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U.S. Political Glossary

Contents

1984

approval voting

astroturf

Condorcet’s Method

conservative

corporate welfare

demican

democratic party

fourth estate

free market

grass roots

GOP

green party

greenwash

invisible hand

laissez-faire

left

liberal

market system

meme

myth, mythology

NIMBY

orwellian

political spectrum

progress

progressive

propaganda

proportional representation

public relations (PR)

radical

ranked ballots

religious right

republican party

republicrat

right

SLAPP

SLAPP-back

states rights

tactical voting

terrorism

think tank

two party system

welfare

winner-take-all

states rights

Where appropriate I give both the original definition of terms (e.g. from Miriam-Webster), and the current meaning as used in the United States.

Other sites to check:


1984
Title of a novel by George Orwell.
1984 was meant to be a dark vision of a dystopia thirty-six years into George Orwell’s future that could result from the trends he observed in 1948. As such it was meant to as a warning to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society they should strive after. Unfortunately, Orwell was less than perfectly successful, so while the details are different and less hellish, we are on a path toward Orwell’s 1984 more than we are avoiding it. Our failure to avoid some of Orwell’s vision is the result of our over-simplifying his warning, seeing Stalinism as the primary thing to be avoided. Stalinism was avoided, but nonetheless the fourth estate today emulates to some degree 1984’s Ministry of Truth. Big brother exists, though differently; in 1984 it seems to be an icon of the government (though this is not explicit) somewhat modeled after Joseph Stalin, whereas in 2004 big brother exists in our corporations, who excercise mind control through advertising and public relations (and which to some degree also control the government). Some even see U.S. politics as best described as a one-party system of Republicrats, with two factions, rather than as a real multi-party state. Our language has continues to be 1984ish as well, with doublespeak, euphemism, and dysphemism reflected in and emulating 1984’s Newspeak (Orwell saw this even in 1946). The three slogans of The Party of 1984 are still recognizable in modern politics. The War on Terrorism declared by President Reagan and reinvigorated with the 11 September destruction of the World Trade Center keeps alive the notion of perpetual war and 1984’s slogan War is Peace. Ignorance is Strength often seems to be the motto of the modern fourth estate. Freedom is Slavery could well be the goal of the religious right.
RECOMMENDED READING:
1984 online
Wikipedia entry Nineteen Eighty-Four
approval voting
n. An election procedure where voters may vote for as many of the candidates as they like. The candidate with the most votes wins.
Approval Voting is a superior alternative to standard single-vote plurality (used in most United elections) for winner-take-all elections. It has the advantage of being very simple and about as good as the best procedures.
astroturf
n. ORIGINAL: artificial grass
n. CURRENT: Artificially manufactured movement designed to give the appearance of grass roots.
Astroturf is the creation of the modern public relations industry. It is typically used by corporations to create the appearance of legitimacy for an unpopular position, and thereby stifle opposition or prevent corrective change.
Condorcet’s Method
An election algorithm in which voters order the choices, and a winner is chosen based on the choices that wins the majority of all pairwise elections of the choices.
conservative
n. ORIGINAL: One who tends to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions.
n. CURRENT: One who advocates a radical agenda of change, including demands of conformance to a narrow set of conventions (e.g. social, economic) prescribed by self-appointed spokesmen.
The meaning of conservative has shifted over time. An old-style conservative was one who is skeptical of change, and who prefers a “go slow” approach to change. The original meaning of “conservative” had meaning independent of the political spectrum, but is now simply used – incorrectly in my opinion – as to mean someone from the right, i.e. one of the two dominant parties of the two-party system. The modern meaning of “conservative” has therefore become simply a synonym for a Republican, i.e. an artificial packaging of political views created to help perpetrate the two party system. As such, “conservative” has undergone an about-face to one who demands change from current forms or ways, which are perceived as deeply flawed, toward a set of restrictive social mores coupled with a laissez-faire economic program designed to strengthen the current class system and maintain the power of the existing ruling classes.
corporate welfare
n. Financial assistance given by the government to corporations
Corporate welfare takes many forms, including cash transfers, tax breaks, loans, guarentees, etc. Estimates vary, but most place corporate welfare at many times the size of welfare. Despite its confusing name, corporate welfare is generally not needs based, but rather is determined by the political clout of the recipients.
demican
n. A portmanteau of the words Democrat and Republican.
democratic party
n. One of the two dominant political parties of the United States dedicated to serving its investors by being in power. It affects an ideology so as to attract the votes of a small portion of the electorate. Unrelated to the word “democracy”. The mascot of Democrats is the donkey.
fourth estate
n. the public press
