Watch Your Mouth!  Ten Phrases that Progressives Should Retire in 2013

Along with the usual New Year’s resolutions about exercising, getting more sleep, and being more patient with the kids, progressives should add better communications to their list. We have a historic opportunity to frame the public debate this year in terms of social justice, human rights, and opportunity for all. But that requires being smarter and more deliberate in the way we talk about the nation’s priorities and future. At the very least, we need to stop using certain words and phrases that erode support for progressive values and policies. Here’s my list. I’ll ask for yours at the end of this post.

1. The Market. Building public support for a more fair economic system requires highlighting the fact that the economy is a set of human-made rules, systems, and structures, not an autonomous organism or an unbridled force of nature. Referring to bankers, CEOs, and other financial actors as “the market” obscures that reality, and reinforces the conservative notion that economic regulation is a hindrance rather than a crucial part of the rules that govern a just society. Instead, let’s clearly identify the people and institutions that are at work—for good or for ill—in our economic system. Instead of “regulating the free market,” let’s talk about “rules that hold banks accountable” or “consumer protections.”

2. Entitlements. When used to refer to safety-net protections, the term “entitlements” suggests handouts and dependency rather than a societal investment in shared prosperity and economic independence. It also obscures the tremendous subsidies and other benefits that corporations and the wealthy receive through other channels. Let’s instead call popular programs like Social Security and Medicare by name, while challenging “public service cuts,” and supporting “economic security policies.”

3. Felon. Activists around the country are doing inspiring work to create a more fair, effective, and equitable criminal justice system. To speed that work along, we should stop using the word “felon,” which reduces the identity of people convicted of crimes to the worst thing they’ve ever done. Worse still is “felon disenfranchisement” (banning people with felony convictions from voting), which combines a negative word with an arcane one that means nothing to many people who might otherwise care about the issue. Instead of opposing “felon disenfranchisement,” for example, we should uphold the “voting rights” of “people with felony convictions,” “people emerging from prison,” or “people who’ve paid their debt to society.” Let’s also drop “ex-offender.” And, while we’re at it, let’s stop using the word “criminal” as a noun too, for the same reasons.

4. Illegal. Terms like “illegal immigrant,” “illegal alien,” and, worst of all, “illegals” are dehumanizing as well as grammatically flawed—since people cannot be illegal. Conversely, talking about “legalization” and “getting right with the law” suggests, by implication, that those who lack authorization to live or work in the U.S. are inherently lawbreakers. We should instead talk about a “roadmap to citizenship” for “new Americans,” “aspiring citizens,” and, when greater specificity is needed, “immigrant parents,” “workers,” or “students” who are “undocumented” or “lack authorization” to work in the United States. To be sure, those phrases are more of a mouthful than “legal” and “illegal.” But reducing people’s lives and identities to one negative word undermines our values and goals.

5. Immigration Reform. Things that need “reforming” are bad, and the phrase “immigration reform” implicitly suggests that immigration—which is the age-old movement of people from one place to another, and a profound benefit to U.S. society—needs rectification. Let’s instead talk about improving our flawed “immigration policies,” creating a “roadmap to citizenship” for new Americans, and adopting “commonsense approaches that uphold our nation’s values and move us forward together.”

6. Gay Marriage. Terms like “gay marriage” and “same-sex marriage” suggest that we are debating a unique exception to “real” marriage. By instead calling for “marriage equality” and “the right to marry,” we can make clear that we are promoting the same fundamental right for all people in loving relationships.

7. Level the Playing Field. This metaphor is intended to connote fairness, but it’s often misused by progressives. The purpose of institutions like public education and healthcare is not competition (as the “playing field” sports metaphor implies), but community, societal wellbeing and the common good. Instead, let’s talk about “expanding access,” “toppling obstacles,” and “ensuring equal opportunity.”

8. Judicial Activism. Conservatives coined this term to criticize landmark decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court like Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, and Miranda v. Arizona that finally recognized long-ignored fundamental constitutional rights. But progressives now frequently use the term (sometimes earnestly, sometimes ironically) to criticize the current Supreme Court’s conservative rulings, many of which go out of their way to decide questions that were not even raised by the parties. We should call out these rulings as “judicial overreaching” that “tramples Americans’ constitutional rights” and, where appropriate, as “based on politics instead of the Constitution.” But let’s not reinforce the conservative “judicial activism” frame, or imply that it’s improper for courts to make momentous decisions that uphold the Constitution.

