Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Early Words from the Campaign Trail

The 2012 presidential election is still well over a year away, but the campaign trail is already in full swing. On Tuesday, Jon Huntsman, Jr. threw his hat in the ring for the Republican nomination, adding his name to a list that already includes Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and Herman Cain. (And that's just the declared candidates.) The Republicans have been using some heated rhetoric toward President Obama, and toward each other. Here are some of the campaign's early buzzwords.

declinist: In last week's CNN debate in New Hampshire, Tim Pawlenty criticized Obama by saying, "This president is a declinist. He views America as one of equals around the world. We're not the same as Portugal; we're not the same as Argentina. And this idea that we can't have 5 percent growth in America is hogwash. It's a defeatist attitude." Pawlenty had earlier told CNBC, "We have to throw off the shackles of Obama's declinist attitude and policies and get back on a pro-growth, positive, optimistic agenda."

Even though CBS News said Pawlenty "coined a new phrase" by calling Obama a declinist, it's hardly new (and it's not a phrase either!). The Oxford English Dictionary dates it back to 1831, though it's marked as a "nonce word." Since the 1990s, both declinist and declinism have become popular in foreign-policy circles. On Wordspy, Paul McFedries defines declinism as "The belief that something, particularly a country or a political or economic system, is undergoing a significant and possibly irreversible decline." He says it was coined in 1988 by Samuel P. Huntington as an antonym for triumphalism. Visual Thesaurus contributor Nancy Friedman further explores declinism on her Fritinancy blog.

As Nancy notes, declinism is a handy label for the belief that language is going to hell in a handbasket. Robert Lane Greene used the word this way in his new book You Are What You Speak, as in the excerpt we recently featured:

Language is in terminal decline! Soon we will not be able to write at all, or perhaps even speak! This isn't true, just as it wasn't when Swift said the same in 1712. But "declinism" sells; it sells political books, and it sells politically tinged language books.

exceptionalism: This term emerged in the late 1920s as an outgrowth of Marxist social theory, surprisingly enough. For those who subscribed to Marx's vision that capitalist societies would eventually be overthrown by violent class warfare, the peaceful capitalism of the United States seemed to form an exception to this supposedly inexorable economic law. Thus Marxists debated the possibility of "American exceptionalism." Eventually, exceptionalism came to mean any belief in a nation's specialness — often used negatively to imply that the believers in exceptionalism (whether in the U.S., Japan, France, or elsewhere) were close-minded and jingoistic.

For the Republican candidates, American exceptionalism is undoubtedly positive, and the general message is that Obama the Declinist takes exception to the nation's exceptionalism. Mitt Romney has referred to Obama's "fundamental disbelief in American exceptionalism" and his "questioning as to whether America is an exceptional nation." Sarah Palin, in a Facebook post, has likewise wondered if Obama has "a lack of faith in American exceptionalism." It's a sure bet that we'll be hearing a lot more about exceptionalism as the campaign winds on.

Google test: In an economic policy speech earlier this month, Pawlenty offered a rather unusual diagnostic for applying cutbacks to government services:

"We can start by applying what I call the Google test. If you can find a service or a good on Google or the Internet then the federal government probably doesn't need to be doing that good or service. The post office, the government printing office, Amtrak, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were all built for a different time in our country and a different chapter in our economy when the private sector did not adequately provide those services. That's no longer the case.

The "Google test" has mostly drawn scorn from the commentariat — Paul Krugman, for instance, says the Google test means we can abolish the army, since private armies can quickly be Googled up. Faux-pundit Stephen Colbert took the argument to even more absurd conclusions, saying, "We can Google-test our way to eliminating the government altogether." Colbert also pointed out that Pawlenty himself is easily Googled, rendering him unnecessary. On the flip side, Nancy Scola on TechPresident notes that something akin to Pawlenty's Google test actually has support from the Obama administration, since U.S. Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra has said that it makes sense to shift government operations to consumer platforms that can handle services more efficiently.

leading from behind: This expression became a major anti-Obama catchphrase after it appeared in a New Yorker article about Obama's evolving foreign policy, particularly about Libya. Ryan Lizza reported:

Nonetheless, Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President's actions in Libya as "leading from behind." That's not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It's a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. "It's so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world," the adviser said. "But it's necessary for shepherding us through this phase."

