15 Phrases “Progressives” Need To Ditch (And What We Can Say Instead)

Author: February 24, 2013 5:53 am

One of the most frustrating things about being a progressive has been watching conservatives win the big fights over and over again over the past four decades. Why do right-wing extremists keep winning when their agenda has proven so bad for America? It’s partly because they’ve taken over the conversation and have set the terms of the debate by choosing the actual words we use to discuss the issues we care about.

We need to take a long, hard look at phrases we keep using, and that we seriously need to ditch. Why use language that puts the “liberal agenda” of fairness, equality, peace, and shared prosperity in a bad light? If we want the American people to think well of our causes, then we need to use our own words.

Hey hey, ho ho, these phrases need to go.

(1). Big Business: (Also referred to as: Corporate America; Multinationals; Corporate Interests) When we use any of these words, we sound like wild-eyed, radical left-wingers right off the bat. After all, most Americans think of themselves as pro-business. When we refer to “big business” in a negative way, people think, “what’s wrong with being a ‘big business?'” After all, lots of us would love to have a business that gets “big.” Nor do most Americans have bad associations with the words “corporate” or “multinational.” They may even sound kind of exciting and worldly.

Instead, let’s try Unelected Government. When we make our cases against greedy, tax-dodging CEOs and the stingy, destructive, and immoral companies they run, we should refer to them as “unelected government.” This puts “big business” interests in their true context — as entities run by wealthy individuals who wield scary amounts of power over us in our daily lives. Every single American who has ever been laid off, shut up, cheated, exploited, sickened, indebted, or disabled by the  and which can only be held in check by equally large entities like governments and unions.

They’re not “entitlements.” Social Security, Medicare, and Unemployment are “earned benefits” that we PAY for.

(2). Entitlements: I keep hearing reporters from NPR and other supposedly left or centrist news outlets use the word “entitlements,” and it makes me froth at the mouth. It implies that our country is overrun by lazy poor people who cheat the system so they can get government handouts. Progressives seriously need to ditch that phrase, because conservatives try to make the word “entitlements” sound like something we’re not entitled to. But actually, we are.

Instead, we should call them Earned Benefits. This term not only makes our social safety net sound more palatable to right-wingers who want our nation’s elderly, disabled, and poor to sail off on an ice floe and die, it’s also way more accurate. Programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Unemployment are all forms of insurance. We all pay into them for our entire working lives — via a percent of our income — and then collect from them when the time comes. And the Right clearly wants to steal our earned benefits and give them to Wall Street.

What’s so great about “free market capitalism?”

(3). Free Market Capitalism: (Also referred to as: Capitalism, Free Markets, and Supply-Side Economics) Like “Fascism” and “Communism,” “Free Market Capitalism” is a 20th-century utopian ideal has failed badly — at least in its purest form. Yet most of us Americans hold the dream of “Free Market Capitalism” dear, and idealize ourselves as plucky, can-do, inventive entrepreneurs. Many of us also still like to think the system’s fair and that we all have a chance. So, “Free Market Capitalism” is probably one of the phrases progressives should ditch.

Instead, we can call it Socialized Risk, Privatized Profits. This best describes our four-decades-long cruel and failed experiment in unfettered capitalism, as practiced since the 1970’s. And that’s what “free market capitalism” has really become.

“Government spending?” No, we’re “investing in America.”

(4). Government Spending: (Also referred to as: Taxes, Burden, and Inconvenient) Conservatives talk about “government spending” like it’s this awful thing, but the fact is, communities across the US benefit from U.S. tax dollars, especially all those “small-government” red states. That’s right, red states actually receive way more federal tax money than they contribute. Why? Because conservative policies actually create more poor people.

Instead, we should talk about Investing in America. Because, that’s what our federal tax dollars do. Our tax dollars invest in education and infrastructure that wouldn’t prove profitable for businesses, but which still benefit society in the long-run. As John T. Harvey so aptly wrote in Forbes, “the problem in a nutshell, is that not everything that is profitable is of social value and not everything of social value is profitable.”

“Gay Marriage?” As opposed to a REAL marriage?

(5) Gay Marriage/Same Sex Marriage: While these phrases are accurate on a technical basis, they play into the conservative notion that marriage between two men or two women is somehow different and inferior than a “real” marriage between a man and a woman. Instead, let’s call it Marriage Equality

“Gun Control?” How about “gun safety?”

(6). Gun Control: Yikes! That sounds like you want to control people, and all those “freedom loving” folks who want to bully gays and people of color into staying in their place will use that word against you. Every time you complain about the latest tragic news about people getting shot for no good reasons, these gun nuts will whine about how you’re trying to “control” them and take away their “freedom.” So let’s add “Gun Control” to the list of phrases progressives need to ditch.

