Political Idioms for Dummies: 40 most common political phrases & terms of 2012

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As we head into the November Presidential elections, I thought it would be a great idea to update a past very popular post I did in 2010 right before the mid term elections defining and attempting to explain the common phrases and terms used and uttered by political pundits.

The average politically agnostic person who has not been paying attention to politics and the election may find themselves forced to start as we creep closer to the elections.  By now, they may be perplexed and flummoxed about all the phraseology being tossed about in campaign ads and on nightly broadcast and cable news shows discussing politics.

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In the interest to gain more news and information about candidates up for office in their respective local and state jurisdictions, audiences look to reporters and the “talking heads” on these programs to provide some insight and perspectives.

What they bump into, which may turn them off and away, is all of the jargon and idioms used by those reporting the news.  To the uninitiated, it may not be that easy to figure out what all of the quirky terminology means.  You hear candidates everyday referring to themselves as a “Fiscal Conservative” and a “Social Moderate.”  What exactly does that mean??

Many political idioms come in and out of fashion and are created by the media, politics junkies, bloggers, politicians, press secretaries, advisors and lobbyists.  Several people have criticized the frequent use of these terms which they say are meaningless, vague and pretentious diction incidental and understandable only to those “Inside the Beltway” and exclusionary to Main street America.

I’ve updated my post on the 25 Most Common Used Terms, which removes outdated terms, and includes new ones. This time around we’re looking at 40 terms and here they are:

