Bob Ehrlich: A Guide To Understanding the Language of the Left


In politics, as in life, words count. It is therefore important to keep abreast of how our cultural value makers manipulate the English language to their political benefit.

Accordingly, I offer the following definitions/contextual examples for those of you attempting to understand the tone, tenor and vocabulary of the progressive left.

Enjoy, if you can.

“Normalize”: Typically used in the pejorative sense (“Trump’s actions are normalizing anti-social behavior,” etc.), the word became trendy shortly after the Resistance began its counterattack in the aftermath of Nov. 8, 2016.

The verb is an especially effective weapon as the new left attempts to curtail conservative — traditional — un-PC speech. For example, any and all attempts to protect religious liberty are now lumped together as “normalizing” prejudice and bigotry.

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But two can play this game. The right has also begun to employ the term in its efforts to marginalize progressive policies advocated by the leading Democratic presidential contenders. Hence, the left’s relentless efforts to nullify the legal requirements of immigration enforcement (eliminate ICE, tear down borders walls) serve to “normalize” progressive immigration policy to America’s detriment.

You can bet this increasingly popular verb will continue to be employed by both sides in light of our highly polarized election cycle.

“That’s not us”: A second cousin to “normalize,” this brief phrase was first perfected by candidate and then-President Barack Obama during the GITMO/torture debates post-9/11. The words are of course intended to convey a sense of moral superiority on the one hand; moral depravity on the other.

In the tenor of that era, this meant that American values would never countenance torture or even non-torturous tough treatment, no matter the circumstances or intelligence to be gained. Per the president, we were too civilized to indulge, which by definition meant that those who continued to defend the practice were … uncivilized.

Today, “that’s not us” has expanded to include just about every political position rejected by progressives: free markets, abortion restrictions, gun rights, border enforcement, mandatory sentences, due process on campus and religious liberty just to name a few.

Conservatives beware: “that’s not us” remains a most effective rhetorical phrase, always intended to place conservatives on the defensive.

“Woke”: The progressive group “Black Lives Matter” is credited with the popularity of the phrase in today’s politics. The adjective is reportedly a term of African origin intended to convey deeper awareness of social and racial justice. Of course, progressives use “justice” as a one-way street: the term refers to a progressive awakening as to inequalities within American society, especially on issues relating to criminal justice reform and the disparities inherent in market capitalism.

Those of us who subscribe to another type of awakening — along the lines of appreciation for law enforcement, free speech rights and the incredible wealth produced by capitalism are decidedly “un-woke.” Wonder if I just made up a word?

“Aspirational”: Most of us will recognize the use of this always positive adjective by those for whom reality has reared its ugly head. And sooner or later it always rears its ugly head.

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The most recent (and illustrative) example concerns the almost comical overuse of the word in the aftermath of “Green New Deal” media events. It is best to think about GND media events as two-part occurrences. First, the highbrow lofty goals (peace on earth, equality, socialism, Fox News goes off the air) are announced with an air of breathless anticipation and widely covered by CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Then, comes the much less aspirational follow-up presser. Here, the advocates (sometimes) are able to indulge reality for a fleeting minute or two. They accordingly recognize that the immediate elimination of fossil fuels, airplanes, cows and Sean Hannity may indeed be lofty, but must remain merely aspirational for now due to all those burger-eating closed-minded deplorables running to and from the pistol range in their gas-guzzling SUVs.

“Social Justice”: This may be the most commonly employed phrase in today’s progressive universe. What began as a catch-all phrase to encourage criminal sentencing and re-entry reform now means…anything progressives want it to mean. Lately, the likes of Kirsten Gillibrand have used it to “educate” working class, blue-collar whites about their “enhanced” social/race status.

Unsurprisingly, this one did not fly very high. But this useful phrase will remain wildly popular because it seeks to guilt-trip anyone viewed as privileged into supporting just about any social remedy that degrades the privilege.

Can you say reparations?

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Robert Ehrlich is a former governor of Maryland as well as a former U.S. congressman and state legislator. He is the author of “Bet You Didn’t See That One Coming: Obama, Trump, and the End of Washington’s Regular Order,” in addition to “Turn This Car Around,” “America: Hope for Change" and “Turning Point.” Ehrlich is currently a counsel at the firm of King & Spalding in Washington, D.C.