AMERICAN POLITICS. TRUTH STRANGER THAN FICTION

January 27, 2017

 

This month, on January 20th,  Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States of America.  If  you've been following the very unusual, divisive and aggressive election campaign, perhaps you are confused and baffled.

 

How did we end up here? And how do we make sense of reality from now on? What are  'alternative facts' ?. And, as a non native speaker, you may wonder, is my English vocabulary sufficient to accurately decipher American news online?.  Well, you have come to the right blog. Let me help you. 

 

First, allow me to use an idiom: Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

 

Meaning: real life can be more remarkable, more extraordinary and stranger than invented tales. This expression is said to have been invented by poet Lord Byron, who used it in Don Juan (1833).

 

 

 

This idiom resonates with me this week, which has felt surreal. 

 

I've written this post for  intermediate and advanced English learners, with the aim of introducing you to American political jargon, so that you can better understand American current events and news online. If fiction is more your thing, this post will also help you enjoy watching (or binge-watching) political drama shows on Netflix! Here's a list of the very best you should check out :

 

  • House of Cards

  • The West Wing

  • The Wire

  • Scandal

  • Borgen

  • Braindead

  • The Good Wife

  • Madam Secretary

  • Commander in Chief

  • The Newsroom

  • Spin City

 

Let's start with a crash course on  the American political system

 

CRASH COURSE ON AMERICAN POLITICS

 

The American political system is defined by two basic documents:

 

  • The Declaration of Independence of 1776 (from the British!)

  • The US Constitution of 1789.

 

The US Constitution is the shortest written constitution in the world with just 7 articles and 27 amendments. 

 

 

At the heart of the US Constitution is the principle known as 'separation of powers', a term coined by the French political, enlightenment thinker Montesquieu. This means that power is spread between three institutions of the state - the executive (President & Cabinet), the legislature (House of Representatives & Senate) and the judiciary (Supreme Court & federal circuits) - and no one institution has too much power and no individual can be a member of more than one institution.

 

The American political system is dominated by two political parties: the Democratic Party and the Republican Party (often known as the 'Grand Old Party' or GOP). These are very old and very stable parties - the Democrats go back to 1824 and the Republicans were founded in 1854.

 

In illustrations and promotional material, the Democratic Party is often represented as a donkey, while the Republican Party is featured as an elephant. The origin of these symbols is the political cartoonist Thomas Nast who came up with them in 1870 and 1874 respectively.

 

For more details on the American political system, I recommend reading Roger Darlington’s page.

 

Watch this video which explains the differences between Parliamentary Democracy (UK) and  Presidential Democracy (US), to better understand how the American political system compares to the British one.

 

 

 

KEY VOCABULARY (AMERICAN ENGLISH)

 

 

 this glossary of terms is available as a printable pdf here

             

BALLOT

A system of voting, especially secret. To vote by ballot.

  • ballot paper = Paper or card marked by a person who votes.          

  • ballot box =         A box in which voters deposit their market ballots.

 

BILL

Draft of a proposed law to be discussed in parliament where it will be amended, passed or thrown out.

 

CAMPAIGN

(noun) An organized effort to win an election. (verb) To strive for elected office.

 

COALITION

Alliance of two or more political parties, usually to form a government

 

CHECKS AND BALANCES

The system of dividing power among the three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) to prevent one single institution from having too much power. Each branch has some authority to check the power of the others, thereby maintaining a balance among the three.

 

CONSTITUTION       

A statement of the fundamental principles and laws by which a country or state is governed.

 

COUP D'ETAT

Sudden, often violent, change of government when a group, such as the military, takes control.

 

DEMAGOGUE

A leader whose impassioned rhetoric appeals to greed, fear, and hatred, and who often spreads lies. Former U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (see McCarthyism) is often cited as a classic demagogue.

 

DEMOCRACY

A form of government where elections are held and people vote for the candidate of their choice to represent them.

 

DICTATORSHIP     

A form of government in which a single individual, who has often seized power by force, exercises political authority using arbitrary and oppressive methods.

 

DISSOLUTION         

The termination of the current parliament, which takes place before a general election.

 

ENTHUSIASM GAP

The difference in excitement and interest in voting between two main parties, for example.  As in: It is said that the Enthusiasm Gap between the Republican and Democratic voter base could spell disaster if the Democrats do not turn out more than expected at the polls

 

ELECTORAL COLLEGE

The mechanism / process established by the US constitution,  by which  a body of electors chosen by the voters in each state,  officially cast votes to choose the President.

 

ELECTORATE

All the people who can vote in an election.

 

EXECUTIVE ORDERS

Legally binding orders given by the President, acting as the head of the Executive Branch, to Federal Administrative Agencies.Executive Orders are generally used to direct federal agencies and officials in their execution of congressionally established laws or policies.

 

FENCE MENDING

What politicians do when they visit their electoral districts to explain an unpopular action. The term originated in 1879, when Ohio Senator John Sherman made a trip home that most people considered a political visit. Sherman insisted, however, that he was home "only to repair my fences."

 

FRONT BURNER

Where an issue is placed when it must be dealt with immediately.

 

GOP

Grand Old Party, nickname of the Republican Party.

 

GERRYMANDER

The reorganization of voting districts by the party in power to insure more votes for their candidates. The term originated in 1811, when Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts signed a bill that changed districts to favour the Democrats. The shape of one new district supposedly resembled a salamander, provoking a Boston newspaper editor to say, "Salamander? Call it a Gerrymander!"

 

GRASS ROOTS        

Ordinary people in a society, as opposed to those who are in power.  Political activity that originates locally, or arises from ground level.

 

HAIL OF CRITICISM

A lot of negative response to an act, statement, initiative.

