American political discourse: a primer

Posted by on January 17, 2012

The run-up to a general election in the United States provides an opportunity for observers of English to see it stretched beyond ordinary limits. The winnowing process that will reduce the various Republican contenders in the race to one has begun and as we plod steadily toward the November election, the rhetoric heats up and we may be tempted to ask, as Alice did of Humpty-Dumpty: “The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

Speakers of English who did not grow up in the US may be nonplussed by the recurrence and special emphasis that a few words receive in debate rhetoric: the words are familiar, but the vehemence with which they are bandied about might make you wonder what gives the candidates such animation. The key to understanding this phenomenon lies in the special meaning that a handful of words carry in American politics. Here are a few watchwords that, when used by a candidate for office, may contain meaning or connotation that goes a bit beyond what you will find in a dictionary.

socialist and socialism: Throughout much of the 20th century, and culminating in the McCarthy era witchhunts of the 1950s, communism inspired fear and panic among Americans; it was portrayed as the most tyrannical form of government, and the antithesis of freedom and the American Way. When Soviet and European communism died with a whimper in the late 20th century, there was a need for a new bogeyman, and socialism quickly filled the void. So while Americans today uphold many of the virtues espoused by socialism – such as equality of opportunity and state financing of essential infrastructure and services – being labeled as socialist, or promoting socialism, is equivalent to being called un-American. Not surprisingly, a favorite missile aimed toward president Obama from all of the Republican candidates is that he is a socialist and aims to move the US towards socialism.

liberal: If you read through the several definitions of liberal in the Macmillan Dictionary, you would conclude that being liberal, or even being a liberal, is a Good Thing, and you might consider that you are one yourself. But in American politics, you never want to own the label, and if you are accused of it, the usual thing to do is ignore it or supply as much evidence to the contrary as you can. Americans value liberty (a related word) and personal freedoms perhaps more than any other people in the world, but in politics, liberal is an economical code word meaning “someone who promotes, demands, or gets too much freedom, which will lead to the destruction of society, and I don’t want my taxes to pay for that.”

agenda: the main meaning of agenda is “all the things that need to be done” and so you would think that politicians would embrace the word – they like to be perceived as people that get things done. But there is also a subsidiary meaning of agenda, sense 1a in the Macmillan Dictionary: “a plan that is kept secret.” For this reason, American candidates for office don’t usually talk about their own agendas, for fear of suggesting that they have a secret one. But they talk freely about their opponents’ agendas, and when this happens you can be sure that it’s sense 1a you’re hearing about, or perhaps something even more sinister, along the lines of “something you would hate to see happen in this great country.”

welfare: the preamble to the US constitution states that the document is established, among other reasons,  to “promote the general welfare” – and by that it means “the health and happiness of people.” But that’s not the welfare that candidates for office talk about. They mean something a little closer to Macmillan Dictionary definition 1a, “money given to people who do not have work or who are in need.” It’s likely that what they really mean is something along the lines of “money that the government takes from hardworking taxpayers and doles out to feckless and lazy people who can’t be bothered to earn a living.” Thus, modern American politicians do not promote welfare.

Europe and European: Americans are aware of the fun things about Europe – castles and what not – and they’re wild about European fashions, styling, design, and other consumables. But the Europe that politicians talk about these days is not that place at all. It is a scary place, riddled with debt crises, street riots, monetary chaos, and – yes, you guessed it – socialism run amok. President Obama is regularly accused of wanting to make the United States “more like Europe” and the accusers don’t mean that he wants to build more castles, or insure that money spent prudently on health care actually contributes to better health outcomes, such as you find in many European countries. They mean that his agenda is to create a liberal European socialist welfare state.

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Comments (10)
  • Thanks, Orin – a great introduction to the mysteries of U.S. politics. Your last section (on Europe) helps to explain something that puzzled me the other day. When one of the Republican candidates, Newt Gingrich, ran an ad criticizing the front-runner Mitt Romney, one of the charges against Romney was that ‘just like John Kerry, he speaks French!’ Apparently, knowing a foreign language is almost tantamount to treason. I’d guess that in most countries, this would be seen as a point in the candidate’s favour. At any rate, we’d all be out of a job if people took that view about learning English.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 17th January, 2012
  • Thanks Michael. The “he speaks French” bit was picked up by some media commentators as a particularly embarrassing snapshot of American culture. I think it stems from two things: the Republicans trying to win the very lowest end of the electorate, who are suspicious of anything they don’t know themselves, and the fact that it is now possible to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigning anonymously (because of the new “Superpacs”).

    Posted by Orin Hargraves on 17th January, 2012
  • Let’s not forget a new coinage, “job creator.” All the multi-millionaires the GOP candidates want to shield from paying any more taxes are all of a sudden “job creators.” This, despite the fact that loads of jobs were created under Clinton when the 1 percent were taxed at a higher rate…..

    Posted by Phil Frayne on 17th January, 2012
  • Thanks, Phil. Yeah, that one has to be right out of Karl Rove’s playbook; it’s a pity the media doesn’t analyze it more critically. Perhaps, however, the 1%ers can hire more domestics with their tax savings, and this will create jobs, no?

    Posted by Orin Hargraves on 17th January, 2012
  • “Liberal” in American economic/political discourse does NOT mean “demanding too much freedom”; it’s actually used as a synonym for “social-democratic/statist”. The European term ‘neoliberal economics’ is translated into American as “conservative economics.”

    Posted by Joe DeStreter on 17th January, 2012
  • A very interesting post!We have discussed it with my students together with my new reading lessons on Aleph by Paulo Coelho.Thank you!

    Posted by Alla on 24th January, 2012
  • Thanks , Orin. This is extremely interesting to rouse my students’ interest in the US presidential elections. I think my American colleague Zoe , who was just about to deal with this very topic in our top class (last year high school), will make the most of your brilliant article.
    To us Italians, American politics represents a riddle because of its caucuses and other such procedures.
    So, thanks again.
    Elena

    Posted by Elena Baldi on 25th January, 2012
  • Thanks for your comment, Elena. US politics is often a riddle even for us Americans! It certainly is interesting this election, and I think it will become more so as the year goes on.

    Posted by Orin Hargraves on 25th January, 2012
  • […] Dictionary blog offered a great primer on American political discourse, while Johnson pondered mixing languages, losing certain types of British accents, and the word […]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words on 27th January, 2012
  • One comment — “Liberalism” also has other connotations, in my experience — it often is taken as indicating “questionable morals” from a conservative Christian point of view. In growing up in such an environment, “liberalism” was like a 4-letter word, e.g. “really bad” ;-).

    Interesting article – thanks! (I’m US-American living abroad, and it’s interesting to get this perspective!)

    Posted by Rebecca Smith on 9th February, 2012
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