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Talk the Talk: English Speech Is Within Your Reach

This week: Talk the Vote
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 left, Carl?
Carl: Real funny, Dad.
Emma: Well, Carl, he's right, isn't he?
Carl: Whatever.
Milt: So, who you votin' for?
Carl: For President?
Milt: No, for class clown. Of course for President! Crissakes...
Carl: Alright, alright! I'm voting for Gore.
Emma: You are?
Milt: Whaddaya, crazy?
Emma: Yeah!
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 for you...
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 Bush!
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, socialists, 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 frustration.

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 campaign staff

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 counted inaccurately.

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 political process. 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

This week: Idioms and Imagery
Back Issues
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Shop Talk

Talk Turkey

Talk The Vote


Spanish Roots: Why American English Is American (II)

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Native Roots: Why American English Is American (I)

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