Inappropriate language: what is going on in modern politics?

10 Nov 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 3 Mar 2021

The establishment is taking a kicking at the polls and many people struggle to understand why. One reason the point is being missed is because political discussion is hamstrung by outdated slogans.

2016 has been a revolutionary year in politics.

Established orders have been rejected; whether their replacements will address, in any satisfactory way, the dissatisfactions that powered these democratic decisions remains to be seen.

For many people, it is all so surprising. Surprising and indescribable.

Language underpins our understanding of complicated ideas, and allows us to communicate them -but it can also constrict our ability to describe and even comprehend what we see.

Left-wing politics, right-wing politics – these terms are of limited or no use and increasingly fail to characterise what is happening around the world. However, they still dominate political discourse, and to a damaging extent.

The terms are so familiar and ubiquitous that we strive to apply them to any policy and any person. We are trying to fit our understanding of politics, as it is now, in moulds that are out of date.

Left and right date back to the late 18th Century and the French Revolution. As the Ancien Régime approached its reckoning, royal supporters and opponents began to congregate on either side of the President during sittings of the National Assembly.

As the loyalist, and Deputy in the Assembly, Baron de Gauville said: "We began to recognize each other: those who were loyal to religion and the king took up positions to the right of the chair so as to avoid the shouts, oaths, and indecencies that enjoyed free rein in the opposing camp."

The left and right labels found a renewed relevance during the Cold War. Clear ideological differences between the two superpowers trickled down into clean differences on many specific aspects of policy.

But now the world is full of mixed economies and mixed social attitudes. Language is supposed to illuminate. Left and right cast shadows and obfuscate.

The terms liberal and conservative have also lost their power. Sometimes they provide clarity and capture ideas or positions well but, in both cases, they know have so many different meanings (and mean different things to different people) that ironically they have become meaningless. At their most banal, they are simply proxies for left wing and right wing.

Right and left themselves are no longer fit for purpose. The clean lines they used to describe no longer exist, neither in the specifics of policy or in the philosophy of politics.

The Donald

For a “right-wing demagogue”, President-elect Donald Trump has a lot in common with trade-union populism.

If you believe his rhetoric, he is a protectionist who plans to impose trade tariffs and bring manufacturing jobs back to swathes of America. This  has plenty in common with old-school, left-wing crowdpleaser (and, under different circumstances, right-wing populism too).

And if you think that isn’t a big part of his appeal, look at Ohio. It was a key battleground state, and Trump won by nearly 10 percentage points.

How did he do this? It is an outlier result in what was a very close race and this might indicate that any appeal he had in Ohio was a magnified version of any broader popularity across America.

His key pitch in the Buckeye State, part of America’s rust belt, was to rail against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a trilateral agreement between the USA, Canada and Mexico.

NAFTA is hated in Ohio, seen as a major force in the general trend of manufacturing jobs disappearing from Middle America and moving elsewhere around the world.

Free trade, one of the central pillars of the “right-wing” Republican Party policy. Free trade, the spine of “right-wing” free market economics.

While NAFTA was signed into effect by President Bill Clinton in early 1994 – a fact that did not help Hillary, for sure – negotiations had begun during the tenure of his predecessor, George H. W. Bush.

In fact, Clinton only agreed to the deal when parallel agreements, including the North American Agreement on Labor Co-operation (NAALC), were also signed off. NAALC included provision designed to improve the pay and conditions for workers across the three countries.

Crucially, and in contradiction of any views that immigration is the great concern driving current political trends, NAFTA was about free trade of money, and goods and services, but not labour.

Of course, any major political figure – especially in a country as big and varied as the USA – gathers votes by making different pitches to different people. Yes, some people don’t like immigration simply because they are racist, and they will probably like Donald Trump - but his anti-globalisation rhetoric is the real vote winner.


It is only a couple of generations since having a full-time manufacturing job in American was enough to own your home and raise your family, even on a single income. Nowadays such material comfort is unattainable in this fashion. Europe has seen an analogous change.

