Maybe it seems like petty politics, or junior high-ish. You accept it because it has become the norm. But it’s a problem that erodes the politics in the United States and it is pervasive, to say the least. Name calling and labeling now constitutes a major problem in the political landscape that serves only to further divide an already fragmented population.
In the American political system, two major parties dominate elections and government at federal, state, and local levels. Both Democrats and Republicans have a desire to implement the policies they believe to be best for the nation. To achieve that end, these parties must first win elections, and that’s tricky. In that pursuit of electoral victories, our parties have engaged in name calling campaigns that would make a sailor blush (okay, not that bad, but you get the idea).
So let’s take a look at some of the more popular pejoratives in American politics!
The liberal names
Marxist / socialist / communist — The go-to insult for conservatives. They have used this label for nearly 150 years as a means of terrifying Americans that capitalism is on the way out and government will soon seize the means of production. It’s also a misnomer because the three terms are not interchangeable. If a person believes the government should control key aspects of society, that does not make them a communist. It also ignores the fact that American society has a number of socialist programs which benefit people and provide common goods.
Elitist — When conservatives use this, they are referencing men and women who are highly educated. The idea behind this pejorative is to mock academics as far removed from most of society. The irony is that conservatives themselves are often just as ‘elite’ in terms of their income and education level.
Snowflake — The term comes from the fact that scientists estimate that no two snowflakes are alike, signaling a uniqueness in the world. Conservatives critique the approach of telling young people they are special and unique. The world can sometimes be harsh and there are some individuals who are not prepared for adulthood, and conservatives mock this shattering of the ideal. When young people object to the harsh realities of society or express their difficulty in dealing with the world, conservatives mock them for it.
“Fake news” — This phrase isn’t necessarily directed at a person, but it can be. Former President Donald Trump used this term frequently to describe a news report he didn’t like or portrayed him in a negative light. He later ascribed it to media outlets he didn’t view favorably.
The conservative names
Fascists or Nazis — The liberal answer to being called a Marxist is to refer to conservatives as fascists or Nazis. Any time government officials undertake a more conservative approach to aa policy, this is the label it receives. It conjures up images of Hitler and his black-shirted henchman marching through the streets of America or maybe a dystopian television show, a la The Handmaid’s Tale. (Check out Godwin’s Law for entertaining reading.)
Religious nut / fundamentalist / zealot — The use of these names take aim at conservative religious groups (Baptists and Mormons, of note) who often align themselves with conservatives in political matters. The liberal segment of society would have the nation believe we are somehow on the edge of a theocracy that would make Iran look kind. Someone should tell the liberal crowd that most churches aren’t like Westboro Baptist.
Bigot / homophobe / racist / misogynist — I lumped these terms in the same category because they are all aimed at conservative perspectives on society. Liberals know these terms are strongly charged because they point to the hatred of an entire group of people. It attempts to establish a binary of us versus them, and unfairly characterizes a large swath of Americans as bitter, hateful people. Does anyone truly think Republicans have a meeting of party officials and ponder, “how can we discriminate against women this year?” The irony is that liberals often want to avoid such stereotypes.
“The wrong side of history” — In many instances, liberal operators want citizens to believe that failure to enact their policies will cause future generations to ridicule them and view them unfavorably. This presumes that liberals are on the correct side of history, and ignores the fact that our perspectives on history change over time.
Why do the two sides engage in this behavior?
It wins elections. We appeal to the fears of human beings because it’s effective. Fear is a powerful motivator, especially when one side frames the other as an existential threat to a way of life. In the sense that both major ideologies want to win elections, this tactic helps. Anyone who examines the 2016 Trump Presidential Campaign will see the effectiveness of labeling opponents: Lyin’ Ted, Crooked Hillary, Low Energy Jeb, etc. Thought it’s disgusting, this rallies people behind someone they believe represents them.
We like binaries. It’s us against them. When we characterize complex problems with a simple choice of good guys versus bad guys, we typically will pick a side. Most people find it difficult to research a topic, learn the nuances of stakeholders, and consider the ramifications of various policies. Not only can it be difficult to understand, but it requires time to process information and genuinely eliminate biases. When we only have two choices placed before us, the situation becomes less complex and humans love the path of least resistance.
We like justification for our preconceived thoughts. No one wants to accept that they might be wrong about a belief, and this is even more true when the belief is a long held idea. If we establish the opposing perspective as somehow mean spirited, evil, or anti-American, it becomes that much easier to call them names and ignore their views. It’s a form of dehumanization.
Social media makes it easy. When so much of our discourse takes place online instead of in front of another human being, you don’t really feel bad for calling them a name. It’s a faceless window you’re criticizing and not a human being with feelings, problems, or a unique life which led them to their beliefs. On social media platforms, you zing someone and people react to your witty one-liner, but they rarely take time to respond. You didn’t win the argument, you didn’t ‘own’ anyone. Our words do more to alienate others rather than win them to our cause. Also, people use words online that wouldn’t hold up in a face to face conversation.
Problems which result from the name-calling
Applying labels is the quick and easy path, and while it can prove effective in winning elections or manipulating the public, it negatively affects us.
Name-calling affects how we view our political opposites, and it bleeds into life beyond the political. This is consequence of the fact that social media has multiplied the problem. Everyone now possessed a megaphone to the world. People from nearly anywhere on the planet can tune in and read what you believe about any topic. We treat people as less than human when we ridicule them.
We pigeonhole the other side. When you categorize human beings into a broad based category, you make a blanket presumption about the entirety of a person, predicated upon a brief statement. Everyone else is neatly framed as simplistic, placed in their box, and easily dismissed as not being ‘in the know.’ Simultaneously, we see ourselves as complex people, applying so much nuance to our views, and if people just could see inside our heads, they would understand. We have a tendency to judge entire groups of people on their worst representatives.
Political discourse grinds to a halt. No one likes being called names or shouted down, so they stop engaging. When people do not discuss their ideas or perspectives, how can the possibly create solutions to the problems of the nation? How can a person claim to understand the opposition when they have not listened to perspective?
The constant use of labels desensitizes us towards genuine dangers to our democracy. The townspeople ignored boy who cried ‘wolf’ when real danger finally arrived. So, too, do we ignore certain terms because they have become so ubiquitous. They have lost their meaning. The snap reaction of calling someone a fascist or a communist has occurred so often, no one takes it seriously anymore.
Polarization of our parties and ideologies naturally follows from name-calling and lack of discussion. The disregard shown to a person for expressing any different idea pushes them further into the other ‘tribe.’
We vote for morons. The polarization, lack of discourse, and the refusal to consider others as human beings means we vote for people based on the party they represent rather than their ability to represent the people. People elect shills for their party rather than good men and women. This is how the likes of Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, and Marjorie Taylor Greene hold office in the United States.
Gridlock becomes normal. Governments at all levels become unable to effectively create and implement policies because they often need to control the executive and legislative branches to pass legislation. When governments do not pass legislation, the people suffer.
So, what do we do about it?
We cannot sit idly, that’s for certain. While one person may wonder what they can do, they have the ability to affect change. That’s the subject of the next post.