We Need a New Vocabulary For Our Politics

Why have I started this post with a picture of an old telephone? Because I’ve been thinking a lot lately that what we call a “phone” today is nothing like what we used to call a phone. 

I know this is no great revelation, but bear with me for a moment, because I believe there is a strong parallel to be made between this observation and what we are seeing in our current political world, and how we talk about it. 

Simply put, we use vocabulary from the past to talk about the present in a way that can, if we are not careful, be very distorting. Much like the powerful computer/camera/reader/flashlight/alarm clock/tracking device we carry around in our purses or pockets has only a tangential relation to traditional notions of the telephone, the nomenclature we use to reference political parties, the courts, and the other institutions of our civic life is equally tenuous. 

Democrats, Republicans, moderates, liberals, conservatives - we use these terms as if they are rooted and unchanging in their definitions, like, say, mountains, oceans, or apples. But there is a big difference between the words we use to describe the constructions of human society and those we use for nature. When it comes to how we live and interact, we are agents of increasingly rapid change. We use words to try to create common understandings and tie the present to the past. But broad terms cover up the diversity of the human experience, and how things change over time. People live in “homes” all over the world. But a “house” in one place can be very different from a “house” somewhere else. And certainly our homes today are similar but also very different from the houses of the past. 

The conservation of the terms we use for politics distorts how quickly our politics can and has changed. We must remember we are a very young country. Only 245 years (a little over three average modern American lifespans) separates our current time from the Declaration of Independence. For me, at least, that fact never ceases to shock. It resonates how much we have changed, and how quickly. 

We need to really think hard about how antiquated some of our descriptions for our current state of affairs have become. Let’s start with who makes up the citizenship of our country. It is nothing like what it was, even in the not-too-distant past. We are much more diverse, by any metric you could think of. We are also more urban, more educated, and more mobile. And yet there is a strong bias to think of “average Americans” as those who would be conjured up in decades past. Proof of this can be found in the seeming obsession by the political press to hunker down for interviews with voters in rural diners. These Americans are asked their opinion about the direction of the country a lot more than a young immigrant in the Bronx. 

Because political parties are tied to voters, the changes noted above have also led to tremendous change around what it means to be a Democrat and Republican. When I was younger, we talked of the “solid South,” which referred to the lock the Democrats had on the Southern states - a legacy of the Civil War. Looking at present political maps, the red-blue divide looks very different. The South is Republican, which again has a lot to do with race and the legacy of the Civil War, except that the affiliation of the political parties has changed.

In 2020, however, Biden won two Southern states - Virginia (which has become an increasingly blue state) and also Georgia. That’s because states change as well. Both of those states increasingly have become places that draw an educated workforce to cities and suburbs, and this cohort has become more reliably Democratic voters. So yes we can talk about Georgia and Virginia as part of the South, or even part of the original 13 colonies, but what that means for today is different from what it meant in the past. In a counter example, West Virginia was once one of the most Democratic states in the union and now it is one of the most Republican. 

Once one acknowledges all this churn it brings into question some of the other descriptive terminology we tend to use. What really is a conservative, a liberal, a moderate? How can you be a conservative and care nothing about conserving the planet? How can you be called a moderate and do nothing to moderate the greatest assault on democracy in generations? Is it a liberal value to adhere to the science of vaccines? 

This idea of conservative and liberal becomes even more strained when we try to apply it to the courts, particularly the current Supreme Court. We talk about the “conservative” justices, as if they are holding back the mobs to protect the sanctity of the Constitution. In reality they are laying waste to settled Constitutional rights and condoning attacks on our democratic process. Doesn’t seem very conservative to me. 

I would humbly suggest that journalists in particular pay attention to these questions of semantics. Because what you call something matters. It shapes how the public sees reality. The term “liberal” might suggest a movement that is unrestrained, whereas “conservative” might suggest a movement that is secure and grounded. Is that really an accurate portrayal of Democrats and Republicans today? Even the idea of two equal political parties simply vying for votes, Democrats this and Republicans that, is a mischaracterization of what each of these parties has become and how they function. Political parties in our history have had leaders, but they have not been cults of personality. The terminology of a “party” suggests a core set of beliefs, a platform on which candidates run, even if they do not agree on all the issues. But today’s Republicans are less a party than a mass movement with fealty to a would-be authoritarian. They didn’t even try to produce a platform for the 2020 campaign. Instead, their voters, in a party that long championed “family values,” embraced a man who was morally bankrupt. This included a vast majority of white, evangelical voters. Similarly, the party that piously lectured on fiscal responsibility when Democrats wanted to spend money, eagerly opened the checkbook to a grifter. 

It is understandable that we seek to hold on to familiar terms to try to make sense of the present. That’s how language works. We need some common points of comprehension. And languages do evolve. But it takes time. Right now, we don’t have time to sit back and wait. We need to develop the words that accurately describe the dangers we are seeing. We can’t let comfortable euphemisms and terminology cloud out the truths of our moment. To try to come up with new ways to describe our politics is not an easy undertaking, but it is a necessary one. If we hope to accurately diagnose what ails us and find solutions rooted in the current reality, we must let go of the definitions of the past.

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