by Victor Greeson
With election day coming up on November 7th, you're bound to hear a
lot of talk about politics. Perhaps it's considered impolite to argue about politics
in your home country - particularly if one doesn't know much about politics. As you may
have noticed, neither ignorance nor politeness will inhibit Americans from arguing about
much of anything. Even strangers will sometimes strike up conversations about very controversial
issues with each other. In this week's Talk the Talk, we eavesdrop on an
argument at the Hill family's dinner table about the issues of the day.
If any word or phrase below is unfamiliar to you, just click it.
Emma and hey boyfriend Carl are having dinner with Carl's family - his father Milt, his mother
Maude, and his uncle Joe. This group includes people from all over the political
spectrum. Can you figure out what political party each person
belongs to? The answers are at the bottom of this article.
Milt: Hi kids - have a seat. I guess you'll be sitting on the
Carl: Real funny, Dad.
Emma: Well, Carl, he's right, isn't he?
Milt: So, who you votin' for?
Carl: For President?
Milt: No, for class clown. Of course for President!
Carl: Alright, alright! I'm voting for Gore.
Emma: You are?
Milt: Whaddaya, crazy?
Carl: What is this - a witch hunt?
Maude: [laughs] Well, if it is, I'll be hunted, too! I think
Gore is a fine candidate.
Milt: [to Carl] Of course, your mother is a
yellow-dog Democrat. But I had higher hopes
Emma: [looks at Milt, startled] Uh, why are we agreeing?
Milt: Oh, you know me - I'm a GOP man. But I had no idea
you had come to your senses, Emma.
Emma: Ah, no. I'm voting for Nader, myself. [to Carl]
But why are you turning reactionary on me?
Carl: "Reactionary"? I'm just a realist. It's not like I'm voting for
Milt: Hey! [turning to Emma] But, Emma, do you honestly think Nader
has a chance of winning?
Emma: Well, I think it depends on how he handles his campaign.
The polls show...
Maude: [interrupting] Polls don't matter - it's what goes into the
ballot boxes when the people go in to pull
the lever. Remember "Dewey defeats Truman!"
Emma: [sighs] Not that it matters - the whole electoral system
is rigged to favor the establishment.
Uncle Joe: Now, see, that's good sense! Emma, the fact that you see something in Carl
is a point in his favor, even if he is selling out the working class.
Carl: Uncle Joe! [looks around the table for support] Someone stop him before he
starts singing "Solidarity Forever"! [to Uncle Joe]
You know, not everyone who isn't wearing overalls is an imperialist.
Emma: What's wrong with "Solidarity Forever"?
Milt: [scowls over at Uncle Joe] I'll have no talk of revolution at my table!
Carl: Chill out, Dad - it's only politics.
Americans usually make a crude classification of political positions
along an imaginary line that runs from the left to the right,
though most will admit that this is over-simplified. People on the right (or
the right wing) are,
generally speaking, conservative, concerned with the preservation of tradition and
established institutions, and enthusiastic about business, law enforcement, the
military, and guns. People on the left (the left wing) are relatively
liberal, in favor of government-run social programs, pro-labor, oriented toward reform
and progress, and concerned with fixing
inequalities. "Wing" in this case is not meant in the sense of a bird's wing, but in the sense of
the wing of a building. These terms originated from seating arrangements in the French Assembly.
Both the Democratic and Republican parties are considered centrists,
and the current thinking of these parties usually defines the political center.
Opinions close to this center are considered moderate, while those opinions
that are very different are considered extremist.
People on the left will commonly label someone
with very right-wing views as reactionary. If someone says
they are progressive, they mean that they are further to the left than
liberals. Radicals are even further to the left.
The two largest parties in the U.S. are the Republican Party
and the Democratic Party.
The Republican Party is also known as the GOP, which stands for
"Grand Old Party". Both parties
are traditionally represented by animals - a donkey for the Democrats, and an
elephant for the Republicans.
The Democrats are to the left of the Republicans, though not by much.