Instead, let’s talk about Gun Safety. It not only sounds a lot more reasonable, it’s the truth. Liberals are Americans, after all, and they often love their guns, too. Most people who worry about our nation’s alarming amount of gun violence and gun-related injuries and death just want more gun safety measures in place.

“Homophobics” aren’t scared, they’re @ssholes.

(7). Homophobic: People who oppose equal rights for gays, lesbians, and gender atypical individuals are not “afraid,” as the “phobic” suffix implies. They are mean, bigoted @ssholes. That’s why “homophobic” is an awful, misleading phrase that lets bullies get away with hating. And it’s definitely among the phrases progressives need to ditch.

Instead, let’s call these people Anti-GayThat way, we tell it like it is instead of giving anti-gay bullies some bogus level that makes them sound like victims.

The folks we call “illegal aliens” are our neighbors.

(8). Illegal Aliens: It’s easy to support harsh laws against people, when we refer to them by a scary and distant term like “illegal aliens.”  But it’s much harder to act against our neighbors, friends, the families of our children’s classmates, or the nice lady who sells those delicious tamales in that cart around the corner. The term “illegal aliens” doesn’t even acknowledge that these people are human beings, and we need to stop using it, right now.

Instead, let’s call them Undocumented Workers. Regardless of how our immigrants from Mexico, Central America, Vietnam, Eritrea, and countries around the world originally got here, they’re here now. If Big Business … Ooops … I mean “Unelected Government” … didn’t want them here — for their easily-exploited, low-cost, skilled labor — they’d be gone. And, yes, our neighbors from south of the border do have valued and specialized skills. But Big Agribusiness doesn’t want to pay them fairly for those skills. Our immigration system is insane and needs serious reform.

Plus… can we even afford to turn newcomers away? Our influx of bright, hardworking, and determined immigrants has always given our nation its edge. Plus, they’re America’s only bulwark against the aging crisis that’s hitting Western Europe and Japan. Imagine how much better off our economies and our communities would be if our undocumented workers paid taxes (some already do) and lived out in the open instead of skulking in the shadows.

They’re not “pro-life,” they’re “anti-choice.”

(9). Pro-Life: Ugh. These people are NOT “pro-life.” Once a child takes its first breath, these right-wing “pro-lifers” couldn’t care less about the quality of life for the child or mother. Let’s call them by their true name for once. Because “pro-life” is definitely one of those phrases progressives need to ditch.

Let’s tell it like it is and call them Anti-Choice. Because, that’s what they really are about. They don’t care about “life.” They only seek to deny choices to women. Not just the choice of whether or not to have a child, but whether a woman can — like a man — embrace her full sexuality without having to worry about pregnancy, and whether she can make related choices about her body, her career, and when to have children, as men always have.

“Right-to-work” really means “right to work for less.”

(10). Right-To-Work: Who came up with the phrase “right-to-work” ANYway? It’s total B.S. and doesn’t give you the right to do anything, unless you want to reject unions and earn less money than you would in a pro-union shop. In “right-to-work” states, non-union workers in union shops can decline paying union dues. Which sounds fair, but is not, because union shops pay better wages to their employees, and hence should receive from workers who receive these benefits “Right-to-work” is one of those phrases progressives need to ditch in favor of something that tells the truth.

Let’s call it Right-To-Fire (without just cause), or Right-To-Work-For-Less.: It’s far more accurate, and — as unions increasingly gain favor — will make conservatives look bad. Because “right-to-work” really does mean: Right to choose amongst sucky wages and benefits packages.  

“Who cares about “the environment?”

(11). The Environment: When people talk about “the environment,” they often sound annoyingly self-righteous, like they’re talking down to people with iffy hygiene practices. Alas, you can’t count on people to make environmentally friendly choices — especially when people are struggling financially and these choices may cost more. We need a phrase that sounds less abstract.

Instead, we should try Shared Resources. Our words that actually mean things to people and have pleasant associations of things we all cherish and want to keep, like Nature, Clean Air and Water, Forests, Rivers, Beaches, Skiesand Lakes. That makes way more sense. We may not care about some  factory dumping crap into the ocean, but we dang-well care about our neighbors up the river not keeping up on their septic tank.

“Welfare” sound like a bad thing, but “social safety net” sounds like something reasonable and necessary.

(12). Welfare: When conservatives talk about “welfare,” they make it sound like this pit that lazy, undeserving people wallow in forever, rather than a source of help that’s there when we need it – and that we all pay for through our taxes. The founding fathers put promoting “the general welfare” in the preamble to our Constitution, because they believed that we have a civic obligation towards the shared well-being of our citizens. But the GOP has given the word a bad name. That’s why “welfare” is one of the phrases progressives need to ditch.

