“Being politically correct means always having to say you’re sorry…”
is the editorial/admin staff of Creative Politics, and the pen name used for the original Federalist Papers making the case for the US Constitution in the 1780s. The founders of Creative Politics are a father and son team, both left-handed.
Our very first post on Creative Politics was about political correctness, which we defined fairly far outside the ballot box. To us “political correctness” should be about what’s right for politics, politics as it should be, and in the current environment it’s politics that needs correcting, more than people. We presented a series of words and phrases in politics that we found to be particularly corrosive to the political process–and why, then proposed alternatives for each, as if we ourselves were in the trenches of political correctness as commonly understood.
We also invited members of the community to propose more phraseology that needed to be changed so we could believe in political sausage again, which we’ve been gathering, even as other nasties have continue to bubble up from the shiny city in a swamp. As they did so, we kept adding them to the original piece, because a signature aspect of CP is that what gets written here doesn’t stay written. Our articles are never finished–it’s the only way we can get our creative writers, for whom perfectionism comes with the territory, to let go of them.
Part of our Talk, Talk, Talk series, with the premise that creativity in politics begins with words. About political phrases that belong in time-out, mantras and mottos for our time, emojis we could use, neologisms needed, and much more, all with dialog–with you–built in.
Then we decided to make Real Correct the first essay we published on Medium and had ourselves a ‘Michael Bennet in New Hampshire‘ moment when Medium informed us, and everyone else on the platform who might stumble across us, that our piece was “a 21 minute read.” Which is Internet for “a 0 minute read.” So we’ve decided to take the sunny day flood of rhetorical flourishes that have been spilling over since Correct was written and rechannel them here, where the muddy waters can rise for a bit. As with the original, we present more words and phrases–this time mainly from you–that need to be banned from impactful discourse, why, and what they should be replaced with. If you’ve got a political term of “art” you’d like to see jetsomed, send it to us here and we’ll add it to the flotsam:
“What about.” It’s more than fair to point out hypocrisy in policymaking–for example, a political party that decries deficits running them up in the trillions–and it’s equally fair to point out to followers of a particular political persuasion how they would be reacting if the leader of the opposing party said or did what their own dear leader just said or did. But that’s not what “whataboutism” is about, is it? It’s about justifying the bad behavior of someone you favor on the grounds that it’s no worse than the actions of some politician on “the other side.” It’s nothing less than a morbid race to the bottom of political behavior, to the lowest uncommon denominator. All because the “whataboutist” has apparently forgotten the second most basic rule required to live together in a society, right after ‘do unto others:’ two wrongs don’t make a right. Replacement: “Yes, that was wrong.” Period.
“Optics.” Whenever a modern politician says they’re doing something to “avoid even the appearance of impropriety,” you know that the “appearance” is just the tip of a very dirty berg of unethical behavior. In the same vein, “optics” has become the go-to term of art for political subordinates who know that appeals to common decency or any level of morality will elide off their bosses’ ears, if for other reason than the word comes complete with a professional glaze that plainer phraseology (e.g. “looks bad”) does not. Replacement: “the right thing to do” or “just plain wrong,” depending on what kind of ‘optics’ are being described.
“Misleading.” In a political context, this characterization of erroneous statements has become superannuated by 21st century information flow. The first time a politician says something factually incorrect, it would be healthier and more appropriate to assume they don’t really have superpowers we lack (to deal with the volumes of ‘content’ they encounter) instead of just assuming/implying malign intent, which cheapens the real thing. Changing our perspective in this way would be both more comforting (they aren’t such bad people) and more scary (they’re flying blind), and highly salubrious in both regards. It would also allow us to justly tag and punish habitual offenders with a badly needed warning label far worse than ‘Machiavellian’ in America today: incompetent.
On the other hand, if a politico persists in repeating the same false information, even in the face of that same information flow slapping and clapping back at them, whether they believe their own B.T. (or not) is functionally irrelevant in the fast-moving scheme of things; to think otherwise is akin to solving prison overcrowding by releasing every inmate who ‘genuinely’ believes they’re innocent. Instead we should take the rare opportunity to establish a clear and even more badly needed state of play where truth and truthfulness are concerned, not to mention finally put ‘three strikes and you’re out’ to good use. Replacements: “mistake/mistaken” for the first two times a false claim is made, “lie/lying” thereafter–no exceptions.
“Entitlements.” Points for great framing here by the elites, because everyone knows that being or feeling “entitled” is bad; in fact, thanks mainly to the behavior of said 1-10 percenters, it’s become the key word in the definition de jour of the body part that almost rhymes with fazol. It’s time for the wealthy and their companies in this country to acknowledge and accept that nothing they have would’ve been possible if it weren’t for the “little people,” who are only asking for a fraction of their fair share in return. Replacement: “[national] debts”
“Norms.” One of the secrets to the success of the American experiment is that what’s not in the Constitution is as important as what is. It’s what’s made ours an adaptable, flexible, and dynamic political economy, rather than a rigid, over-regulated, micromanaged EU technocracy. What makes this possible are norms, defined by Webster as “1. An authoritative standard. 2. A principle of right action binding upon the members of a group and serving to guide, control, or regulate proper and acceptable behavior.”
If you thought norms were something more like preferred options in the political buffet, and/or had never even heard the word before 2017, it’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. The Trump administration has flaunted norm after norm so effortlessly and shamelessly, and its enablers in the media have deployed the term so fecklessly in response, that the word has been fatally deprived of all meaning and teeth. Replacement(s): Governing morals, democratic or constitutional principles, shared understandings.