Scope wrote previously about why Brexit was a vote against globalisation – or, more specifically, a vote against the globalisation we have experienced, whereby the proceeds of growth have all gone either to developing countries or to the local rich, while everyone else in the west is squeezed until the pips squeak.

Trump is a “left-wing” populist, promising renewed wealth for the beleaguered groups of people left behind in the past few decades, and who have borne the brunt of the last decade, following the banking crash. At the same time, he wants tax cuts for the wealthy (which includes himself), which is a staple of “right-wing” politics.

He is also a right winger on some social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage – or he professes to be. Whether he cares about these things at all is up for debate. Can a man with so many marriages and who clearly loves to party be in any real sense a “social conservative”? Nevertheless, he has embraced the evangelicals into his voting bloc, which he needed to do, and will need to use these issues in the inevitable horse trading with Congress.

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have Republican majorities. In theory that makes things very easy but, if Trump is serious about his protectionism (and if he isn’t he has other problems) he will be in complete ideological opposition to many of his own party’s politicians.

He has the power to appoint an extremely “right-wing” (read: anti-abortion) judge to the Supreme Court vacancy and this could keep many of them onside.

Capturing reality

Failures in our existing political language have contributed to a broad lack of understanding about the political movement of our times. There has also been an unwillingness to confront the complex reality of the situation, compounded by an adherence to clumsy terms that offer no insight or to dangerous or insulting oversimplifications and straw men.

Racism, as an explanation, has been one such failure.

Just because racists might have largely voted for Brexit, or voted for Trump, or be supportive of the “right-wing” nationalist resurgence across Europe (again, often protectionist, so left wing as much as it is right wing), does not mean that this is a racist movement.

There may well be a large degree of fear, or discomfort, about the security of local society in western countries (and by this I do not mean terrorist violence – although that too – but instead shifting norms) but that is not racism, or even necessarily xenophobia. Being protective of your own society is not the same as fear of others.

And any social worries go hand in hand with the understandable economic paranoia experienced by lower and middle earners across the entire western world.

Accusations of racism do nothing but fuel the fire, a fire which is already forceful and forthright. These are no indicators of anything insidious per se; it is just the way these things are.

Ironically the labels of right and left that have survived over 200 years still fail to describe the current situation despite similarities with the French Revolution.

Reconsider Baron de Gauville above. One can feel the wig-clutching preciousness of his support for the aristocratic, wealthy, greedy, royal status quo, and his fear and contempt of “the shouts, oaths, and indecencies that enjoyed free rein” in parliament, while outside it was Les Misérables; no wonder people wanted to tell him to piss off.

And then there’s Johnny Rotten swearing on TV.

All counter-culture is coarse. It is irreverent and irascible and combative and provocative, especially when it starts to win because, like it or not, it is always the overthrow of an established norm by some relative upstart.

But if the change has happened then the expectations change too. Trump’s America, like post-Brexit Britain and like several other upheavals across Europe, will begin to suffer from expectations.

Honeymoon periods only last so long. Brexit won by a slim margin, Donald lost the popular vote, and the “right-wing” (protectionist) movements across Europe are gaining traction rather than sweeping all before them.

If they fail to address the twin worries of too-rapid social change and the unattainability of a middle-class lifestyle, there will be a new populism, one that disparages and distrusts them in turn. That is the way these things work. It is not left wing, or right wing, but something fundamental.

Something that is not possible to understand if you cannot find the right way to talk about it.

Dispense with outdated slogans, be self-critical in your attempts to understand other points of view, and comprehension comes more easily.

And, if you have been appalled by some of the hideous aspects of the Trump and Brexit campaigns, you might find succour in that comprehension.

People want a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work; they do not want their prospects to wither in comparison to their parents and grandparents, especially at a time of economic growth.

It’s easy to understand if you find the right way to talk about it.

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