In medieval times the three estates were the clergy, nobility, and commons. (Later, this notion adapted to more modern political governance to represent the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.) The term “fourth estate” was coined by the British politician Edmund Burke (“Burke said there were three Estates in Parliament, but in the Reporters Gallery yonder, there sat a fourth estate more important far than they all.” — Thomas Carlyle) to indicate the importance of the role the press had come to play in society. From this role come rights and responsibilities (the rights recognized for example in the first amendment). The U.S. press however has begun to forsake its responsibilities, and now its role is increasingly split between entertainment, distraction, and propaganda (as in Orwell’s Ministry of Truth). Indeed, the U.S. press has now transformed from monitors of power to stenographers to power.
free market
n. ORIGINAL: An idealized market system based upon the principle of laissez-faire, as, for example, envisioned by Frédéric Bastiat.
n. CURRENT: A market system.
While the use of “free market” is wide-spread, the “free” is meaningless. All market systems are regulated to a large extent.
SEE ALSO: invisible hand
grass roots
n. The basic level of society or of an organization especially as viewed from higher or more centralized positions of power.
Grass roots movements usually spring from individuals without political aspiration, but who are so concerned about a particular issue that they feel compelled to organize like-minded people. As such they are generally the purest purposes found in politics. The success of grass roots movements has led to the creation of its antithesis: “astroturf”.
GOP
abbreviation. Grand Old Party
A moniker of the Republican Party.
green party
Greens are a world-wide movement based on
  • Ecological Wisdom
  • Grassroots Democracy
  • Personal and Social Responsibility
  • Non-violence
  • Decentralization
  • Community-based Economics
  • Postpatriarchal Values
  • Respect for Diversity
  • Global Responsibility
  • Future Focus and Sustainability
There are individual Green Parties in various nations, including the United States.
greenwash
n. Deceptive PR used by polluters to falsely paint themselves an environmentally responsible public image.
RECOMMENDED READING: Toxic Sludge is Good for You!: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry, by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Chapter 9, Silencing Spring.
invisible hand
Adam Smith used the phrase invisible hand just once in Wealth of Nations from which you may infer the meaning:
But the annual revenue of every society is always precisely equal to the exchangeable value of the whole annual produce of its industry, or rather is precisely the same thing with that exchangeable value. As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.
The invisible hand has become perhaps the most famous phrase of economics. It is often generalized to suggest that independent decisions taking into account only one’s self-interest leads to the common good, a notion that is demonstrably false (e.g. the Prisoner’s Dilemma from Game Theory, and Garrett Hardin’s article The Tragedy of the Commons). Nonetheless, Smith’s observation is appropriate and useful in limited contexts, but it should not be turned into a religion, as is sometimes done by Republican party to justify greed.
RECOMMENDED READING: Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith.
laissez-faire
n. A doctrine opposing governmental interference in economic affairs beyond the minimum necessary for the maintenance of peace and property rights.
n. A philosophy or practice characterized by a usually deliberate abstention from direction or interference especially with individual freedom of choice and action.
left
n. A meaningless label for one end of a supposed political spectrum.
n. A non-descriptive label given to one of the two parties of a two party system (e.g. the Democratic Party in the United States).
liberal
adj. Marked by generosity.
n. ORIGINAL: One who is open-minded or not strict in the observance of orthodox, traditional, or established forms or ways.
n. CURRENT: One who seeks to maintain the changes of recent years or limit the erosion thereof.
The dictionary definition of “liberal” has meaning independent of the political spectrum, but is now almost exclusively used — incorrectly in my opinion — as to mean someone from the left. In the U.S. this means one of the two dominant parties of the two-party system. The modern meaning of “liberal” has therefore become simply a synonym for a Democrat, i.e. an artificial packaging of political views created to help perpetrate the two party system. As such, “liberal” has undergone an about-face from someone who is open-minded and non-traditional to someone who seeks to maintain the status quo in the face of efforts to undo the program of past liberals. In addition, the word “liberal” has acquired a negative connotation due the sustained and withering attacks of neo-conservatives. Neo-conservatives use “liberal” as a pejorative to tar their enemies as spend-thrifts of government money, thus capitalizing on the meaning of the English adjective form of the word. The effort to pejoratize the word is also aided by the lack of defenders of the term “liberal”; non-conservative political movements have historically preferred to call themselves “progressive”. In the 18th and 19th century, “liberal” was associated with disciples of John Locke (thus the authors of the U.S. Constitution would have been liberals), who believed in minimalist government (government as a protector of rights, not an instrument of social policy). The association of “liberal” with a more expansive role for government may have begun with the New Deal, since by then laissez-faire had become orthodoxy that was failing under conditions much evolved from those of Locke and the U.S. founders (the corporate age).
market system
n. An economic system whereby decision making is distributed among the market participants, each seeking to maximize his return based on competition with the other market participants.
