Political Language: Conflict & Compromise

Politics has been called “the art of the possible,” and political language involves the conflicts, cooperation, and compromise necessary to get things done. These are the words that explain the political process:

  • how people reach some kind of agreement about what will happen in a society,
  • what different people and groups will accept,
  • who will get what,
  • what will be allowed and what will be forbidden.
2 politicians shouting at each other through megaphones

This page explains some of the vocabulary used in political discussions. The first section lists some of the words used to show support or opposition to an idea, party, or person.

Next are definitions of verbs that show various levels of disagreement, from mild to intense (and nasty!), then verbs for working together on a problem,and a few common political idioms-- important to know if you want to understand political arguments.

Then there is a brief discussion of opinion polls and a very funny short video on the subject, and finally a little background on American politics and the issues dividing liberals and conservatives (and generally Democrats and Republicans, though there are some conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, as well as many moderates in both parties.)

I have tried to write as objectively as possible, without expressing any bias or my own opinions, but just giving an explanation of vocabulary and some background knowledge. 

PRO & CON: the Political Language for Positions on Issues

Pro means in favor (to think something is good)                            

To propose something is to suggest or recommend it. To support it is to agree with the proposal. To advocate or defend it is to argue in its favor.    

A proponent is a supporter  (in favor of something)        

A proposal is a suggestion.                                                                

A proposition can be a proposal to be considered (or a ballot measure for the public to vote for or against)

Con or contra means opposed or against.

To oppose is to disagree or say it should not be done.  (Oppose is the opposite of all three words.)

An opponent is a person who is against it.                                             

A rebuttal is an answering argument against it.

 Opposition is being against something

partisan means strongly favoring one side

neutral means ‘in between’; not choosing sides

apathetic or indifferent means not caring

Verbs for Types of Disagreement 

(with related words in parentheses after the definitions) 

Discuss -- to talk about an issue or problem.  (discussion, n.) A discussion may involve disagreement or it may not (unlike discusion in Spanish, which means an “argument.”)

Argue -- to try to persuade someone who disagrees (sometimes in an angry way) (argument, n.)

Debate - to formally present one’s positions and arguments. (In a debate, two or more sides each have a set amount of time to answer a moderator’s questions or to make their points. Often after that they have an opportunity to answer their opponents’ arguments. (debate, n., debatable, adj.. debating, adj.-- as in ‘a debating team’)

Dispute- to argue (dispute, n.)

Compete -- to attempt to do something (for example, to race, to sing, or to argue) better than one’s opponents in order to win a prize. (competition, n., competitive, adj.)

Contend-- to strive or fight (verbally or physically) against someone else. (contention, n., contentious, adj.)

Confront-- to speak directly to an opponent to accuse them of something or tell them they are wrong. (confrontation, n., confrontational, adj.)

Contradict-- to claim that an opponent’s argument is wrong. (contradiction, n., contradictory, adj.)

Deny-- to say that something is not true. (denial, n.)

Distort-- to twist or misrepresent the truth; to deliberately attempt to cause people to misunderstand. (distortion, n., distorted, adj.)

Misquote-- to quote incorrectly (either by accident or deliberately, with the intention of misrepresenting what was said.) (misquote, n., misquoted, adj.)

Lie-- to deliberately (intentionally, not by accident) give false information as if it were true. (lie, n., liar, n.- a person who tells lies, lying, adj.)

Verbs for Compromise and Cooperation

Accommodate- to include the needs or desires of others (accommodation, n.)

Adjust- to make small changes in an original plan.  (adjustment, n., adjustable, adj.)

Cooperate-- to work with others toward common goals (cooperation, n., cooperative, adj.)

Compromise- to sacrifice some goals in order to get agreement that will make it possible to reach one’s most important goals   (compromise, n. Also: compromised and compromising, adjs. with somewhat different, negative meanings. If your password, or a government’s security system, is compromised, that means it has been ‘hacked’ or discovered by enemies and is no longer safe. If someone is found in a ‘compromising position,’ he or she has been caught doing something wrong and may be blackmailed-- forced to pay money or do what someone else wants to avoid being exposed.)

(People who don’t want to compromise may accuse those who do of ‘abandoning’ their principles: giving up important beliefs for political convenience. Those who favor compromise, on the other hand, call non-compromisers ‘stubborn’ or ‘extremists.’)

Political Idioms-- Can You Guess Their Meanings?

Here are several common American expressions that might be difficult to guess if you only know the usual meaning of each word. I found most of them in the speeches linked from the last section of the page (on American politics), but they are also used in business discussions and other contexts.

(Don't) back your opponent against the wall (or push someone into a corner)-- Picture someone, or some animal, with no escape route. They will fight much more fiercely than if they could see another way out of the situation. (This was in a comment about the Cuban missile crisis-- recorded on the bottom of the page with Kennedy's speech.)

on both sides of the aisle- both Democrats and Republicans

hit the ground running- get started quickly; accomplish a lot even at the beginning of a project.

on the sidelines- refers to players who are not actively in a game. They're outside the marked borders of the field. We use it for people who are not involved, whether by choice or because they're kept out of something: "He was sidelined by illness" (or by his boss.) So to get people "off the sidelines" is to give them a chance to participate actively.

stuck in neutral- unable to move forward (like a car that won't shift gears.)

turn the tide- change the direction. As with ocean tides, people can do very little to affect a tide until it is time for it to turn. (Kennedy was saying this will be very difficult-- at least until the time is right.)