  1. Amnesty – The term given to any measure, decision, policy or law that would permit US residents who are not in the country legally or with valid authority rights, either to stay, work and/or have a path to obtaining legal US residency or citizenship. Such a move would require forgiving behavior or instances of overstaying their visas or coming into the country across borders without legal authorization.
  2. Anchor Babies – A derogatory term for children born in the United States of parents who  are in the country without proper authorization or who may have arrived into the nation across the US/Mexico border without legal permission. Current US law provides US Citizenship to any baby born on US Soil. Those babies are afforded rights and benefits of all US Citizens that some say their parents then use to provide an anchor or basis to remain in the United States indefinitely. The term is used widely by opponents of illegal immigration especially among those in border states.
  3. Budget Deficit – Act of government spending beyond income being brought in via taxation or the selling of public goods and services.  It also refers to the amount of money the government has to raise by borrowing, taxing or cutting expenditures.
  4. Citizens United – That is the name of a party to a US Supreme Court case decided in 2010 which essentially gave corporations the same First Amendment speech rights as individuals in the United States and ushered in a new era for SuperPACs, Political action committees that are heavily funded by sometimes anonymous donations from heavily funded corporations. The term is used often when referencing political advertising on TV and the web funded by SuperPACs that have gotten significant donations from corporations.couple looking at art
  5. Convention Bounce – Traditionally, after the official convention of the party of a US Presidential candidate during an election year, that party’s nominee would see an increase in voter approval in polls. The thought being that exposure to wider audiences who do not necessarily pay attention to politics could leave positive impressions upon audiences, and consequently in poll answers.
  6. Crony capitalism – This is a term describing an economy in which success in business depends on close relationships between business people and government, or a situation whereby those in power in government confer special benefits, or government contracts to friends and donors after bypassing official processes like competitive bidding, for example. The contract given to solar panel energy company Solyndra is accused as being an example.
  7. DREAMERS – The term for young children of undocumented and illegal immigrants brought to the country as children who would be eligible for rights to stay, work or obtain legal residency and citizenship should a law called the DREAM Act pass. The law would create a path to citizenship for certain young children of immigrants once they attend college or perform military service.
  8. Entitlement Programs – This is the term given to social programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Welfare, Food Stamps, Unemployment compensation, Federal employee and military retirement plans, agricultural price support programs and Veterans’ Administration programs.  Once a citizen meets a certain requirement (having contributed to social security during years working, falling below an income bracket, being disabled and unable to work), they are entitled to have the government provide financial benefit, goods or services, sometimes for an indefinite period of time.
  9. Enthusiasm Gap – This term applies to the difference in excitement and interest in voting between two main parties, for example.  As in: It is said that the Enthusiasm Gap between the Republican and Democratic voter base could spell disaster if the Democrats do not turn out more than expected at the polls this November 6.
  10. Fiscal Cliff  – The term for the metaphorical cliff that US taxpayers will fall off of when the President George Bush era tax cuts sunset permanently for all users. The US Congress voted to extend the cuts until midnight December 31, 2012.  That is the date that the Budget Control Act of 2011 will go into effect. The temporary payroll tax cut holiday would sunset and workers will see a 2% increase in taxes. Also, included in that act is Sequestration, a term for the automatic budget spending cuts to domestic and military/defense programs.
  11. Fiscal Conservative – A perspective preferring that the government spends tax payer dollars in a manner that does not include too much expenditure that will further increase an existing deficit. As in: Several candidates up for elections are touting themselves as being Fiscal Conservatives who question the money earmarked for several social programs.
  12. Gaffe – Pronounced (Gaf), it is the term for a faux pas or a socially inadequate statement or mention. As in: Since assuming the position as chief of the party, the leader has made a series of unfortunate gaffes that have made the headlines.
  13. G.O.P.  – This term stands for Grand Old Party, a euphemism for Republicans.
  14. Inside the Beltway – This phrase references the name for the highway that encircles the geographic location of the District of Columbia and areas surrounding the Nation’s Capitol.  It has come to signify a clear distinction and/or disconnect between those who live and work within those boundaries and who create laws and policy; and the rest of the country, the majority that do not.  As in: There is a general sense of frustration among the electorate that Inside the Beltway politicians running the country are clueless about their main concerns.
  15. man fitting puzzle in pieceJudicial Activism – It is a view that the US Supreme court justices and even lower court federal judges can and should creatively use their personal background, consideration of needs of contemporary society when interpreting the US Constitution. It is the opposite of judicial restraint, the act of applying and interpreting laws based on a strict reading of the US Constitution and the intent of the framers of the founding fathers.
  16. Kicking the Can down the Road – This metaphor is used often to refer to a decision by a lawmaker or decision maker to avoid making the tough call on a permanent maneuver and instead delaying it by passing short and temporary measures instead. Politically, it is a way to circumvent the possible negative consequence of making a difficult decision to cut funding of a certain program, for example. Because there could be political ramifications (e.g. an opponent can use a decision during campaign season) to making a steadfast decision, the option to “kick the can” down the road is often taken by politicians facing reelection.
  17. Liberals/Liberalism – Political ideology grounded in tolerance and advance of a broad interpretation of civil liberties, promotion of widespread popular participation and support for a stronger and active role of government in regulation and manipulation private activities for a perceived greater good of spreading and supporting equality.
  18. Margin of Error  – That is the statistical term for the percentage points by which a poll could be off or incorrect. Therefore, for example, even if a candidate is losing on an issue according to a certain poll of likely or registered voters, if the percentage point differences are close, that margin of error could provide comfort to the candidate with the lower percentage that he or she may still be within a position to overtake the lead.
  19. Media Firestorm – This refers to plenty coverage, mostly antagonistic, from the media which usually includes a demand for a response from the part(ie_ or entities involved. As in: After the taped recorded conversation of the candidate using that slur was released, he came under a media firestorm and had to answer to all of the questions being lobbed in his direction.
  20. MSM  – An acronym for Mainstream media, the members of the press and the organizations they work for which make up much of the sources where Americans receive information from online, television, radio or in newspapers. They include CNN, Washington Post, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, NBC News, etc.  Conservatives, Republicans and those on the political right, often accuse of having a bias towards liberals and Democrats.
  21. Messaging – This term is used to describe a series of short descriptive terms related to a particular  policy, initiative, explanation or communications that is meant to be reiterated, recited, almost verbatim to an audience usually in addresses, letters, speeches etc.  As in:That candidate was not clear in messaging his position to the voters which is one of the reasons he did not get reelected.
  22. Monetary Policy  – An administration’s ability to manipulate, elevate or improve money stock, interest rate levels and health of an economy using rules and policies.
  23. Obamacare – This term term, usually framed in a derogatory context, references the Health Care Reform Act pushed by the President and the White House and passed into law in 2010. It has since been embraced by and used by the White House and the president in an attempt to deflate the once toxicity level of the term.
  24. Partisan – This term refers to a fervent, sometimes militant support  of a party, cause, faction, person, or idea, usually within the context of equally fervent opposition to an opposing party.   As in: The governor went into office promising the people that he would be non-partisan , but as of late has been engaging in partisan politics slamming the other party and turning off the independents in the process.
  25. P.O.T.U.S – This is an abbreviation for Politics of the United States or President of the United States (compare: SCOTUS referenced the Supreme Court of the United States); FLOTUS is First Lady of the United States.
  26. Private Sector – Goods and services provided by private business enterprises and not by government or bureaucracy.  It is different from the public sector or the nonprofit sector.
  27. Progressives – This word refers to a political attitude favoring or advocating changes or reform.
  28. Read out – This term applies to analysis or interpretation of information or data on a particular political position.  As in: What is the White House’s read out on the public outcry from the oil spill?
  29. Referendum – This word references the overwhelming majority vote by the public on an issue or a candidate. It is evidence of a strong and definitive acceptance or rejection of status quo when a party in office is voted out by a significant majority. Should President Obama be voted out it will be a referendum on his failed policies, opponent Mitt Romney says.
  30. Reach Across the Aisle – A term for  making an effort to negotiate or mediate differences with those who are on the other side of the political spectrum in the spirit of compromise.  It references the actual physical aisle that divides the legislative halls where members of the two parties sit on opposite sides.   As in: In order to garner support for his measure, the Senator had to do reach across the aisle and work with Senators of the other party.
  31. Right to Work Laws/States – Laws in a state which make it illegal for labor unions and employers to enter into contracts which mandate that only union members can be employed in jobs under the contract. It was the subject of an unsuccessful attempt to recall Wisconsin governor Scott Walker when he implemented a law and impacted unionized workers in that state.
  32. Right Wing – Term for conservative political thought which emphasizes values of patriotism, individual responsibility, and acceptance of wealth inequities, status and privilege with caveat that success is built upon work without the need of that success to be shared evenly across socioeconomic class.
  33. Road to 270 –To elect a US President, the first to obtain 270 electoral college votes win. Unlike the popular vote, based on individual votes cast by each citizen, under the current electoral college system. In addition to voting for the person of choice, voters also vote for delegates who have certain number of votes that they can cast in their state. Each state has a certain number of delegate votes depending on the population in that state. The road to 270 refers to the various scenarios that a presidential candidate has in order to realize that needed 270 votes.
  34. Sequestration – See Above. But in short, the name for automatic military and domestic spending cuts that will take effect beginning January 1, 2013 pursuant to Congress’ passing of the Budget Control Act of 2011. At the time the act was passed, the US had reached its debt ceiling cap and was falling fast into financial meltdown. The law was a bi-partisan compromise that enabled the president to raise the debt cap and delay needed cuts until a committee could come together and decide how to cut. The committee failed, therefore triggering the situation where the cuts will be imminent unless some other Congressional agreement is reached before December 31, 2012.


