition to this vague, amorphous concept, many of them are downright befuddled when asked to explain what that concept looks like in real life. Their responses ranged from straightforward to nonsensical. When I asked Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, what specific immigration policies he was referring to when he used the term amnesty, he said, "I don't understand the question."

Woodruff's report is hilarious, in a depressing sort of way, and it's well worth your time. My personal favorite was Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) who said amnesty "would be a pathway to citizenship" for undocumented immigrants. Told that meant, by definition, Obama's plan wouldn't constitute "amnesty," the Arkansas Republican replied, "That might require whatever."
Well said, senator.
I don't mean to sound picky, but the basic argument here is simple.
First, lawmakers shouldn't use words if they don't know what the words mean. Second, politicians shouldn't change the meaning of words just because they feel like it.
This goes far beyond "amnesty." The word "socialism" no longer means anything -- Republicans decided it was a synonym for "liberal." "Judicial activism" has been stripped of its definition. So has "court packing" and "socialized medicine."
These used to be perfectly good words with perfectly clear meanings, right up until political figures decided entirely new, made-up definitions helped "raise the consciousness of the average voter."
Part of the problem is the fact that Republicans don't seem to know the meaning of the words they use, but the larger concern is that they just don't seem to care. I half expect GOP lawmakers to respond to future questions about words they're misusing by saying, "I'm not an etymologist."
If "I'm not a scientist" works for the party, maybe this will, too?