(don't) write people off- discount them or consider them unimportant or not worth the effort. (A bank or business may "write off" a debt or loss it realizes it will be hard to collect, so it just accepts the loss.) 

Voice of America also offers two pages of idioms common in American political campaigns and in some of the debates.

Opinion Polls (and How to Abuse them)

Here's a short (2+ minute), very funny British video on how easy it is to manipulate (unfairly influence) opinion polls. People taking surveys of public opinion can make an effort to learn the honest opinions of the people they interview.

However, as this video demonstrates, it is not hard to ask a sequence of questions that lead people to give the answers desired (by the people conducting the poll) rather than an accurate picture of what the interviewed people really think.

Biased opinion polls are a common enough problem that many people are skeptical (doubtful) even of polls by major organizations with a reputation for fairness and non-partisan, unbiased reporting.

In the video they are discussing an opinion poll in favor of national service. In the U.S. this would be called "the draft"-- conscription of all young people (or possibly just young men) into the army, navy, or other national service for a period of time.

This video may be too big to watch on some cell phone.

Liberals and Conservatives in the U.S.

2 politicians shouting at each other through megaphones

People can disagree about almost anything, but serious conflicts between groups tend to be about moral, economic, or territorial issues. Moral issues concern what’s right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable in a society. Any culture must have shared values to hold together: things that everyone agrees (at least in theory) are right and important. Among most people these would include at least a certain level of respect for human life, for protecting children, and for the rights of others.  

In a diverse, multi-cultural society like the U.S., there are also areas of disagreement on what is right, or conflict between rights. For example, Americans have strong but contradictory feelings about abortion. Some emphasize the “right to life” of an unborn child; others the “right of a woman to choose” for her own body. (The two sides define the start of “human life” differently, and disagree about whether a fetus is a “person.”)

Likewise, there is a major conflict in the U.S. about gun control. It is emotionally heated because both sides are trying to protect their safety. One side sees the threat to their lives with so many weapons available, while the other fears the threat to their liberty if the government can control who is able to own guns.

Both abortion and gun control are controversial in the U.S. A controversy is a subject of disagreement that causes strong feelings. In both these cases, deeply-felt moral principles are involved. That makes compromise very difficult.

A third deep-rooted conflict in the U.S. concerns the rights of the individual and the rights of the group. Almost everyone agrees the individual must give up some personal and property rights in order for a government to function (and to protect his basic rights to life and liberty and property.)  This is the basis for taxation, a police force, a military (and sometimes a draft-- people must give up their liberty and even possibly their lives to defend the life and liberty of their country in a war). The question is how much the government should be able to ask the individual to give up for the good of the society. 

In the U.S. there is a disagreement between people and parties on the role and power of the national (federal) government, as compared to the states, local governments, voluntary associations, or individual families. Who should pay for (and thus be able to control) education, health care, and welfare?  What level of government should make and enforce laws to keep people from being able to harm and abuse others (for example, child labor and food safety and sanitation laws)?

Basically, conservatives want to protect people from a government that is too powerful; 

liberals want to protect people from other people or businesses that are too powerful,

and moderates are in  the middle, or may take either side, depending on the issue.

In general, conservatives ("on the right" or "right wing," often but not always Republicans) want to limit the role of the federal government and give individuals the most freedom possible to control their own lives and money. They distrust “big government” and may warn about the “nanny state,” in which the government protects-- and controls-- its people as if they were children.

Liberals (the "left wing," often Democrats) are more apt to want government to be powerful enough to protect people from others taking advantage of them. (Many distrust “big corporations.”)

Moderates are people nearer the center. They often can understand the feelings and arguments of both sides and encourage compromise. There are moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans; people who are moderately liberal or moderately conservative. They are not ‘neutral,’ and may also have strong opinions, but they usually dislike extreme ideologies and may consider themselves pragmatic (practical and willing to make concessions to those who feel differently.)

(If you are interested in American politics, there is an interesting TED talk about the moral roots of liberal and conservative arguments in the U.S. He’s trying to explain the conservative perspective to a very liberal audience, and to encourage mutual tolerance and understanding. I just found it, and think it is a clear-- and fair-- explanation of the beliefs of people he does not agree with.)

There's an excellent related TED talk by a conservative (also in clear, simple English) urging "Let's work together!"

You might also be interested in selections from John F. Kennedy's 1960 State of the Union address to Congress just after becoming president, when the U.S. was still getting used to being a major military power. (The link is to a page to practice academic vocabulary, which Kennedy used heavily.)

Paul Ryan, Republican Speaker of the House, gives an eloquent defense of a conservative agenda and vision in this December 2015 speech.

Both of these speeches include idioms explained near the top of the page.

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