Other parties are considered third parties,
no matter how many of them there are. Right now, the most visible third parties
include the Green Party, which
might be compared to the British Labour Party of the 1970s, or to the Social Democratic parties
found in other countries, with a particular emphasis on environmental issues; the
Libertarian Party, which is against a large, intrusive
government, and generally against taxes, but against full-scale anarchism; and the
Reform Party, founded by Ross Perot, which is currently in disorder.
It is rather difficult to say where on the political spectrum the Reform
Party should be placed - both because the idea of a "spectrum" is simplistic,
and because of the nature of the Reform Party.
At the extreme right (or far right) are
fascists, nazis, the Christian Identity movement, the Ku Klux Klan, and (some would say) Pat Buchanan.
Oddly enough, some
anti-authoritarian groups, like the Libertarian Party, are also considered "right-wing" - largely
because they are pro-business, against labor unions, and oppose spending money on social programs
(they also tend to like guns). At the
extreme left (the far left or leftists) are communists,
collectivist anarchists, most of the good punk bands, and Ted "UnaBomber" Kaczinsky. (Curiously
enough, some of these groups like guns, too.) More moderate parties to the left
of the Democrats include the Green Party, the Peace and Freedom Party, and the New Party. Groups to
the right of the Republicans include the Prohibition Party, the American Independent Party and
the John Birch Society, but these are not considered moderate
groups - in fact, there are few notable groups on the moderate right, mostly because of the
success of the Republican Party in maintaining itself as a coalition of various right-wing groups.
A candidate is a person running for office -
i.e., trying to get elected. It might make the conversation easier to follow
if you keep in mind that the Republican
candidate for President is George W. Bush (son of former President George Bush), the
Democrat is Al Gore, the Green is Ralph Nader, and the Libertarian is Harry Browne. The
Reform Party has split into two factions, one favoring Pat Buchanan, the other favoring John Hagelin,
who is, confusingly, running as the candidate of the Natural Law Party,
an otherwise minor third party.
A partisan is someone who is very strongly attached to their
political party or cause. Loyal party members are also called the party faithful,
or stalwarts. A yellow-dog Democrat is someone who will always
vote for the Democratic candidate, even if the Democrats are running a
yellow dog for President, and the Republicans are running Jesus Christ. A boll weevil
is a bug that eats cotton plants, but the term is also used to refer to a certain type of Southern
Democrat. They are seen as very loyal (for historical reasons), but also more conservative than
most of the Democratic Party.
Real is often used, incorrectly, in place of "really". So Real
funny means "That's really funny" - here, this is sarcastic.
Here, Emma is making a little joke - right can mean "correct",
but in light of what Milt has just said, it also implies that he is right-wing.
Crissakes is a contraction of "for Christ's sake", and is
pretty old-fashioned. You might hear this from an older man, like Milt.
Alright, alright is a way of agreeing with someone out of
Whaddya is a contraction of "what are you" (and sometimes "what do you"), usually found
on the East Coast, around Boston and New York. It's pronounced as: wah-DAH-yah. It's basically an
insult, or at least expresses strong
disagreement with what someone has just said or done. Sometimes it is used by itself:
Whaddaya? But more often, it's followed by some possible thing that you might be -
generally crazy or stupid.
What is a witch hunt? In Europe during the middle ages,
and in colonial America before the Revolution, religious fanatics sometimes would sadistically
torture and kill various
unpopular people in the belief that they were witches, or somehow serving Satan. This hysteria
is still remembered, and the purges of political and cultural dissidents in the U.S. during the
1950s who were accused of being communists (the Red Scare) was called a witch
hunt. Now the term is used for any unreasonable persecution. Clearly, Carl is over-reacting!
When you are trying to get elected, you are running a campaign,
campaigning, or running for office. Your effort as a whole is your
campaign. Sometimes the various people who work on your campaign are
also called your campaign, your campaign workers or your
Polls are surveys taken before an election to see who is
most likely to win. The people who conduct them are called pollsters. The word is
sometimes used to refer to the elections themselves, or to the place at which you vote - which is
also called a polling place.
