american English

The language of American politics

Tomorrow, on 2nd November, the US are holding mid-term elections which will determine who – Republicans or Democrats – will control Congress for the next two years (for predictions, see here).

As the 2000 Presidential Election spectacularly proved, the American electorate is divided into two camps. On one side are the Democrat-voting blue states, located primarily on the coasts (California and New York, for example) and in the northeast. They are opposed by the Republican red states of the so-called fly-over heartland and the south.

The core voters of each party are known as the base. On the Democrat side this tends to be made up of trade unionists and various interest groups defined by race or social outlook. For red state Republicans the unifying issues tend to be pro-life (anti abortion), anti gun control and pro small government. Democrats often describe themselves as progressives and Republicans as values voters.

How are elections decided? By what happens to a third group of independent voters in swing (or purple) states like Oregon, New Mexico or Ohio. Independents historically have sided with the winning party. These went with Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2008.

What do independents want? This is the key question for electoral strategists. Surveys consistently show that the electorate is more ‘conservative’ than ‘liberal’ or left leaning. That is why there are ‘blue-dog Democrats’ representing many purple districts. Blue dogs define themselves as being more fiscally conservative than the majority of their party and are usually against gun control and – to a lesser extent – abortion.

Republicans also field candidates who are seen as more socially liberal where this better suits the electorate. Examples include Scott Brown – who became a Senator for the Democratic stronghold of Massachusetts in January 2010 or Rudy Giuliani the pro-choice (abortion) former Mayor of New York.

Current polls suggest that the Democrats are quite likely to lose control of the House of Representatives, and could also lose their majority in the Senate. Democrats are pulling out all the stops to stop this happening, with Obama making history by becoming the first president to appear on the Daily Show.


For a short talk on the main differences between the US Republican and Democrat parties (with some listening comprehension activities) see here.

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Kieran McGovern


  • Nothing illustrates the political gulf between the US and Europe better than the way the word “liberal” is used. One of the Republican candidates for the Senate, Pat Toomey, said last week: “We have the most liberal government in history”. In Europe this would generally be seen as a good thing, but he meant it as the worst kind of criticism. He continued: “They are trying to transform us into a European-style welfare state”. For his American audience, Toomey might as well have said “They are tryng to transform us into a Stalinist dictatorship” – but, again, to a European, the term “welfare state” is overwhelmingly positive. When it comes to politics, we really don’t speak the same language.

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