Jargon Watch: The Language Of Politicians

Who’s more ‘inside baseball’ than baseball players? Probably politicians.
Joe Biden walking in front of campaign bus that says malarkey a political jargon term

If you don’t keep close tabs on politics, the ever-shifting landscape of political jargon can easily overwhelm your understanding of what it all means.

First of all, there’s a lot of legalese and industry terminology used to describe certain aspects of how government works. But politicians are also especially fond of catchphrases, buzzwords and doublespeak, or using euphemisms to dance around sensitive topics.

Some of the political jargon you’ll hear in press briefings, debates, and tweets is pretty evergreen in its staying power. Some of it brings us back to a certain candidate or election year (remember “binders full of women” or “chads”?). Unless they’ve been following things closely all along, the average voter might feel like they’re listening to politicians speaking a foreign language from time to time.

Here’s a brief decoder on what some of those wonky terms actually mean.

Astroturf — In contrast to a grassroots campaign (see below), an astroturf campaign is one whose big sponsors are concealed to make it look authentically grassroots in nature — hence the reference to expensive, fake grass.

Bellwether state — The word “bellwether” is originally a shepherding term that refers to the sheep in the flock that’s wearing a bell on its neck, thus helping its entire flock be located. In political jargon, a bellwether state is kind of like the canary in the coalmine for an election because it historically votes for the winning candidate. Ohio and Missouri are both examples of bellwether states.

Christmas Tree — Sometimes, a bill isn’t just a bill. It’s a bill with multiple floor amendments attached to it (like ornaments on a Christmas tree) that are often entirely unrelated to its original purpose, but serve to promote the special interests or agendas of various politicians and interest groups.

Earmark — In politics, earmarking is basically setting aside a specific amount of funds to use for a specific project or institution. However, it’s not always super clear what counts as an earmark and what counts as a regular expenditure.

Filibuster — If you’re a politician with oratory stamina, you can delay a vote in the Senate by giving a really, really long speech. It’s a form of obstruction that’s often a last resort used by the minority party. But if 60 senators vote to defeat the filibuster, the vote will continue. The word “filibuster” comes from a Dutch word for “pirate” or “freebooter.”

Free stuff — When politicians talk about “giving away free stuff,” they’re often referring to politicians to the left of them politically who are running on a platform of universal healthcare or free tuition. Often, the implication of this political jargon is that the candidate doesn’t know how they’re going to pay for this promise, and that the promise itself is extravagant and wasteful (rather than a reallocation of funds to fulfill basic needs for average people).

Grassroots — A grassroots movement or campaign is the opposite of a top-down or hierarchical one. Instead, it relies on the organic efforts of people coming together to make change.

Inside baseball — This term doesn’t only apply to politics, but it’s often used in a political context to describe the technical inner workings of Congress or constitutional practices that are usually inscrutable and kind of boring to anyone not deeply involved in government.

Joe Sixpack — See also: Joe the Plumber. A favorite tactic of some candidates running for office is to refer to the needs of an archetypal working-class everyman such as Joe Sixpack or Joe the Plumber. Often, the unspoken implication is that the prototypical American is a (usually white) blue collar worker in a small town and that his needs aren’t being represented by the elite in Washington.

Malarkey — This is a Bidenism that former Vice President Joe Biden made famous during the 2012 debates (and is now back in circulation thanks to his current presidential campaign). The word “malarkey” is a 1920s term that essentially means “nonsense” or “hogwash.”

Pork barrel — Pork barrel spending is a form of earmarking that can often be more easily labeled as corruption. Pork barrel spending usually benefits small interest groups and campaign contributors. This political jargon dates back to the 19th century, when a literal pork barrel figuratively stood for “livelihood,” as pork was valuable. Later, when politicians set aside government funds to benefit their home districts, the association was drawn between profit earned from a pork barrel and profit earned from state and federal projects.

Stump speech — Most of us are pretty familiar with Bernie Sanders’ stump speech about wealth distribution in the United States, and it’s probably because he’s been delivering the same speech for 40 years. A stump speech is the routine speech a candidate delivers to explain their core platform. Why “stump” speech? Back in the day, candidates would stand on tree stumps to make their speeches.

Header Photo via Joe Biden for President

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