Market systems have always been regulated to some degree, as a truly free market has never appealed to those in power. Market systems have proved more efficient and responsive to change than systems based upon centralized decision-making.
meme
n. an idea, behavior, style, or usage that reproduces and evolves by spreading from person to person
This word was coined by Richard Dawkins to represent ideas that function in culture, society, and history much as genes function in biological evolution. Just as many competing genes may co-exist within in a species, and vary in frequency within the population according to environmental conditions, so do multiple memes exist and compete for dominance in human society.
RECOMMENDED READING: The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins.
Meme Central
myth, mythology
n. 1 a: traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon
2 a: popular belief, assumption or tradition that has grown up around something or someone, especially one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society
2 b: an unfounded or false notion
These words are applied most often to the beliefs of ancient societies, but they are very relevant to modern societies as well. While sometimes the word is used to imply something untrue, it is most useful in its more generic sense where no comment on the truth or falsehood of the belief is implied. Even when not implying falsehood, these terms may suggest that the belief is arbitrary, rather the result of reason, or that even if the concept is justifiable, that justification is not the source of its belief. Such beliefs are not even recognized explicitly; it would not occur to most to question whether they are true or not, as alternative possibilities are not even conceived. Thus the purpose of using this term to describe modern belief is to point out beliefs or memes that are taken for granted by their society.
RECOMMENDED READING: Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn.
NIMBY
Acronym for “Not In My Back Yard”.
NIMBY movements are true grass roots efforts of like-minded residents of an area who seek to maintain the status quo (e.g. a healthy environment in which to live and raise children) by opposing the development of nearby land (especially for a polluting industry). They could therefore be labelled “conservative” by the original meaning of the term, but in a sign of this Alice in Wonderland world, increasingly their opposition comes from the right, the supposedly “conservative” end of the political spectrum, as the right seeks to promote corporate rights (e.g. the right to pollute and make money) over the rights of people (e.g. the right to health). NIMBY movements are often attacked by corporations with SLAPP suits. A frequent criticism of NIMBY movements is that they don’t get the big picture, which is true, but not in the way the industry means. The industry means to threaten that if everyone opposed industry in their backyard, there would be no industry. The truth is that if everyone opposed pollution in their backyard, there would be industry without pollution. NIMBY movements do however miss the big picture in that they only oppose pollution in their back yards, and not everywhere. NIMBY movements are also criticized by industry for using pollution concerns as a screen for their real concern about property values. This may be true in a few cases. Still on the whole they are a very positive force.
orwellian
adj. Resembling the society described in Orwell’s novels 1984 or Animal Farm.
political spectrum
n. An imaginary continuum of political thought ranging from the right to the left.
An simplistic attempt, utterly without merit, to simplify the multi-dimensional space of political choices into a single dimension, so as to aggregate political power from one cause to another by encouraging a person like-minded on one issue to adopt the other issues of a group. The ridiculousness of one-dimensional characterization of political choice is best seen when the adherents of the spectrum are forced to assign widely divergent systems points on the spectrum, such as when fascism and communism are assigned to the “ultra-right” and “ultra-left” respectively, when in fact they have more in common with each other than they do with the political thought assigned to nearby points of the spectrum.
RECOMMENDED READING: The Political Mind, by George Lakoff
progress
n. gradual betterment; especially : the progressive development of mankind.
Progress is loosely defined, but there is a very strong need for a metric so that the success of government and society can be measured and the results used to guide future actions. In the absence of accepted measures of progress, GDP is sometimes substituted, but GDP is completely inappropriate for this purpose, as it treats negatives as positives in its sum.
RECOMMENDED READING: Redefining Progress
progressive
adj. Of, relating to, or characterized by progress.
adj. Making use of or interested in new ideas, findings, or opportunities.
n. One believing in moderate political change and especially social improvement by governmental action.
propaganda
n. The spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.
n. Ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause. Also, a public action having such an effect.
Propaganda is the primary method used by the powerful to control the populace (both electorate and consumers). Propaganda originates in many places (including the government, politicians, corporations, public relations firms, and news organizations), but increasingly comes from think tanks. Propaganda products from think tanks (sometimes called “white papers”) used to be primarily to influence those that the public listens to, but is now often to be heard word for word from the lips of news casters and politicians. Propaganda is not necessarily false, but it is always one sided.
