In December of 2017, several news reports – the first of which was the Washington Post – alleged that the Centers for Disease Control had enacted a “ban” on seven words in budgeting documents that were heading to Congress for approval. The words included “entitlement,” “diversity,” “evidence-based,” “science-based,” and “fetus,” among others, and the allegations came from an unnamed and outraged CDC employee. After the article was released, many expressed shock and disbelief that this kind of censorship would have been allowed within even the Trump Administration. At the same time, CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald stated that there was no banned list of words within the CDC at all.
The truth of the situation may in fact be scarier than the perceived reality. Interviews with two unnamed officials from the Department of Health and Human Services stated that the only thing done by officials in the CDC regarding these words was a series of suggestions on how to increase the likelihood that their proposals would obtain funding from Congress. This implies two important things: one, that bureaucrats are beginning to self-censor in order to meet the requirements of the current administration, and two, that the current administration and Congress either does not put weight on things that are “science/evidence-based” or believes these types of projects to be ideologically opposed to them by default.
Each of these possibilities is mildly frightening, seeing as this type of behavior and rhetoric is often seen in populist parties that are in power in pseudo-democratic regimes. Looking first at self-censorship by the bureaucracy, we can see the beginnings of a clear tension between career civil servants, and a new, less democratic administration. The entire bureaucracy is supposed to be nonpartisan in its work, and these actions clearly show that at a minimum, the language and documentation coming out of their offices is not being affected by what the current administration deems “favorable” to their policy objectives. This censorship of potential “trigger words” by CDC staffers is a relatively new occurrence, and some have guessed that it may be a haphazard attempt to guess at what the White House might spot and be turned off by.
This then leads us to question, why is it these words that were deemed so worrisome? In particular, why would an organization that is constantly utilizing science and factual evidence avoid the terminology that describes that kind of evidence? One possibility is that the staff members who suggested the avoidance of these words in budget proposals understood the new lack of regard for scientific evidence by members of Congress. Now more than ever we see individuals from the Trump administration speaking about vaccines, climate change, and medical practices without acknowledging the vast amounts of scientific data that refute their claims. In turn, deeming something as “science-based” or “evidence-based” could be viewed innately as something that is ideologically opposed to the right’s political agenda.
Both of these possibilities denote another subtle shift away from democracy and another subtle shift towards more populist rhetoric by the Republican Party. Self-censorship by opposition, the general public, journalists, and civil servants is a token sign of democratic erosion, and while this is just a small step in that direction, it warrants continued attention as more organizations begin to make their budgeting requests to the Republican controlled Congress. What is critical in this instance, is that this appears to be a more preemptive step by the CDC, rather than a step that they have been forced to take due to censorship scare tactics. Were Congress and the administration to start outright denying funding to projects that utilized this kind of terminology, it could be taken as a sign of more severe censorship to come. For now though, it is important to recognize the fact that those on the inside believe that self-censoring may be the best way to ensure that they are able to gain the necessary funding for their programs.
It is likely that the rhetoric used by the Trump administration both throughout the election and during his first year in office have played a role in what people perceive his party to agree with. Populist parties typically hold themselves above science, and because their platforms are morally based, their claims do not require a scientific backing. The Trump administration has made it clear that, at a minimum, science is not a priority, and in doing so has sidelined many of the scientific initiatives that had been put in place by previous Presidents, such as leaving high level science positions in the White House vacant, and rolling back science-based protections for public health and working standards. These actions have set the stage for additional cuts and rollbacks, as well as more rhetoric that places less value on science, and more value on the ever elusive “right” answer; one that is right only because it is supported by the party in power, and therefore cannot be wrong.
All of these things may be the causes of the self-inflicted “word ban,” but they are likely also indicators of what could potentially come in the future. Shifting resources and priority from science to say, national security, is certainly not akin to a hostile Trump takeover of Washington. However, actions like these can offer critical insight into the direction that our policies are headed, and the precautions that insiders are already taking to make sure that their own, nonpartisan objectives are met.
Photo by Raed Mansour, “CDC”, Creative Commons Zero license