The GOP Discovers PC

Decades after the left and Democrats went through wrenching debates about language and respect, the Republican Party is struggling to rein in its sharper tongues.


In 2004, William S. Lind of the Free Congress Foundation wrote a short intellectual history of the term "politically correct" that well encapsulates the long-standing conservative defense of speech -- and ideas -- that run contrary to those espoused by the new social movements that have been transforming America since the 1960s.

"[W]hat happens today to Americans who suggest that there are differences among ethnic groups, or that the traditional social roles of men and women reflect their different natures, or that homosexuality is morally wrong?" he asked. "If they are public figures, they must grovel in the dirt in endless, canting apologies...What was their crime? Contradicting America's new state ideology of 'Political Correctness.'"

Or as Geoffrey Hughes put it in his 2009 book Political Correctness: A History of Semantics and Culture, "Political correctness inculcates a sense of obligation or conformity in areas which should be (or are) matters of choice."

But now the decades-long conservative opposition to political correctness is finally breaking down. In the wake of Mitt Romney's solid defeat by Barack Obama, the Republican Party has been forced into a series of wrenching internal debates about how to appeal to a wider array of voters, especially the women and minorities who elevated the president to a second term. It's an effort being led by some of the party's own most prominent minority voices, as well as some of its more urbane strategists, with the goal of reining in the most offensive GOP speakers and squashing their provoking uses of language.

The latest instance of intra-party pushback came from Nevada Republican Party on Thursday, which warned in a statement of principles and strategy: "All are entitled to their opinions, but today's priorities not those of the past must prevail if the Republican Party is to regain the trust of Nevada's voters. As Congressman Mark Amodei (and Dr. Einstein) noted, 'insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.' We must change if we are to survive."

In particular, the party noted: "The GOP has increasingly found itself in positions that do not meet the demographic realities of the State's electorate. These positions also conflict with our party's historic commitment to civil rights. To that end, Republicans must become more inclusive, reflecting our desire to secure a better life for all Americans, and equally important, for our children."

The net result: "We support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants." No longer is the conversation about "illegal immigrants," as the Las Vegas Review-Journal calls them -- but about "undocumented" ones. As with Lind's essay, the connection is clear -- language and policy are inextricably bound together, for the use of language describes not just the subject of speech but the stance of the speaker toward the subject. And both those are bound up with the demographic changes the Democratic Party has been absorbing since the 1980s.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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