Instead, we should say Social Safety Net: This resonates better, because it conjures an image of something that catches us when we fall, but that we can easily bounce out of. Most people understand that we all need help at one time or another. When friends and family can’t step in, that’s when our social safety net comes in. And if we continue to grow the middle class — instead of cutting taxes for the rich and allowing companies to pay sub-living wages — perhaps more of us will be able to bounce out of the social safety net again.

# 13 on the list of phrases progressives need to ditch. “The Homeless.”

(13). The Homeless: This term is downright dehumanizing, and that’s why it’s yet another one of those phrases progressives need to ditch. It makes it easy for us to dismiss our fellow human beings as faceless losers or crazy drug addicts, even though “homeless” people come from all walks of life. When we talk about helping “the homeless,” people’s eyes glaze over with “compassion fatigue” — a term that was coined back in the 1980’s when the “homeless problem” got out of control so people wouldn’t have to feel bad about it. We’ve come to see “the homeless” as some hopeless problem that cannot ever be solved. But solving “the homeless” problem would be super-easy if we simply chose to ensure that all these people had a place to live.

Instead, let’s try Unhoused: The term “unhoused” far better describes the state of people we now call “the homeless.” It’s also the first step in solving the “homeless” problem, because it recognizes housed as the default. We liberals all know that letting our friends, family, neighbors, and fellow citizens go without basic necessities like housing, food, clothing, and healthcare is flat-out unacceptable. And when people try to convince us that the plight of the unhoused can’t be solved, keep this in mind: This is what the GOP want us to think. Homelessness wasn’t even much of a problem in the US until 1985 — one year after Ronald Reagan became president. Under Reagan’s leadership, we emptied out the mental hospitals, cut funding for social programs, and slowly destroyed the middle class. Now, even working people often wind up homeless … um … unhoused.

Family Values “Christians?” Try “Family Values” Hypocrites.

(14) Family values: When conservatives talk about “family values,” they’re not actually talking about policies that are good for families or that help women and children. They’re just talking about policies that uphold the cruel and twisted values of straight, male-dominated, white, “Christian” families.

Let’s call them what they are: “Family Values” Hypocrites. Putting the word “Christian” in quotation marks works great,too. What conservatives preach has nothing to do with what Jesus Christ preached.

Embrace your inner liberal!

(15) Progressives: Conservatives made the word “liberal” sound like a bad thing, so we began our slow and sorry retreat, and began calling ourselves “progressives” instead.

The real word is “liberal,” dammit. Let’s start calling ourselves what we really are: We are LiberalsWe are feminists. We are pro-civil rightsWe are pro-government and pro-welfare. And if conservatives don’t like it, they can suck it.

Featured image: Video screen grab/Group Love’s “Ways to Go” with slight alteration to change khaki uniform to blue.


facebook comments:


  • Chuck Finster

    I think the term “Homophobic” adequately describes the situation of most “homophobes”… it’s not that they literally fear gay people, they fear what the world would be like when being gay is acknowledged as being okay, which is a completely irrational fear… which is why “phobia” is associated with it.

  • How about not using labels like “Liberal”, “Conservative”, “Progressive”, “Moderate”, etc.? All these labels do is reinforce divides and divisiveness and have us habitually pick a side and argue how right we are and reinforce a culture where we habitually trying to make somebody wrong at the cost of our own happiness and peace of mind. What label do we all share? What do we all have in common? What do we all want? What do we all fear? What would bring us together? Labels will never put us on a path or in a conversation toward solving anything.

  • Since the 1970s, when I started working in Nevada, I’ve called it the Right-To-Get-Screwed state, FYI.

  • Ever and Anon

    This is a pretty good example of regaining control of the framing of political and social discussion. Cognitive linguist, George Lakoff, has a large body of work in this area. Moral Politics, 1996, spells out the prevalence of metaphor in our thinking and language. Don’t Think of an Elephant, 2004, encapsulates the essential lessons for progressive apologists.

  • According to Orwell in 1984, our old political vocabulary is deceptive, if not outdated, but we’re still stuck at the drawing board because we still don’t have the framework to relate our vague hopes of human equality & freedom to the actual distribution of power in the world.

    After all, there’s no such thing as a free and autonomous self, which entails that there’s no common human nature buried deep within, except how we have been socialized.

    No matter how good or progressive our intentions are, and how mindful we’re to avoid a totalitarian future, the same intellectuals we rely on may be the same ones who imposes a dystopia. None of us can truly imagine the right way to get from where we’re now at to a future where we’re all free and equal.

  • It’s not so much “PC” as it words of power. For example- ‘right to work’ implies that folks who want to work, cannot due to some mysterious restrictions.
    Anti-union, is much more descriptive. And illustrates the reality of the ‘rtw’ legislation.

    The same with ‘pro-life’, they’re not, demonstrably they’re not ‘pro’-life. They’re anti-choice for women. Why else the dust up over paying for contraception?

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