Whoever is doing well in the polls is called the favorite, or the
front-runner, has the lead, and is leading.
Someone doing badly in the polls is trailing. How well one is
doing in the polls is one's standing. A famous incident involving
the polls happened when the polls favored Dewey so strongly over Truman
that a newspaper went ahead and printed its post-election issue ahead of time, with a BIG
headline reading: "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN!" However, President Truman actually won, and
a famous photograph shows him holding up the newspaper announcing his defeat while he celebrates
his victory, with a wide grin on his face.
Don't confuse the polls with pols, who,
like politicos, are people who are skilled and experienced political manipulators.
Even though many different physical (and even electronic) means are used to
collect people's votes, the language of voting reflects only certain techniques. Maude is using two
conflicting images - one is the paper ballot, which is collected in a ballot
box, and the other is the voting machine with levers that you pull to vote. Even if
you've never used a voting machine, pulling the lever still means
placing your vote. By the way, if someone's stuffing the ballot box,
that means they are geting false votes placed, or are otherwise causing the votes to be
The system is a term mostly used on the left.
It refers to all of the political, economic, cultural, and social structures and relations which,
acting all together, maintain the status quo - the way things are.
Since people on the left disapprove of the status quo, they regard the
system as bad, or even malicious. The establishment is a narrower term, and
refers to specific individuals, families, and organizations which have power. The electoral
system is a complicated topic, but, in short, Americans do not directly elect their President,
but instead vote for electors, each of whom is intended to vote for a particular
Presidential candidate. This group of electors (the
electoral college) actually votes for the President.
Surprisingly, there is a rich language for talking about politicians'
misbehavior. I can only provide a small sample here.
If someone has rigged or fixed an election, it means they
have dishonestly controlled the results. They might buy votes - that is, offer money
for people to vote their way. They might use a political machine - an unofficial
organization that, for example, uses its control of a city government to maintain a party in power.
(Chicago's Democratic Party was once notorious for this.) A party in power can
gerrymander - redraw the boundaries of districts in order to ensure that it gets
more victories in the next election. A member of Congress can cause trouble with a
fillibuster, which is an extended speech given in Congress which goes on for a
very long time with no real purpose, in order to interfere, for strategic purposes, with the normal
Someone who acts against their ideals, or against the interests of their group,
for the sake of some lesser gain is said to have sold out - especially if they changed
for the sake of money. Someone who sells out is a sellout. This is a severe insult. Use with caution!
"Solidarity Forever" is an old labor union song from the early
20th century U.S. labor movement, which was much more radical than today's
labor unions. Some reds (leftists) still identify strongly with this
movement, partially because it was very successful.
Chill out means "calm down" or "relax." Sometimes it's shortened to
just Chill! Another variation is take a chill pill. If you are relaxing, you are
chillin'. Sometimes chillin' also means something like "good" or "admirable."
This is similar to, and probably related to, the use of cool to mean "good," and sometimes
"calm" or "reserved." Someone who is cool has these qualities, and is generally
a finer sort of person. Some feel that these usages go back to certain African languages in which an especially
good work of art, for example, is "cool" - that is, the same word is used as is used for a low temperature.
Did You Guess Correctly?
As it turns out, Carl, like his mother Maude, is an old-style "New Deal" Democrat of the type
that looks back fondly on President Frankln D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Today's Democratic Party
is not as far to the left as such Democrats would like. Milt is, of course, a Republican. Uncle Joe is
a "red" - a Communist. Emma is a member of the Green
Party, but is really more radical than most Greens; she calls herself a progressive, but Milt probably
considers her an anarchist!
Do you still have unanswered questions about this topic -- or
about anything else? Is there something that you would like
to see an article about? Do you have advice, ideas, or experiences
you would like to share with other international students?
Let us know -- send us a message at: CityHall@istudentcity.com