The most ideological moments are often, not when one loudly states a position, but when one AVOIDS stating one’s position, when things are assumed to be so obvious that you feel no need to mention them. Consider this routine bit of political commentary by Chris Cillizza in today’s Washington Post, in which he engages in some routine armchair quarterbacking about the Democratic primaries. His argument is unsurprising: any new entrants into the race have little chance given all the money behind Hillary Clinton. But what interests me here is how he uses the word “Democrats.”
“Dear Democrats:” he begins, “It’s too late to start over.” Noting the staffing and fundraising leads of Clinton, Cillizza argues, “If Democrats wanted a serious primary fight between Clinton and someone else — it’s hard to imagine who — that decision needed to have happened a year ago [when] all of the Democratic eggs were put in Clinton’s basket.”
Who are the “Democrats” Cillizza is referring to here? Certainly not U.S. citizens who might vote in the Democratic primaries: they won’t be heard from until January 2016 and later. Nor is it really all those folks across the country who have been and might be active in the Democratic Party, getting involved in local elections, campaigning for causes and candidates.
As Cilliza puts it toward the end of the article, he’s talking about “Every leading consultant, fundraiser, donor and staffer [who] sought to get on board either her campaign or the super PAC dedicated to electing her.” He uses the word “Democrats” to refer to political professionals and big donors, people plugged into the Washington D.C. beltway circuits. He’s talking about the Democratic 1%, the very wealthy who care about Democrats — Goldman Sachs’ top executives care about Democrats for self-protective reasons, though they may not vote for them — and those political insiders who solicit their wealth and attention.
If you were to replace the word “Democrats” in Cilliza’s piece with “centrist wealthy elites and the political professionals who cultivate their good will,” it would be more accurate, if awkward; “the socially liberal 1%” might flow better, and be almost as precise. But Cilliza refers to this tiny group — probably a few thousand in total number — simply as “Democrats.” Actual Democratic voters? Well, they aren’t worth talking to or about. No need to mention them.
Why split these linguistic hairs? Because this kind of systematic linguistic slippage or inaccuracy, this inability to state the plain facts of the situation, is symptomatic of the current state of U.S. Presidential elections, in which journalists take as “natural” the fact that loose coalitions of elites serve as gatekeepers before any candidate can become “viable.” Cilliza takes this situation completely for granted, yet it’s significant that he cannot quite name it out loud; hence “Democrats” rather than, say, the “socially liberal 1%.” He imagines his take on things to be “pragmatic, not ideological.” But last I checked, being truly pragmatic meant dealing with the actual facts at hand, not with linguistic airbrushing.
We have a long way to go.