RECOMMENDED READING: Manufacturing Consent, by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky.
Toxic Sludge is Good for You!: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry, by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton.
proportional representation
An alternative to winner-take-all elections that gives representation to minority interests in an elected body. It is unlikely to be adopted in the United States because it would threaten the two party system.
public relations (PR)
n. The business of inducing the public to have understanding for and goodwill toward a person, firm.
To the above “person, firm” should be added countries, dictators, and ideas, as public relations firms are increasingly paid to promote these as well. Public relation firms are in business to make money, and promote what they are paid to promote, often by questionable means.
RECOMMENDED READING: Toxic Sludge is Good for You!: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry, by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton.
SEE ALSO: PR Watch
radical
adj. Marked by a considerable departure from the usual or traditional. Tending or disposed to make extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions. Advocating extreme measures to retain or restore a political state of affairs.
“Radical” sometimes has a negative connotation because the strength of conviction of many radicals has led some to act outside of the law. However, radicals have often been at the forefront of progress; one era’s radical becomes a later era’s hero and their policies accepted as tradition.
ranked ballots
n. A ballot where the voter ranks the choices in order of preference. For example, the voter would label her first choice with 1, her second choice with 2, etc.
Ranked ballots gather significantly more information from the voters than common pick one of N choices ballots. Coupled with a good algorithm for choosing the winners (e.g. a Condorcet method), ranked ballots minimize tactical voting and the distortions that brings to elections. Ranked ballots are not widely used in the U.S. and their adoption is difficult because they would slightly weaken the two-party system. There are many methods for deciding the outcome of a ranked ballot election; a popular one, but inferior to Condorcet methods, is instant-runoff voting (IRV). IRV is still better than first past the post voting, however.
religious right
n. That faction of the right that advocates a strict set of mores for the entire nation.
The term “religious right” is a double dissonance. They are neither particularly religious in the true sense of the word, as the things they advocate have less to do with theology and faith than adherence to an arbitrary cultural norm, nor are they particularly well aligned with the rest of the right. Religious is not synonymous with demanding the conformance of others to a strict set of mores. The religious right claims to espouse Christian values, but their political agenda has more to do with old testament values than new testament values. To be successful at promoting their theology, religions do incorporate cultural and societal norms into their teachings, a fact that seems to confuse some in the religious right into thinking that their mores should be universally followed. While aligned with the right (alignment with one of the two parties being required by the two party system), there is significant tension between this faction and others of the right, whose primary task is to serve corporations and the rich.
republican party
n. One of the two dominant political parties of the United States dedicated to serving its investors by being in power. It affects an ideology so as to attract the votes of a portion of the electorate. Unrelated to the word “republic”. The symbol of the Republican Party is an elephant.
republicrat
n. A portmanteau of the words Republican and Democrat.
The coinages Republicrat and the analogous but less frequent Demican are used to symbolize the one-party nature of U.S. politics, when it comes to issues on which the dominant parties of the two-party system agree. Such agreement (e.g. the 2003 invasion of Iraq) means such issues are essentially relagated to the sidelines of public discussion. In this view of things, Republicrats is then the name of the single U.S. political party, and the Republicans and Democrats are seen as factions of this one-party system, rather than as true independent parties.
n. A meaningless label for one end of a supposed political spectrum.
n. A non-descriptive label given to one of the two parties of a two party system (e.g. the Republican Party in the United States).
SLAPP
n. Acronym for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation”. A lawsuit without merit filed to intimidate individuals that speak out or raise issues contrary to the interests of the powerful.
SLAPP suits have been a major weapon of the powerful against the people. Fortunately SLAPP-back suits appear to provide some remedy.
RECOMMENDED READING: No Contest : Corporate Lawyers and the Perversion of Justice in America, by Ralph Nader and Wesley J. Smith.
SLAPP-back
n. A counter-suit filed in response to a SLAPP.
RECOMMENDED READING: No Contest : Corporate Lawyers and the Perversion of Justice in America, by Ralph Nader and Wesley J. Smith.
states rights
n. A political argument for a position based on the tenth amendment of the United States constitution.
“States rights” is a last-resort argument used by all political camps when they are unable to win at the Federal level and believe that they can win in at least some of the states. Originally invoked primarily by conservatives (original meaning) to slow down the rate of change, it has increasingly been invoked by liberals (new meaning) to slow the rate of back sliding.
