My colleague, the Honorable Scumbag from North Dakota

It is a commonplace that the United States is now in a hyperpartisan era. People who think that is not true or who think it is not important often pass it off by saying that nothing is more naturally human that for people to get angry at each other and, while angry, to say angry things. It is “natural,” of course, to say angry things when you are angry, but not everyone does.

I have never personally been in a barroom brawl, but in the dramatized accounts I have heard and seen, men go out for a beer, have too many, pick a fight on some pretext or other and fight it out. It was once very different in the U. S. House of Representatives. People who think that is not true often point to the physical violence that some representatives have resorted to on the House floor, but the fact that they always cite the same few events indicates how rare they are.

You really don’t expect running (candidates) or sitting (incumbents) congressmen to routinely abuse each other and if, once upon a time, someone in the House had proposed the routine abuse of their partisan opponents, he would have had to explain why it was a good idea.

Newt Gingrich, then Republican Whip in the House, did explain why it was a good idea and I am going to tell you how he sold the idea. [1] But before I do that, let me give you some of my favorites. Here are nine of my favorite terms from the list Rep. Gingrich circulated to Republicans running for office in 1990. These are nine from a list of 30.

common sense

“Use these words,” Gingrich says [2] “to help define your campaign and your vision of public service. These words can give extra power to your message.”

Those don’t sound all that bad. Anybody here against “strength” or “duty” or “freedom” or “common sense?”

Here are some items from the other list. This is a list of 36. Again, I will choose nine.


And how shall we justify using these words against the people who, if they win, will be our colleagues in the House of Representatives? This is what Gingrich told them. “These are powerful words that can create a clear and easily understood contrast. Apply these to the opponent, his record, proposals and party.”

And they did. And it worked.

There is a lot to deplore in this campaign of vilification. [3] My interest today is only to look at the words by which they were first sold. The words you are to use in “defining your vision of public service.” Some vision. The words you are to use in defaming your opponent (and his record, his proposals, and his party) are words that “create a clear and easily understood contrast.”

Your opponent is a traitor and hypocritical. You, on the other hand, are passionate and principled. Do those create a clear and easily understood contrast? Not really. There is no understanding in those words at all. They don’t require substantiation. They are “feeling words” only—is your opponent actually a “traitor?”—but they sound like substantive charges. And denying these charges has roughly the same effect as admitting to them, so there is almost no risk at all to the perpetrator.

And now the Congress labors to pass legislation that a majority of Senators and Representatives favor and which polls show to be overwhelmingly popular. Thanks, Newt.

[1] I take for granted that there were also reasons that were not given publicly. These were the public reasons.
[2] In the pamphlet Language: A Key Mechanism of Control, which was sent to Republican candidates.
[3] Rep. Joe Wilson, who yelled “You lie!” at President Obama at a joint session of Congress in 2009 is a direct beneficiary of the advice Gingrich gave in 1990.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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