Warning: Contains politically explicit language. Adult-in-the-room advisory.
It was not that long ago that Americans witnessed the intentional and complete expletification of a word, the transformation of a perfectly useful and benign noun and adjective into a slur. Pollsters and PR mavens in the Republican Party set out to vilify the word "liberal" and, with the help of old standby shibboleths like "card-carrying," succeeded beyond their dreams.
For a generation, few politicians, nor even private citizens in private conversations, felt comfortable self-indentifying as "liberals," while the word's antonym became a badge of honor, no matter one's actual beliefs or home on the political spectrum. Even liberals denied "liberal" thrice before dawn and the somewhat quaint "progressive" came back into style.
As Americans were led to shun the "liberal" label, its counterpart, "conservative," became an unquestioned badge of virtue. Actual liberals slapped the label on their policies, even adopted their opponents' policies in hopes of rubbing some "conservative" shine off on themselves.
Today, right now, we may be witnessing a similar, though much more rapid, shift in political linguistics, and we, as political activists (you know you are) would do well to take note and consider how best to take advantage.
With the ascendancy of an extreme faction of the GOP, pundits, pols and pollsters have struggled to find an acceptable adjective for the new, not-so-improved right wing. Since the perfectly accurate "crazy" has fallen into disfavor (yeah, I know; we'll differ on that one) and many feel silly using Sen. McCain's equally accurate "wacko birds," the media and political yapigentsia have settled on "conservative" to describe the GOP splinter better tagged "radical" or "reactionary."
Tea Party groups threaten primary challenges to Republicans deemed insufficiently "conservative." Yapping heads refer to the "conservative" wing of the GOP while listeners understand they mean "freaking nuts."
Even voters are coming to see "conservative" as something negative, perhaps associated with dangerous mental impairment. Don't believe me? check out the exit polling from yesterday's gubernatorial race in Virginia.
voters on balance said that Mr. Cuccinelli’s positions on the issues were “too conservative,” while Mr. McAuliffe’s were “about right”
"too conservative" in this case being a synonym for "being some weirdly repressed sexual freak about lady parts" and "about right" for "willing to let people the hell alone, for god's sake," a quality once considered a key "conservative" trait.
Yes, these are but the musings of a political amateur on a few anecdotal observations, but I do wonder if we are seeing a linguistic shift comparable to the demonization of "liberal" begun in the age of Gipper and Poppy.
While we are unlikely to see "liberal" restored to its rightful denotation of "open-minded," "generous" and "unbigoted," perhaps we are truly witnessing the end of a closed-mined, selfish and xenophobic "conservative" era.
We can only hope.