Politics has been called “the art of the possible.” Political language involves the conflicts, cooperation, and compromise necessary to get things done.
It's the language that explain the political process:
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!). After that are verbs for working together on a problem.
The next section explains a few common political idioms-- important to know if you want to understand political arguments.
There's a brief discussion of opinion polls (and a funny short video on the subject).
Finally, there's some background on American politics and the issues dividing liberals and conservatives.
(Generally, Democrats are liberal and Republicans are conservative. There are also moderates in both parties, as well as independent voters.)
I have tried to write as objectively as possible, without expressing bias or my own opinions. My purpose is to explain the words and give some background on American politics.
(I wrote this page in 2013. I've added several sections since then. I feel it is still relevant, though there is much less moderation or compromise now-- after the Nov. 2020 election in the U.S.)
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 on
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
(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. (It's unlike 'discusión' 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 better than one’s opponents in order to win a prize. (competition, n., competitive, adj.) There are many kinds of competition, from sports to debate to politics.
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 (distortion, n., distorted, adj.)
Misquote-- to quote incorrectly (either by accident or 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.)
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 to get an agreement that will make it possible to reach one’s most important goals. (compromise, n. Also: compromised and compromising. These adjectives have 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. He now may be 'blackmailed.' (Blackmailing is asking someone to pay or cooperate with the blackmailer. If the person refuses, the blackmailer can make his wrongdoing public.)
(People who don’t want to compromise on an issue may accuse those who do of ‘abandoning’ their principles. They are giving up important beliefs for political convenience. Those who favor compromise, on the other hand, call non-compromisers ‘stubborn’ or ‘extremists.’)
Here are several common American idioms. These expressions might be difficult to guess if you only know the usual meaning of each word. They're commonly used in politics and also 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-- in Kennedy's speech linked from the bottom of this page.)
> 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.)
Here's a short (2+ minute), very funny British video. It shows how easy it is to manipulate (unfairly influence) opinion polls.
People making public opinion surveys can plan questions to learn the honest opinions of their interviewees.
However, it is not hard to ask a sequence of questions leading people to give the answers the pollsters want. Such polls don't give an accurate picture of what the interviewees think.
Biased opinion polls are common enough that many people are skeptical (doubtful) of all polls. They don't even trust organizations known 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." It's the conscription of all young people (or of young men) into the army, navy, or another service for a period of time.
This video may be too big to watch on some cell phones.
People can disagree about almost anything. Even so, 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. These are values that everyone agrees (at least in theory) are right and important. Among most people, these would include a level of respect for human life, for protecting children, and for the rights of others.
In a diverse society like the U.S., there are also areas of disagreement on what is right. There are also conflicts 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. 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 rights in order for a government to function. (That's necessary 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 give up their liberty and risk 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. They differ on how much power to give the federal government compared to the states or local governments.
Who should pay for (and thus be able to control) education, health care, and welfare? What level of government should make the laws to keep people from being able to harm and abuse others? (For example, child labor, or food safety and sanitation laws.)
In general, conservatives ("on the right" or "right-wing," often Republicans) want to limit the role of the federal government. They want to give individuals the most freedom possible to control their own lives and money.
They distrust “big government.” Some warn about a “nanny state.” That's when the government protects-- and controls-- its people as if they were children.
Liberals (the "left-wing," often Democrats) are more apt to favor a bigger government. They want it to be powerful enough to protect people. They worry that powerful people or companies will take advantage of ordinary citizens. (Many distrust “big corporations.”)
Recently in the U.S., people have begun to refer to Republican-majority states as 'red.' States with a Democratic majority are 'blue.'
Moderates are people nearer the center. They often can understand the feelings and arguments of both sides and encourage compromise. They are not ‘neutral.'
They may have strong opinions, but they usually dislike extreme ideologies. They may consider themselves pragmatic. (Pragmatic means practical. Often it involves being willing to make concessions to those who feel differently.)
(If you are interested in American politics, check out this TED talk about the moral roots of liberal and conservative arguments. He’s trying to explain the conservative perspective to a very liberal audience.
He hopes to encourage mutual tolerance and understanding. Ithink it is a clear-- and fair-- explanation of the beliefs of people he does not agree with.)
There's an excellent related TED talk, also in clear, simple English. A conservative urges "Let's work together!"
Also related: selections from John F. Kennedy's 1960 State of the Union address to Congress. At the time, 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.)
It includes idioms explained near the top of the page.