In an online followup, Lizza noticed how quickly "leading from behind" had become a rhetorical touchstone among conservatives, but that its meaning "has become slightly muddled because it's so easy to poke fun at the slogan itself." The expression was popularized by Nelson Mandela, who once wrote:

It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.

Despite the Mandela pedigree, the phrase is sure to get continued ridicule from the Republican contenders. In the CNN debate, for instance, Michele Bachman said, "President Obama's own people said that he was leading from behind. The United States doesn't lead from behind. As commander in chief, I would not lead from behind. We are the head. We are not the tail."

Newtiny: Newt Gingrich has had a rough time since he announced his candidacy for the nomination. When his senior staff resigned en masse on June 9 after disagreements with Gingrich over the direction of the campaign, online wags were quick to dub it a Newtiny, blending Newt and mutiny. Gingrich had already suffered from a number of scandals, including the revelation that he and his wife had a substantial line of credit at the high-end jewelry story Tiffany's, leading his detractors to coin such expressions as Tiffanygate and Blingrich. After a second Newtiny this week, with his finance team stepping down, the opportunity for Newtenfreude might not last much longer.

Obamneycare: When I compiled a lexicon of the health care debate two years ago, Obamacare was a galvanizing buzzword for critics of Obama's proposals. As I explained then, the epithet Obamacare was modeled on Hillarycare, the term that targeted the 1993 health care plan promoted by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. As in 1993, the personalization of something as nebulous as health care policy has had great rhetorical power. In the Republican primary, frontrunner Mitt Romney has had to fend off charges that the Massachusetts health care plan, passed when he was governor, served as a model for Obamacare. It would be simple enough for the other candidates to refer to Romneycare, but Pawlenty took it a step further in an interview on "Fox News Sunday" on June 12:

Chris Wallace: Do you see a difference in principle between — on that point between Obamacare and Romneycare?

Pawlenty: Well, you don't have to take my word for it. You can take President Obama's word for it. President Obama said that he designed Obamacare after Romneycare and basically made it Obamneycare. And so, we now have the same features — essentially the same features. The president's own words is that he patterned in large measure Obamacare after what happened in Massachusetts. And what I don't understand is they both continue to defend it.

Blending Obamacare and Romneycare into Obamneycare is clever enough, but Pawlenty refrained from driving the point home during the CNN debate the following day, even though the host Jon King kept egging him on, with the hope of creating some newsworthy tension between the two current frontrunners for the nomination. "If it was Obamneycare on 'Fox News Sunday,' why isn't it not Obamneycare standing here with the governor right there?" King asked. Pawlenty apparently had second thoughts afterwards, telling Sean Hannity that he should have hammered Romney for Obamneycare after all.

And now Pawlenty has told Politico that he'll "probably use the word again." But he added, "I might change it to something else, but, you know, the same or similar. I kinda like 'Robamacare.'" Robamacare is all well and good — it puts the Ro- of Romney at the beginning, which helps to sell the narrative that Romney came up with it first and Obama followed. But when you come up with a political neologism, it's best just to zero in on one instead of tinkering around to find alternatives. Stick to your rhetorical guns!


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday June 23rd 2011, 8:27 PM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
So, do progressives/Democrats innovate in language via buzzwords, or just conservatives/Reupblicans?

What's the last catch phrase or term that Dems invented to rhetorically back Republicans into a symbolic corner?
Friday June 24th 2011, 12:56 PM
Comment by: franco Z. (New York, NY)
it is great. thank you mr. zimmer. you are a treasure for us all who have english as second language and we are also proud americans. thank you
Friday June 24th 2011, 3:03 PM
Comment by: Steve V.
Well done, sir.
Monday July 18th 2011, 1:04 AM
Comment by: Deshawn M.
Wow! So many new words ,or is it idioms, made from approaching political campaigns.

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