Five words that progressives should avoid

Posted on June 27, 2023

Too often, progressives argue a right-wing or both-siderism frame, repeating that language. Here are five examples that you should avoid using because they obscure the truth.

(1) Don’t say “ethics” when talking about the Supreme Court.

Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito violated federal criminal laws. Sure, it would be nice if our Supreme Court Justices were required to obey the same Code of Ethics as other judges, but that’s letting them off much too easy. Talking about “ethics” misses the point.

Thomas and Alito have, for years, covered up important transactions that they were required to disclose on federal financial statements. Maybe Thomas, technically, didn’t need to report visits to the home of right-wing billionaire and Hitler aficionado Harlan Crow. But both Thomas and Alito were certainly required to disclose private jet flights and private yacht cruises, as well as the sale to Crow of Thomas’ mother’s home and who’s paying for the house expenses now. The excuses claimed for these coverups are preposterous.

What Thomas and Alito have violated is the federal Ethics in Government Act of 1978, created in response to the Watergate scandal. This is not a toothless guideline; violation of this Act is a criminal offence, a fact that is hardly mentioned in the media. Here is the relevant section of the U.S. Code, 5A USC Sec. 104:

(2)(A) It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly and willfully—

(i) falsify any information that such person is required to report under section 102; and

(ii) fail to file or report any information that such person is required to report under section 102.

(B) Any person who—

(i) violates subparagraph (A)(i) shall be fined under title 18, United States Code, imprisoned for not more than 1 year, or both; and

(ii) violates subparagraph (A)(ii) shall be fined under title 18, United States Code.

So, a United States Attorney could (and should) charge them with this crime. They can be fined if the offense is simply a “failure to file.” But, if they were to “falsify any information,” which we don’t really know, they could each be imprisoned for up to one year per offense. They broke the law. This is corruption. How about a little “equal justice?”

(2) Don’t say “attack on [company name]” when it’s actually an attack on Pride Month.

In recent weeks, Disney, Budweiser, Target, Kohl’s, Chick-Fil-A, Lego, M&Ms, and many other companies have been attacked by right-wing extremists for celebrating Pride Month and/or advertising to LGBTQ+ people.

The media have covered these boycotts and acts of petty vandalism as if they were organic grassroots reactions to particular companies’ missteps. That’s absurd. This is a pre-planned top-down strategy by the rich sponsors of MAGA against the LGBTQ+ community. Across the country, large and small companies have, for years, launched annual marketing campaigns around Pride Month. The leaders of MAGA are trying to stop that. They’re trying to de-legitimize Pride and de-normalize being LGBTQ+.

So don’t defend individual companies—they are not the real target. Defend Pride and make sure that LGBTQ+ people understand who is attacking them as well as the clear and present danger if MAGA gets away with this campaign of hate.

(3) Don’t say “bickering” when referring to a political dispute.

The media loves to refer to “partisan bickering.” It’s both-siderism. Don’t play along.

“Bickering” means to “argue about petty or trivial matters.” The media delivers the same demeaning message when it talks about a political “spat,” a “squabble,” or an instance of “playing politics.” The subtext, which Americans fully understand, is that Americans should look down on the debate and its debaters.

But there is virtually no political argument anymore that is trivial. MAGA extremists are trying to take health coverage from tens of millions, give trillions in tax giveaways to the rich, deny climate science, destroy the environment, wreck consumer financial protections, and devastate every kind of employment protection or social program. Blocking this regressive agenda is crucial and heroic, not “bickering.”

Similarly, the media decries “partisanship,” “gridlock,” “Congress” or “Washington” when only one party is at fault. For example, only one side is ignoring our Constitution and the rule of law.

Both-siderism is a way for reporters to weasel out of doing their jobs, which is supposed to be explaining an issue and truthfully pointing out who’s doing what to whom. Why do Americans have such unfavorable views of elected officials who stand up and fight? One reason is that attacking politics and politicians has been the media’s favorite hobby for decades.

(4) Don’t say “liberal.”

Hardly any left-of-center political organizations or leaders call themselves “liberal.” We pretty uniformly call ourselves “progressive” and have done so now for decades. So why does the media keep calling us “liberals”?

There is no question that “progressive” is not only accurate, it’s a political advantage. Polling has found that, comparing common ideological terms, progressive is the most positive political label in America. Conservative is the second most popular political brand while liberal is substantially less popular.

This is, in part, because right wingers have tarnished “liberal” and, in part, it’s because left-leaning groups have successfully promoted “progressive.” For example, there is no Liberal Caucus in Congress—it’s called the Progressive Caucus. Everyone should say “progressive.” There is really no “liberal” movement anymore.

(5) Don’t say “conservative.”

Okay, it’s impossible to never say “conservative” when talking about American politics. But, as mentioned above, the word is politically popular. Saying it benefits our opponents.

More important, there are virtually no “conservatives” anymore. They can’t win a contested Republican primary election against a MAGA candidate. So, the rare “conservative” in public office simply hasn’t been primaried yet.

A couple years ago, the Washington Post’s media critic, Margaret Sullivan, published a column entitled “We must stop calling Trump’s enablers ‘conservative.’ They are the radical right.” Her point was that it’s untruthful to call insurrectionists and conspiracy theorists “conservative.” She quotes another author saying, quite accurately, that “There is nothing conservative about subverting democracy.”

That’s all true. But Trump, McConnell, McCarthy, DeSantis, Cruz, Huckabee Sanders, Abbott and almost all other nationally-prominent Republicans have not acted as “conservatives” for years.

Real conservatives oppose huge budget deficits, while Trump and his allies brought about the biggest deficits in American history, by far. Real conservatives support national defense, while the Trump Administration pulled back from our allies, embraced enemies (North Korea and Russia!), failed to support our troops (remember Russian bounties?) and ripped apart our military leadership. And real conservatives support our Constitution and the rule of law, while Trump and his allies have been breaking the law while demonizing the Department of Justice, the Special Prosecutor, the FBI, federal courts, state courts, state attorneys general, and state prosecutors. It is long past time for business, academia, the media and everyone associated with politics – including our own side – to stop calling them “conservatives.”