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The GOP’s Casual, Cynical, Disrespectful “Democrat Party” Slur
This is no small matter, and every time a TV host or reporter lets it slide, it digs the knife deeper into the side of our nation’s body politic.
From time to time I’ll see, mostly on message boards and social media, Democrats refer to the Republican Party as the “Rethugligans,” “Republicons,” “Repukes,” or similar attempts to twist the name of the party Lincoln first led to victory in the election of 1860.
While outrage at Republican policies and the egregious lies of their elected officials — from election denialism to birtherism to trickle-down — is justified, society and American media generally agree that use of such language reflects more poorly on the person using it than it does the GOP.
It’s seen as a somewhat childish sign of disrespect — a schoolyard taunt — and does nothing to advance honest discussion of politics or political parties.
Which is why it’s so baffling that when a similar name-twisting slur is applied to the Democratic Party — frequently and casually on Sunday talk shows and in other media — the same standard of respect for the Democratic Party’s name is ignored.
Thomas Jefferson named America’s second (after the Federalists) political party the “Democratic Republicans” back in the day; the “Republicans” part was dropped in the 1820s and it became simply the Democratic Party. Today it’s the oldest continuous political party in the history of the world’s democracies.
And yet its hard to find a Republican politician, commentator, or spokesperson who doesn’t call it the “Democrat Party.”
This is an intentional slur, and there’s a history here that’s instructive.
Wisconsin Republican Senator Joe McCarthy was a drunk, a political opportunist, and was generally regarded by his peers as a pompous ass. He and his right-hand man, Roy Cohn (lawyer to the Mafia and the Trump family), delighted in slandering and destroying the lives and careers of their political enemies, including totally innocent people who simply got in the way of their ambitions.
And he sure knew how to use and manipulate the media. During the mid-1950s, McCarthy led a nationwide witch-hunt, looking for communists under every bed, in every company, and in every government agency in America.
He warned us that the Army and the State Department were filled with communists, claiming to carry with him a list of “205 communists” who had infiltrated the government. (He had no such list; it was a blank piece of paper, but the prop more than served its purpose.)
His attacks on gay men were even more virulent than his attacks on suspected communists, which is particularly ironic given that his partner in crime, Roy Cohn, was himself gay and would die of AIDS.
It was eventually help from members of his own party that brought McCarthy down with a 67-22 censure vote on December 2, 1954 for “conduct contrary to Senate traditions”; he died of his alcoholism shortly thereafter.
But while he held the nation’s spotlight, reveling in destroying the lives and careers of people just to increase his own fame, the country was torn apart by his crusades.
McCarthy went after gay men as aggressively as he did suspected communists. When Wyoming’s Democratic Senator Lester Hunt’s son, Lester Jr., was arrested for soliciting sex from an undercover policeman, two Republican senators blackmailed him, threatening to reveal the arrest if he didn’t drop out of the upcoming 1954 election so their Republican candidate could replace him (the GOP controlled the senate by 2 votes that year).
McCarthy eagerly inserted himself into the blackmail scheme, only this time taking it public, falsely telling the press that an “unnamed senator” was trying to bribe a police officer to not name his own homosexuality.
Senator Hunt got the message and carried a .22 rifle into his Senate office chambers that week, shooting himself in the head. (This was the event that led to McCarthy’s censure.)
Nonetheless, McCarthy persisted and even amped up his crusade against gay men in all fields. Over 5,000 government employees were fired for suspected homosexuality, as violence against gay men exploded across the nation during the 1950s.
Throughout this time, McCarthy — in an eerie prescience suggesting today’s Qanon conspiracy theories about Democrats drinking children’s blood — argued that the central nexus of the “homosexual agenda” as well as the “communist sympathizers” was the “Democrat Party.”
Throughout his hearings, carried on live television every day for almost two months, McCarthy refused to use the actual name of the party and its members he was slandering.
Instead, he argued, “Democratic” sounded too nice, too, well, democratic. McCarthy is sometimes quoted (it may be apocryphal) as saying, in Newt Gingrich Word List fashion, that Republicans should just say, “Democrat Party, with the emphasis on the ‘rat’!”
Every day, on national TV, radio, and quoted in the newspapers, McCarthy, Cohn, and their colleagues delighted in slandering the “Democrat Party” and its “pinko, sicko sympathizers” and members. It became so common that The New York Times even occasionally referred to “the Democrat Party.”
As language scholar Ignace Feuerlicht wrote in 1957 in the Journal of the American Dialect Society:
“It will be interesting to see whether ‘Democrat Party’ will stay with us or go out of existence again or be revived and revitalized at intervals just before successive national elections.”
In fact, the slur has persisted. Mitch McConnell refers to the “Democrat Party” from the well of the Senate. Random Republicans repeat the slur on television more frequently than they use the actual name of the party. Conservative media use it almost exclusively to describe the Democratic Party.
While outrage over the distortion and slander of the name of one of the world’s great political parties is justified, a larger issue should concern us all.
When a political party like the Republicans has so departed from normal political dialogue that its senior-most members insult and defame their opposition so casually, that party has lost much of its claim to political legitimacy.
This is no small matter, and every time a TV host or reporter lets this slur slide it digs the knife deeper into the side of our nation’s body politic.
There was a time when our media would ignore or even quote politicians casually using the N-word to describe Black people, the B-word to describe women, and various racial slang to describe Hispanics, Italians, and Poles. That time, thankfully, is now past.
Hopefully this “Democrat Party” slur will soon follow the same path to oblivion, and our media will lead the way in calling Republicans out when they continue to use that offensive term.