tactical voting
n. Voting that does not express the voter’s true preferences.
Many voting schemes are flawed in that voters who express their true preferences are punished by having a low preference outcome. For example, if you prefer candidate A to B, and candidate B to C, voting for A may cause C to be elected. The most common voting scheme in the U.S., first past the post, has this property, as voters may only select one of the choices on their ballot. In the example above, if B and C are the candidates most likely to be selected by other voters, voting for A instead of B, may cause C’s votes to exceed B’s, thereby electing C and punishing the voter for choosing her first preference. To vote tactically, the voter first estimates the actions of all other voters, and then votes in such the way that is most likely to give a better result than other choices, given her estimate of other voters. In the above example, she would vote for the lesser evil of the two candidates most likely to be voted for by others. Such voting schemes are terribly flawed, and yet almost every U.S. election uses them, because they reinforce the two-party system. The need for tactical voting can be minimized by using more sophisticated voting methods, such as ranked ballots with Condorcet’s Method for election resolution. While such systems are more complicated for the election organizers, they are simpler for the voters, who need only express their true preferences without regard to what other voters will likely do.
terrorism
n. the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.
U.S. Army definition. the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to attain political or religious ideological goals through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear.
The dictionary definition of “terrorism” has wider applicability than common usage. Underground organizations are labeled terrorist for the same acts that established powers such as the United States routinely perform. As a result, the word has lost its descriptive value, it is now simply a pejorative (credit for this observation goes to Terry Anderson and Robert Fisk, as reported in Fisk’s Pity The Nation, pages 435-436) or a dysphemism to make certain actions (e.g. the killing of children) appear less offensive (cf. the killing of terrorists). Before the word terrorist became popular, bandit was sometimes used.
think tank
n. An institute, corporation, or group organized for interdisciplinary research (as in technological and social problems).
two party system
n. A political system the encourages power to be shared primarily by members of two political parties and that works to exclude other political parties from power.
The two-party system works by providing a system of voting that punishes voters for supporting the choice that best represents them, and rewards voters that support one of the two dominant political power camps. Its purpose is to aggregate power to a small group while giving the appearance of choice to the electorate. Unlike a one-party system, the members of the two dominant parties are willing to surrender political power from time to time to the other party in return for the appearance of legitimacy in the eyes of those over whom they wield power. This yields a very stable system of government. The political parties are themselves indirectly influenced by their investors, which are often the same for the two parties. The two party system is therefore a stable means for one class to exercise indirect control over the government. Because their access to power is indirect, the system permits government to occasionally act contrary to the interests of the investors, providing a safety valve that can effect changes strongly supported by the electorate, thereby increasing the appearance of legitimacy and providing additional stability. The two party system reinforces the appearance of choice to the electorate by promoting the concept of a “political spectrum” and rhetoric that positions the two parties at separate points along this one-dimensional abstraction of political choice and attempts to force most voters to characterize themselves by a point on this spectrum, thereby aggrandizing power from one issue to others.
welfare
n. Nickname for the old Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, now renamed Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).
Welfare is a favorite target of Republicans, despite it being one of the smaller components of the Federal budget (AFDC was $26B in 1994, less than one tenth of the defense budget). Targeting welfare is politically cheap and diverts attention for other issues. Welfare is needs based, unlike corporate welfare.
winner-take-all
A competition where there is a single winner who reaps all (or almost all) of the value competed for.
United States elections are most often winner-take-all (e.g. president, governor, senator, representative, mayor, …) in which the candidate with the most votes wins, and all others lose. While this is fairly natural for executive positions (e.g. president), it is only one possible choice for elections of representatives to larger bodies (legislatures, city councils, etc.). Elections to such bodies are made winner-take-all by using single-member geographic districts, but proportional representation could be used instead with multi-member districts. Winner-take-all is one of the pillars of the two party system. Note that even winner-take-all elections would benefit from alternative election procedures, such as approval voting or Condorcet’s Method.
RECOMMENDED READING: The Winner-Take-All Society, by Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook makes the case that winner-take-all creates economic inefficiencies. It is not particularly about politics, however.

Copyright © 1999-2004 Earl A. Killian. All Rights Reserved.