The Firmness Factor

Language and how we use it.
Nov. 27 1997 3:30 AM

The Firmness Factor

Hard thinking about soft questions.

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The Senate hearings on campaign-finance irregularities, conducted since July by Sen. Fred Thompson's Governmental Affairs Committee, have eased finally into insentience. As with so many political efforts, the committee's most lasting achievement is likely to be linguistic. Much as the one tangible consequence of Jimmy Carter's famous "malaise" speech, in 1979, was that it taught millions of Americans a new French word (which Carter in his speech in fact never uttered; the word was picked up from pre-speech "spinning" by Carter's political adviser, Patrick Caddell), so too a consequence of the Thompson committee hearings has been to give wide currency to the term soft money, in the sense of "money that can be collected for use in political campaigns but which enjoys an existence outside the rules, the oversight, and the control of the Federal Election Commission." Specifically, soft money can be contributed in unlimited amounts so long as it is ostensibly spent on vague "party-building activities" rather than on behalf of, or at the direction of, particular candidates.

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At one point in late October, as the committee hearings neared their end, Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, sought to emphasize that it was not only the Democrats who relied heavily on soft money. "The soft-money cake was eaten by both parties," Levin said. "This is what Congress permits, folks. Heck, we not only permit it, we thrive on it." A week later, as if to underscore Levin's point, or at least to carry the culinary metaphor a little further along, the New York Times headlined a story about a Republican fund-raising dinner with "Menu at G.O.P. Feast: Soft Money for Appetizer and Dessert."

There is no deep mystery about the proximate origins of the term "soft money." In its current sense, it came into use almost as soon as the present contours of campaign law were established, in the late 1970s.

Beginning in the 17th century, hard money and soft money came to refer to metallic money and paper money, respectively. Because hard money was tied intrinsically to the value of precious metals, the term was soon applied more generally to currencies of enduring and robust value, currencies that were under tight control and backed with ample amounts of metal. Hard currencies aren't pegged to metals any longer, but in casual political and macroeconomic parlance, soft-moneypeople are those who take an optimistic and permissive attitude toward control of the money supply, and hard-moneypeople are those who take a grouchy and restrictive one.

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I t is the "control" rather than the "value" aspect of the modern hard money-soft money dichotomy that makes the terminology applicable to campaign contributions. The immediate linguistic conduit through which it arrived was probably the language of Wall Street, in which soft money may refer to payments made in the form of noncash goods and services. (In 1983, a Washington Post story described an operative for Walter Mondale's nascent presidential campaign overseeing a vast pro-Mondale mailing, one that wouldn't count toward the campaign's spending limits because it was "educational" material technically being sent out by a labor union. "Ah, the sound of soft money," the operative said.) In business terms, hard money may refer not just to real money--i.e., hard cash--but also to real money obtained on hard terms.

All this is straightforward enough. But let's not lose sight of a larger phenomenon. It is said that the human tongue naturally distinguishes among four types of tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Similarly, the human mind is always ready to divide the world roughly into two conceptual categories. Oliver Wendell Holmes thought that all people could be classified according to whether they were psychologically "internal" or "external." The late Isaiah Berlin, in a famous assessment, classified people according to whether they were hedgehogs (those who know one big thing) or foxes (people who know many little things). As I have noted elsewhere, other "two-kinds-of-people" categories might include dogs vs. cats, savers vs. tossers, deciduous vs. evergreen, standard vs. automatic. Somehow, though, the qualities soft and hard never made it onto this original list--a significant omission, given the prominence they are coming to enjoy in the public arena of language.

The softness and hardness at issue here are not, of course, the words having literally to do with the physical properties of the same name, but rather the higher, metaphorical qualities associated with the words: that is, hard in the sense of "stern," "uncompromising," "grim," "tough," "realistic," "verifiable," or "physically palpable"; and soft in the sense of "moderate," "subjective," "subject to emotion," "simple," "idealistic," "weak," or "physically immaterial." In religious terms, hard can often be thought of as Calvinist, soft as Unitarian. Taking these attributes together, we thus have hard-liners and soft-liners, hard-core pornography and soft-core pornography, hard sell and soft sell, hard numbers and soft numbers, hard drugs and soft drugs, hard liquor and soft drinks, hard sciences and soft sciences, hardhearted and softhearted, hard rock and soft rock.

Keep an eye out or an ear cocked today for the hard-soft distinction, and you probably will encounter examples within just a few minutes (not counting the ubiquitous hardwares and softwares, hardballs and softballs). On the BBC World Service's main morning news program a few days ago, a news reader, in a story about a Kurdish influx into Europe, spoke of Italy as having a soft immigration policy, meaning that illegal aliens are given expulsion orders but not actually subjected to any further action. (The Misty Isles, the mythical homeland of Queen Aleta in Prince Valiant, once made a practice of slaughtering shipwreck survivors the moment they washed up on beaches. This would be a hard immigration policy.) Labor disputes in professional sports have centered on whether teams, and therefore players, would be subject to a hard salary cap or a soft salary cap, "hard" and "soft" in this instance meaning, essentially, "enforceable" and "unenforceable." The hard-soft distinction crops up in the jargon of globe-twirlers. Hard power, as foreign-policy analysts use the term, is power that comes out of the barrel of a gun--pure military might. Soft power is power that comes in the form of economic influence or (most softly of all) moral standing.

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H ard and soft figure in the context of preferments extended to racial and ethnic minorities. According to a recent article in the journal Public Interest, soft affirmative action emphasizes efforts to improve educational and job-training opportunities to improve minority representation in the classroom and the workplace. Hard affirmative action emphasizes explicit quotas for jobs, promotions, and college admissions. In Quebec, soft separatists are those who simply seek ever more cultural and political autonomy for the Francophone province, whereas hard separatists demand outright sovereignty. Political theory distinguishes between a hard state (a state with a relentlessly efficient, perhaps authoritarian, central government and a high regard for Darwinian market dynamics) and a soft state (which features messy pluralism and aggravating domestic politics in an environment of at least intermittent concern for the general welfare).

Such hard-soft terminology is, one could argue, ideally suited to a postideological age in which other kinds of distinctions--liberal vs. conservative, right vs. wrong, nature vs. nurture--seem increasingly tiresome or obsolete. For the most part, hard and soft carry no troubling value judgments. They merely express an attitude--a stance, a pattern of behavior or of thought--and their meaning in almost any context is intuitively clear. The hard truth, I would argue, is that this way of seeing the world is itself distressingly soft.

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