Reviews | What does “awake” mean? Use this political dictionary.

(Washington Post staff illustration/iStock images)
(Washington Post staff illustration/iStock images)

Since it’s election season, you’re probably reading a ton of stories about Politician X appealing to electoral bloc Y with Z-ish rhetoric. Journalists, political strategists, and even politicians themselves provide much of this information in some sort of code – terms and phrases that only appear in coverage of politics. Here’s a guide to election rhetoric — and a plea to move on.

Culture Wars. Cultural issues. identity politics. Social problems.

Abortion. The rights of bisexual, gay, lesbian, queer and/or transgender people. Racial issues. Women’s issues.

“Culture wars” are commonly invoked in reference to gender, LGBTQ and racial issues and those who champion them. Thus, black politicians condemning police brutality are portrayed as practicing identity politics, but white people who strongly defend the police are not.

Bias in the use of these terms is not the only problem with them. They are vague. Their meanings are not universally shared. They often conceal more than they explain (perhaps intentionally). Speaking of intentionally vague…

Left/far left on gender, LGBTQ and race issues.

This term could have appeared in the previous section, but it is more recent and deserves its own explanation. “Woke” was once widely used by blacks, invoking the idea that they should remain aware of racism in America. The term is now used by center-left, center-right, and right-wing political figures as a sort of epithet against those they consider too left-wing on race, gender, and LGBTQ issues.

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Like “identity politics” and other similar expressions, “woke up” and “awakening” are vague. They do not have a widely agreed meaning. It’s pretty clear that the use of the term “Latinx” is considered woke or over-woke by those in the political center and on the right. But I don’t know if supporting repairs is awake, too awake, or not part of awakening.

How ‘woke’ became the least woke word in American English

I suspect the lack of clarity is why some people like to use these terms. The slamming alarm clock allows people to oppose leftist views on very tense issues without stating their specific objections.

Leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties. Chosen. Political experts and commentators. The rich. Political Agents.

There are individuals in America with far more power than ordinary people – and these individuals are usually elected officials, wealthy people and those employed by them. We should name them, instead of implying that there is an anonymous and powerful elite that controls the country.

Evangelicals, white evangelicals.

Conservative Christians. White and Latino Christians with conservative views on issues such as abortion, LGBTQ rights, and race.

What really constitutes evangelical Christianity or makes one an evangelical is somewhat disputed. But generally, evangelical Christianity denotes a specific set of religious views and practices, such as believing that the Bible is the authoritative word of God. People who hold these beliefs often describe themselves as born again or simply Christian instead of evangelical. Evangelically-believed churches use terms such as “biblical” to describe their theology.

Also, in part because the term “evangelical” has become synonymous with the Republican party, many Christians who vote for Democratic candidates, especially black people, hold evangelical views but do not describe themselves as evangelical. On the other hand, some Republicans describe themselves as evangelicals even though they don’t share these opinions or even go to church regularly.

Thus, “evangelical” is a term used more by journalists than by the faithful. And journalists almost always invoke evangelicals in reference to white and Latino Christians who oppose abortion and transgender rights and who vote Republican.

More conservative, very conservative. Right wing. Aligned with former President Donald Trump. More liberal, very liberal. Progressive. Left wing. Aligned with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.).

Attaching “far” to political convictions has a negative connotation, implying marginal and therefore bad opinions. There are less charged terms to describe politicians further from the ideological center than others.

Centrist. Centre-left, centre-right.

It’s the flip of above – “moderate” and “mainstream” are words with positive connotations. What is more specific and less loaded is that some politicians (including President Biden) are closer to the center than others (Sanders). “Centre” and “centrist” also have positive connotations, but they are not as complementary as “mainstream” in particular.

Trump-style, Trump-style, Trump-aligned. Sanders lined up. Left, left on economic issues.

“Nationalist” and “populist” are often invoked in reference to Trump and his political style. But these terms have had many meanings in various contexts, both in the United States and abroad. In recent years, Trump and Sanders have been portrayed as populists. A term applied to such different politicians is of limited analytical use.

It was hard to define Trump’s political approach in 2015. But now, describing a Republican politician as Trump-aligned or Trump-like is far more helpful than calling her populist or nationalist.

Suburban women, white suburban women.

White women, white women who are swing voters, white women with ideologically centrist views, white women with middle or high incomes.

About 55% of Americans live in suburban counties, as opposed to urban or rural counties, according the Pew Research Center. So to say that a politician should appeal to suburban women is not much more descriptive than saying that he or she should appeal to women.

Plus, it’s not like the suburbs aren’t filled with very partisan voters. Black women who live in the suburbs are probably staunch Democrats. The same goes for white women who live in suburbs such as Montgomery County in the DC area close to the major left-wing cities. Conservative, suburban Christian white women are generally Republican.

Do you have any other words to add to this guide? Submit them to Perry Bacon Jr.’s Q&A on Thursday at noon.

In political contexts, the phrase “suburban women” is generally code for middle- and upper-income white women who vacillate between parties, especially those who might support abortion rights but be more conservative on the economic issues.

Voters of the heart, voters of the Midwest. Southern voters. Coastal voters.

Swing Voters in the Midwest. Southern Republican voters. Democratic voters who live on the coasts.

“Heartland” is usually code for GOP or swing voters, but heavily Democratic Chicago is in the Midwest. Thirty-four percent of the population in California voted for Trump, and 41% in Missouri for Joe Biden. There is no need to portray states and regions as one-party monoliths.

Working class voters, workers, white working class.

Low-income voters. Voters without a baccalaureate. White voters without four diplomas. Ideologically centrist and conservative white voters.

There are no formal classes in America. There is no agreed definition of what constitutes a working-class, middle-class, or upper-class person. You could say that, for example, dishwashers in restaurants clearly belong to the working class. But we don’t have much data that analyzes the voting preferences of people in specific jobs, to distinguish, for example, between dishwashers and factory workers.

The term “working class” connotes a low-income person. And we have data on voters from households with incomes below $50,000 – about 53% supported Biden in 2020, compared to 44% for Trump, according Bench.

You might be surprised to learn that Biden, not Trump, won the votes of more low-income Americans, as media coverage often portrays Democrats as out of step with the working class.

Where Republicans have gained ground and Democrats lost in the past decade in particular, among white Americans without a four-year college degree, a group the media often refer to as the white working class. But “working class” and “unqualified” are not interchangeable expressions. Many people with a college degree don’t make a lot of money, and some people without a degree do.

“White without a college degree” is also not a useful description. Most Americans are whiteand most Americans do not have a baccalaureate. trump won approximately 80% of white Americans without a degree in Georgia in 2020, but only about half this block in Maine.

American voters are best understood by looking at ideology, geography and race, not education, income or class. The Republican base is made up of white Americans with conservative views, especially those living in the South, not white working class people.

Voters who have rocked the past three campaign cycles are moderate, centrist, liberal on some issues but conservative on others, or not particularly ideological at all, which is why they support politicians as different as Trump and Barack Obama. To say that the parties fight for “ideologically unmoored” voters is not as convincing as to talk about class or education, but it is much fairer.

I don’t expect politicians, political operatives, or pundits with a clear ideological bent to start using this more honest language. In politics, defining the terms is part of the fight. So if you’re a Republican, you want to suggest that Democrats are out of step with “working-class voters,” as opposed to “whites and Latinos with centrist or conservative views.” If you’re a Biden-aligned Democrat, describing yourself as part of the “mainstream” wing of the party and the Squad as “far left” is very helpful.

But if you’re a journalist or just a regular voter, you don’t have to speak in code. Say what you really mean.

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