 

IDEOLOGY

An integrated system of ideas about politics, values, and culture. Those who espouse an ideology are sometimes criticized as rigid and narrow-minded.

 

INCUMBENT

Person currently holding an official position.

 

INSIDE THE BELTWAY

The area inside the Capital Beltway, a highway that encircles Washington, D.C. An issue described as "inside the Beltway" is believed to be of concern only to the people who work in and with the federal government and of little interest to the nation at large.

 

LAME DUCK

An officeholder whose term has expired or cannot be continued, who thus has lessened power.

 

LANDSLIDE VICTORY

Win an election with a large majority of votes.

 

LEFT-WING

Liberal. The labelling system originated from the seating pattern of the French National Assembly, which put liberals on the left, moderates in the middle, and conservatives on the right.

 

LOBBY

A group seeking to influence an elected official, or the act of doing so. The term originated in the 17th century, when people waiting to speak with legislators at the English House of Commons waited in a large atrium outside the legislators' hall, called the lobby.

 

MACHINE POLITICS

Politics controlled by a tightly-run organization that stresses discipline and rewards its supporters. Machines are usually found in large cities and are frequently accused of corruption.

 

McCARTHYNISM

The practice of smearing people with baseless accusations. Refers to the tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who in the 1950s destroyed the careers of many prominent Americans by branding them Communists.

 

MUCKRAKER

A journalist who seeks out the scandalous activities of public officials. Derived from the Man with the Muck Rake, a character in John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, who could never look up, only down.

 

NOMINATION

When a political party chooses its official candidate for a particular office.

 

NOMINEE

The candidate chosen by a political party to run for a particular office.

 

OPPOSITION

Political party or parties opposing the government.

 

POLICY

Course of action proposed by a government or political party.

 

POLITICAL ASYLUM

Protection given by a State to a person who has left their own country because they oppose its government.

 

POLITICAL PARTY

A political organisation with stated beliefs, aims and policies, that puts forward candidates in elections.

 

POLITICIAN

Person who has been elected and works professionally in politics.

 

POLLING STATION

Place where people vote.

 

PORK BARREL

Wasteful and unnecessary projects that politicians secure for their local districts, usually to gain favour with local voters. The term dates from the days when salted pork was occasionally handed out to slaves from large barrels. An observer once wrote that the mad rush of politicians to get their district's share of treasury funds looked like slaves rushing to the pork barrel.

 

PRIMARY

A state election in which party members vote for a candidate from within their party. The vote determines how many of that state's delegates each candidate gets.

 

PUNDIT

A political analyst, commentator, or columnist who usually works for a newspaper or magazine, or in broadcasting. Derived from a Hindi phrase meaning "learned one."

 

REACH ACROSS THE AISLE

To make an effort to negotiate or mediate differences with those who are on the other side of the political spectrum in the spirit of compromise.  It references the actual physical aisle that divides the legislative halls where members of the two parties sit on opposite sides.

 

REGIME

System of government: a communist, fascist, etc. regime.

 

REPUBLIC

System of government in which power is held by elected representatives and an elected president.

 

REACTIONARY

A militant conservative; opposite of "radical," which means ultraliberal. 

 

READ OUT 

The analysis or interpretation of information or data on a particular political position.  As in: What is the White House’s read out on the public outcry from the oil spill?

 

RED TAPE

Government paperwork and procedures that are slow and difficult. Stems from an 18th-century British practice of binding official papers with a reddish twine

 

RUBBER CHICKEN CIRCUIT 

The endless series of public dinners and luncheons politicians must attend to raise funds and make speeches. The food often includes chicken, which is cooked hours earlier and then reheated, giving it a rubbery texture.

 

RUN (FOR ELECTION)

Be a candidate in an election

 

SILENT MAJORITY

The mass of Americans whose opinions are not loud and public, but who together have enormous power. Popularized by President Richard Nixon, who claimed that Vietnam War protesters comprised a minority, while a "silent majority" supported the war.

 

SLATE

Candidates for various offices running as a team; or a group of delegates running on behalf of one candidate.

 

SMOKE FILLED-ROOM

The sort of place where behind-the-scenes political wheeling and dealing, often devious, occurs. Refers to the penchant of many political operatives for smoking cigars.

 

SPIN

A politician's attempt to shape the way the public looks at an issue or event, much the way a tennis player uses spin to direct the ball. Political advisers who spin are known as "spin doctors."

 

TSUNAMI

A term for a wave of political victories where one particular party takes over the incumbent seats represented by an opposing power in office.

 

TURN-OUT

The number of people who vote in an election.

 

STUMP

To campaign in person on a local level.

 

SWING VOTE

The undecided, usually independent, portion of the electorate that can "swing" the outcome of an election one way or the other.

 

TRIAL BALLOON

An idea a politician suggests to observe the reaction. If public reaction is favourable, the politician takes credit for it; if not, the idea dies quickly.

 

WHISTLE-STOPPING

The practice of making speeches in many towns in a short time, often during a single day. When politicians travelled by train, small towns were called whistle-stops. Politicians would use the stop to deliver a quick campaign speech, often from the back of the train, before heading to the next stop.

 

WITCH HUNT

A vindictive, often irrational, investigation that preys on public fears. Refers to witch hunts in 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts, where many innocent women accused of witchcraft were burned at the stake or drowned.

 

QUICK ENGLISH LESSON

 

Do you know the difference between the adjectives unreal and surreal?

 

Unreal means fake, not real.

 

Surreal means resembling a dream: fantastic & incongruous.

 

Leave comments and/or  share if you found this post useful. I plan to write another post about political satire,  the most popular American comedians and their TV shows.

 

Until, then I leave you with a  clip about House of Cards.

 

 

 

 

 

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