9. Work Hard and Play by the Rules. This phrase is a staple of Democratic candidates, and “tests well” with a range of demographic groups. But it’s always been flawed, suggesting that there are “good” Americans with a strong work ethic and respect for the law, alongside large numbers of “bad” Americans (and foreigners) who are lazy, dependent, and dishonest. Poor people and people of color are most frequently on the losing end of these negative implicit stereotypes. Indeed, President Bill Clinton coined the term largely to distance himself from issues of poverty and inequity, and used it in enacting welfare reform. President Obama has helpfully shifted to calling for a country in which “everyone plays by the same rules – from Main Street to Wall Street to Washington, DC,” and where everyone “has a fair shot.” That’s a verbal step in the right direction.

10. Responsible Homeowners.  Misconduct by banks and inadequate consumer protections pushed our economy to the brink of collapse and continue to cost millions of American families their homes. But President Obama and others continue to respond, rhetorically, by calling for aid to “responsible homeowners.” That phrasing buys into the conservative narrative that reckless, irresponsible homeowners were a major cause of the meltdown, and that reforms should rigorously benefit only those with “clean hands.” That conservative narrative, in turn, undermines support for the very policies—like adjusting mortgage principal to fair market value—that the president and progressive allies are promoting. Dropping the loaded word “responsible,” and promoting initiatives that enable “homeowners,” “families,” and “communities” harmed by the crisis to get back on track, will make it easier to see those initiatives enacted.

I’m taking nominations for other phrases to retire in 2013. Post your ideas in the comment section, and I’ll publish the top picks in a future blog. Until then, let’s all watch our mouths!

(Photo by Peter Morgan, CC BY.)

Alan Jenkins is the executive director and co-founder of The Opportunity Agenda.


  1. This was a great read. I’m glad you included the term Entitlement; it always sounded problematic to me. I hadn’t thought of the term felon disenfranchisement as problematic, but I see your point. I will start using the phrase “upholding the voting rights of people with felony convictions” when discussing this issue.

  2. How about Education Reform: Our public education system needs complete transformation. Overhaul might work, too. Reform sounds like we just need to tweak around the edges and it will be fixed. Wishful thinking.

  3. I’d like to get rid of “safety net”, a phrase I believe coined by Ronald Reagan. To me it indicated that we were allowing people to fall – like acrobats – and if you’ve been to the circus you know that tumbling into a safety net often involves bouncing out, falling through and being injured. I think before we allowed the conservatives to righteously define a safety net we used to talk about having a floor to support all people. The floor was something below which no one should fall. It meant minimum acceptable level of income, housing, services, etc. It is also the foundation of a house – and it means we are all standing at the same level.

  4. How about words we Progressives should include, like “Cooperation”. Progressives generally agree that investment capital with its depressionof 29 and serious recession of 2008 and periodic recession every 10=-20 years over the past 150 years or so has a questionable validity as our basic economic system. Socialism and communism lose favor because of intense government involvement. But cooperative have proven their ability to survive recesssions and do not contribute to them. Cooperatives are the answer to the need for local based economies instead of national or international directed ones devoted only to make a return on investment. Herb Fisher

  5. We may not like these terms, but since they’re largely factually accurate I wonder if we destroy our credibility by using less accurate phrases. For example, ‘illegal immigrants’ are immigrants that have entered the country illegally – they have not followed the ‘legal’ immigration processes.

    Don’t we diminish our credibility (and influence) by using the term ‘aspiring citizen’ when there’s no evidence to suggest that each aspires to become citizens? Same problem with many of these other mainstream phrases, I’m afraid.

  6. Ditto on “safety net.”

    I also would recommend “do more with less.” In my experience, almost without exception, the individuals who use this phrase as a public sector mantra are usually in positions where they get to decide how much and to whom resources should be allocated. These include foundation directors and elected state officials.

    I’m not advocating for using resources unwisely. Just questioning the expectations that decision-makers have about public sector organizations that serve economically, and often politically, marginalized communities…

  7. The terminology we are use in the field of reentry work (as it pertains to the person returning from jail to the community) is “returning citizen”. It is the single best thing our county has done to promote acceptance and tolerance.

  8. Actually, one phrase that continually makes me cringe is… “progressive”. It implies that anyone who doesn’t implicitly agree is “regressive” in some way.

    I thought the idea was to foster cooperation and dialogue, not to passively label dissenters?

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