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Opinion

Sep. 03, 2008

What's in a party's name?


DENNIS MYERS
Against the Grain


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Something peculiar happened in Nevada's primary election this year. In Washoe County, the voter registrar authorized printing of sample ballots for a "Democrat primary election."

The term is not only improper English usage, it is also legally improper -- and it follows the tactical line of one political party against another political party, not something election officials normally do.

The Democratic organization in Nevada is registered by the Nevada Secretary of State's office as "Democratic Party of Nevada." Of sixteen incorporated Nevada political groups with the term in their name, not one uses "Democrat."

"After talking to several people about that and hearing that some of them felt that this was being used as a pejorative by critics of their party we will go back to the traditional 'Democratic' Party for the general election and in the future," said Washoe County voter registrar Dan Burk, who apparently did not realize he was stumbling into a point of contention between Republicans and Democrats. "Initially, we saw 'Democratic' as an adjective and the capital 'D' Democrat as the proper noun, but it is not our place to select the party's own name so we will go with what they wish to call themselves. So Democratic Party it is."

Meanwhile, grass roots Republicans meeting on the national party platform in Minneapolis insisted on a surprising return to civility in the language of the platform--no "Democrat Party."

"We should afford them the respect that they are entitled and call them by their legal name," said Indiana delegate Jim Bopp, and his view prevailed.

The heritage of the grating term "Democrat Party" is strictly partisan. GOP leaders have been promoting use of "Democrat Party" for decades, but it became especially pronounced after U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich circulated a 1996 memo on how to manipulate the language for political reasons. "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control" did not actually mention the Democrat vs. Democratic thing, but it popularized the notion that language could be a party tool. Rush Limbaugh has encouraged his followers to use the term.

In the New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg wrote, "Aesthetic judgments are subjective, of course, but 'Democrat Party' is jarring verging on ugly. It fairly screams 'rat.' At a slightly higher level of sophistication, it's an attempt to deny the enemy the positive connotations of its chosen appellation."

In promoting the use of "Democrat Party," Republicans rationalized their mistreatment of the language by claiming that "Democrat" is the proper term. In the late 1950s, Vice President Richard Nixon told his biographer, Earl Mazo, "Technically speaking, it should be referred to as the Democrat rather than the Democratic Party." Mazo carefully inserted a footnote in his biography to correct Nixon's belief: "The Greek adjective is demokratikos, which becomes in English 'democratic.' There is no Greek source for the adjective 'democrat'." Other language scholars agree.

The belief that "Democratic Party" is somehow correct usage has gained a lot of circulation, but the real reason GOP leaders encourage its use can be seen in a book by one time Nixon operative William Safire, who quotes former Republican national chair Leonard Hall in 1955, explaining why he used the term: "I think their claims that they represent the great mass of the people, and we don't, is just a lot of bunk."

Numerous journalists such as Candy Crowley, Bob Franken, Theo Francis, Mara Liasson, Scott Pelley, and Robin Toner have absorbed the GOP usage term and employ the term in their news coverage.

That shouldn't surprise us. This is the age of amateurish national political coverage. But what is more difficult to understand is why professional political folks who should be living for engagement on the issues prefer instead to engage on tricks and gimmicks.














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