“But.” We can’t, and don’t want to get rid of this word everywhere, just in political discourse. Because we can always hear the “but” coming in politics, can’t we? –it’s become as superfluous as “and” or “or” in a Google search. Sometimes before the butters even open their chilly mouths, and especially whenever they’re saying anything that’s actually refreshing, noises that signify they might sincerely be ready to engage with those who disagree. From the moment we can visualize it on the horizon, we’re just waiting for it, in growing irritation, knowing that everything that’s come before it has been and will be just a pro forma waste of our precious time, because the “but” is the clean dividing point between what the speaker considers real and what they don’t, a u-turn on the bridge over their political Missouri, west to east, desert to promised land.
Imagine if every time a politician or anyone talking about politics had to say “and” instead of “but.” This is hardly an original thought, but it’s a founding principle of the post-modern fount of originality known as improv. In an era of increasingly rapid change, so much of our daily life is becoming improv, too, and on both stages and fields of play, it’s the closest thing to magic most of us will ever experience. In politics, “and” would mean having to acknowledge and speak to two realities of equal weight; it would mean having to speak of solutions that address, in synthesis, the concerns that arise from both; it would mean actually having to be “fair and balanced.”
“Counterpuncher.” It feels like the signature move of a true tough guy, and maybe it is, if your admiring definition of toughness includes massacring hundreds of innocent civilians in your own public square. Leaving aside the question of whether a metaphor of violence should ever be used in the context of political debate, consider the context in which this term, in particular, is inevitably used. Someone has just been asked whether a person in power’s response to a critic is justified. And why is the question being asked? Because the response in question seems disproportionate to the criticism and the power relationship between the two parties, in fact so disproportionate that “he’s a counterpuncher” is really the only thing that can be said in defense. Which makes the word or phrase that should be used instead even more of a no-brainer than the original offense. Replacement: “Punching down.”
“Illiberal.” What’s with the “liberal” media’s never-ending quest to find realpolitik euphemisms to describe governments we ought to oppose, as if attempting something of a secret handshake with the powers-that-behind? Given the proclivities of the governments described with this word, the average American could be excused for thinking it just means “conservative” or, at worst, “against the libtards.” But on close–or any–inspection, illiberal governments like Hungary’s and Poland’s aim to stifle the free press, crush the independence of the judiciary, and destroy other hallmarks of constitutional democracy. Technically, this does make them “illiberal,” though only because the conservative thing to do in today’s world would be to become a liberal, based on how both ideologies were originally defined. Confused? That’s the idea, because the would-be dictators being draped with the word are not conservative; they’re un-American. Replacement: “authoritarian,” like we used to call them even if they were “tilting towards the West.”
“Unconventional,” “unorthodox,” “disruptive.” Far be it from us to discourage creativity, but here’s a test to use to determine the proper deployment of words like these in the political sphere. Can you call the process or policy that sparked these utterances innovative? With a straight face, that is. Or would you reach for the word atrocious first? Like “stubborn,” these three descriptors are all words that have a peculiarly well-deserved positive cachet in American culture. And what our moms taught us about what to say when we can’t say something nice should apply to what’s true as well–especially with respect to adjectives, which are always optional–rather than gratuitously adding spin that’s not been earned. Replacement(s): either “creative” OR “grotesque,” depending. Or nothing at all, if we’re genuinely unsure, which should probably be more often than we are.
“The base.” It sounds like something solid, a solid foundation, grounded; something you can build on. Take a look at the guys in the picture on the right. Do they look like a solid foundation, grounded in any way? And if you don’t think they’re typical, you haven’t been to a rally lately. Meanwhile, the liberal base may not look like this, but be honest, passionate liberal friends, you’re like these guys in your heads and social media plenty, and to be fair, so are radical centrists like us. But our media, many of whom seem to have grown up wanting to be sportscasters, can’t seem to help falling all over themselves as they explain, like Sunday afternoon color men, how well something totally outrageous (not in a good way) is “playing to the base.” As if the other 60-70% of the country doesn’t matter. Replacement(s): “extremists,” “idiologues.”
“All’s fair.” Along with “politics ain’t beanbag,” “war by other means,” “bloodsport,” and every other expression used by the fourth-and-one estate when they treat politics as a game because they aren’t willing to put in the work (or, in the case of their corporate overlords, the investment) to make the issues our country faces, and the possible solutions to them, more ‘must-see’ than play-by-play.
Politics isn’t really a game at all, unless you really believe that after every donnybrook between your favorite team and its top rival, an actuarily prescribed number of the losers’ fans should be shot. People die because of decisions made by our politicians. The qualities we admire in a great football team–lock-step discipline, gamesmanship, a take-no-prisoners attitude–are not what we should be instructed to view with awe in the body politic. And to those who laugh with barely suppressed glee at fellow citizens who get taken in by the cons (e.g. the ‘dumb suckers’ who try to vote by text because someone pretending to be their candidate told them to), we say: in the long run the joke will be on you, though unfortunately some of the political pie in your face is going to end up all over the rest of us. If you really believe caveat emptor should apply to our nation’s most sacred founding rite, you no longer believe we are a nation. Replacement: “E pluribus unum,” always.
Creative Politics is the world’s first community-based political incubator, synthesizing the best of liberal and conservative ideals with technology and history to generate policies, strategies, applications, and actions for the post-modern era that are well outside the beltway, and well beyond just talk. All Creative Politics blog posts are collaborative, living documents, the way Madison and Hamilton would create them if they were writing The Federalist today. We welcome, nay urge, your feedback in the comment/discussion section below, and will be using it (with credit) to make what you just read more and more real–thanks much for your time and insights; they will go unpunished!