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  1. Social moderate – A position that is neither conservative nor liberal on mainstream social issues but represents a more tolerant position on controversial cultural debates and matters including abortion, gay marriage, legalization of marijuana etc.
  2. Spin – Can be used as a verb or noun, a favorable perspective or slant to an item of news, or potentially unpopular policy.  As in: After a controversy erupts and the media gets a hold of it, there is a right and wrong way to spin it to your advantage
  3. SuperPAC – The name for political action committees which, after the Citizens United case (see above) would be receive even more funding that usual and tradition.
  4. Stumping – campaigning or attending a political rally on behalf of and to garner support for another candidate running for office.  As in: The President was in Ohio today stumping for the candidates up for congressional elections.
  5. Talking Points – a set of briefing notes or summaries on a particular topic that are recited, nearly verbatim, whenever the topic is broached.  As in: The mayor veered off his talking points and made some off the cuff remarks that were not received well when they were reported in the media.
  6. Welfare State – A government which spends a lot of money on directly providing personal benefits to families or qualifying individuals versus on national defense, law enforcement, transportation and administering public lands.

What else should be added? Removed? Revised? Please comment! Thanks!



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Jay Jay Ghatt is also editor at Techyaya.com, founder of the JayJayGhatt.com and JayJayGhatt.com where she teaches online creators how to navigate digital entrepreneurship and offers Do-It-For-You Blogging Service. She manages her lifestyle sites BellyitchBlog, Jenebaspeaks and JJBraids.com and is the founder of BlackWomenTech.com 200 Black Women in Tech On Twitter. Her biz podcast 10 Minute Podcast is available on iTunes and Player.fm. Follow her on Twitter at @Jenebaspeaks. Buy her templates over at her legal and business templates on Etsy shop!