Some people will call it petty. Some will dismiss it as trivial. Some will agree “in principle” but say it’s not worth making a big deal out of. But I believe that people should be making a big deal out of it, because I honestly believe that it is a big deal.
I’m talking about the use of the word “Democrat” as an adjective. You have all heard it done by conservatives: “The Democrat Senator from Vermont.” “The Democrat plan to reduce the deficit.” “The Democrat politicians in the House.” “The Democrat policies instituted under Clinton.” And so on.
It’s grammatically wrong, and everybody knows that it’s grammatically wrong. At least: everybody who takes the time to think about it for two seconds knows that it’s wrong. But if it were just a grammar issue, I wouldn’t think it was a big deal.
Google knows that it’s wrong. When you search for Democrat Party it automatically corrects you and shows results for “Democratic Party.” If you search for “Democrat Party” (with quotes to indicate that you want the exact phrase) then it links you to several websites, including Wikipedia, explaining that it’s a term invented by Republicans.
There are many theories about how it got started. Some people have suggested that Republicans were trying to remove the implication that the Democratic party was more in favor of democracy than the Republican party. Some people have suggested that it’s simply a subliminal and juvenile attempt to make the name sound like “Demo-rat” or “Demo-crap”. Some people have said that it’s just one of those things that is perpetuated in order to annoy: the same reason that liberals call Tea Party supporters “tea-baggers.” Ultimately, of course, I’m sure all of these factors play some kind of role; and if that were all there was to it, I wouldn’t think it was worth making a fuss over.
From time to time, politicians or media people try to push back. Once or twice I’ve heard Chris Matthews criticize a conservative pundit for using the term, calling it juvenile. I can remember once or twice hearing politicians on the floor of the Congress calling for a stop to the juvenile word games. But these incidents are isolated, and they are never pressed. They are never heated. People don’t get mad, they don’t call it offensive and manipulative, and they don’t demand an apology.
For the most part, they treat it in the way that I heard it treated on the Stephanie Miller Show on the radio last week. A caller brought up the topic, somewhat incensed, and asked: Why do people not call this out? What do people not correct this every time it happens? Everyone on the show gave the expected responses. Stephanie Miller called it juvenile, Chris Lavoie pointed out that at least it shows the mentality of the person saying it, and Jim Ward talked about the manipulative subliminal psychological subtext (as he is wont to do). And everyone agreed that it was wrong… but nobody seemed to think it was a big deal. The overall impression was: we don’t call it out because it’s not worth bothering with. It’s childish and petty, but ultimately of no consequence.
This is a view shared by many–maybe most–people in politics and the media. I also think that some might fear that “standing up” to this kind of name-calling could be seen as whiny or nit-picking. If liberals focus on this, the conservatives can simply come back and say, “Oh, this what what liberals spend their time worrying about? How come they aren’t talking about [insert other random issue here]?”
And maybe they would be right.
But I’m going to take the time, in this moment, for this 1000 words, to talk about this. Just for now. In between the time that I spend talking about jobs, taxes, economic inequality, wars in the middle east, Christian hate crimes, misogynistic health care laws, failed Wall Street regulation, gay rights, institutionalized racism, and all of the other more important issues facing our country today, I’m going to take a moment to talk about this.
Why? Because this issue is bigger than any of the explanations or conversations that I’ve mentioned so far. It isn’t just juvenile (although it is certainly juvenile). It isn’t just psychologically manipulative (although it certainly is that as well). It isn’t just some inane word-play designed to annoy Democrats.
It’s an extension of a long tradition of hate speech and verbal subjugation.
Let’s look, for a second, at other historical examples of a categorical noun being used in its attributive form, in the place of an adjective, when describing people or things.
She’s a woman doctor.
He’s a Jew lawyer.
Think about how those sentences sound. Think about the connotations, the feel of those sentences. Do they sound neutral? Do they sound positive? Would you refer to your friend as a “Jew lawyer”?
Of course you wouldn’t. You might (if conversation demanded it) call your friend a “Jewish lawyer;” but in our culture today everybody knows–everybody knows– that calling someone a “Jew lawyer” is (at best) rude or (at worse) degrading and racist. The same goes for saying “woman doctor” instead of “female doctor”: it’s jarring. You might as well say “a chick doctor.”
Let’s get this out of the way: Why isn’t it also bad to call someone a “Republican politician”? Because the word “Republican” is both a noun and an adjective. Or, another way to put it, the nounal form (“Republican”) is identical to the adjectival form (“Republican”).
Don’t believe me? Look it up.
Definition of “Republican” shows both noun and adjective: Republican.
Definition of “Democrat” shows only noun: Democrat.
But this is not just about grammar. This is not just a terminological prank made up in the last 50 years in order to be catty. This is not just a juvenile intentional slip-of-the-tongue. This is a continuation of a long, long history of using nouns as in an attributive form (as if they are adjectives) as part of a cultural tradition of discrimination, subjugation, and hate. This linguistic strategy has been used to reenforce social structures of both racism and prejudice against women. It’s sleazy.
And that long cultural history of hate speech and subjugation is being tapped in to when people say “the Democrat party.”
Every time I hear “that guy is a Democrat politician,” I hear the moral equivalent of “that guy is a Jew lawyer.”
And you should, too.
Whether that’s consciously on the minds of the people saying it or not, that is the history of that particular manner of speaking. That is where the force and weight of the cultural connotations lie. That is the force that is being tapped into, literally built into our social consciousness for hundreds of years.
So when someone says “a Democrat convention,” you should be hearing the moral equivalent of “a Jew convention.” When someone says “that’s a Democrat policy,” you should be hearing the moral equivalent of “that’s a Jew policy.” It’s the same slimy way of talking that is not tolerated in the one case, and should not be tolerated in the other.
That is what makes it worth objecting to, loudly, every time you hear it.