April 8, 2021

Before we get too deeply into mocking Kirsten Gillibrand for her expansive definition of "infrastructure," we need to look into the history of how "infrastructure" found its way into political jargon.

You've probably seen articles like "‘Unicorns are infrastructure’: Sen. Gillibrand mocked for definition of Biden plan" (NY Post): 

[I]n a push for President Biden’s massive $2.3 trillion tax-and-spend plan, the New York Democrat attempted to pave a new meaning, tweeting: “Paid leave is infrastructure. Child care is infrastructure. Caregiving is infrastructure.” ...

“Unicorns are infrastructure. Love is infrastructure. Herpes is infrastructure. Everything is infrastructure,” Daily Wire founder Ben Shapiro wrote on Twitter....

Ben Domenech, publisher of The Federalist, wrote: “Brunch is infrastructure. Kendall Jenner is infrastructure. The Snyder Cut is infrastructure.”

Biden argued... [infrastructure] “has always evolved to meet the aspirations of the American people and their needs. And it is evolving again today.”

The mocking is funny, but it takes for granted that the word "infrastructure" has a solid meaning. But it's an abstract concoction, made up of a prefix, "infra-," that just means "beneath," and the familiar word “structure.” So “infrastructure” is, literally, a structure under a structure, a substructure. Quite abstract and generic. The only reason the scope of the word matters is because it's taken on power within political discourse. So the question needs to be how and why. 

It's not as though there's a constitutional text that says the federal government can or should spend money on infrastructure. It's just a word that makes people feel something about the proposed spending. Then it seems to be a shortcut to arguing that we need to buy these things. Oh? It's infrastructure? Then, yes, we need it. It's a propaganda word. 

I searched the New York Times archive to see how this word took hold in American political discourse. Interestingly, it appeared for the first time in July 1950, then did not appear again until July 1951. Starting at that point, it became a very frequent word, and its new buzziness was remarked upon. 

There was a piece by Arthur Krock in September 1951, "In The Nation; Bringing the Political Lexicon Up to Date Among the Administrators At the Capitol." Krock wanted to alert readers words politicians used to con people. He wrote: “Infrastructure. An N.A.T.O. term designed to make sure that the United States will foot the entire bill.”

And in February 1952, there was "Use of 'Infrastructure" Is Baffling to Acheson": “One thing I can’t explain to you is how these facilities came to be called by the name ‘infrastructure.’” [ADDED: That little article also calls "infrastructure" "a favorite bureaucratic morsel in the language of European defense."]

It’s a propaganda word to the core. Don’t give it special power to immunize spending proposals from scrutiny — whether they fit in the broad or the narrow sense of the word.


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