What are the most common American political insults?
In the run-up to today’s mid-term election, observers of American politics have lamented that the nation’s political landscape is more divided than ever. A Pew Research Center report released this year concluded that “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines—and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive—than at any point in the last two decades.” As anyone who has ever looked through comments on a political blog can attest, this polarization often translates into venomous language, with Republicans and Democrats slinging political insults at each other over the partisan divide.
American English has a specialized vocabulary of insults based on party affiliation. For instance, a Democrat deriding a Republican might use the term wingnut, combining the notion of right-wing extremism and irrational nuttiness, or Rethuglican (Rethug for short), a blend of Republican and thug. The lexicon of Republican insults for Democrats includes moonbat, which the late William Safire traced back to libertarian blogger Perry de Havilland in the fuller form “barking moonbat”, suggesting ideology-crazed partisans howling at the moon. Even more common than moonbat in Oxford’s tracking corpus is the schoolyard-esque slur libtard (from liberal and –tard in retard, an offensive term for a person with intellectual disabilities). Liberal neologists have gotten in on the –tard act too, but Teatard (with reference to the conservative Tea Party movement), conservatard, and Republitard have thus far failed to achieve widespread currency.
Of course, Americans don’t always insult their political opponents using party-specific terminology. More often, they choose from English’s vast wealth of nonpartisan putdowns. Wondering whether there were patterns in how often common negative words were applied to people of various political stripes, I analyzed the American sources collected since 2012 by Oxford’s New Monitor Corpus (which aggregates more than 100 million words of English usage each month from online publications) to find the negative nouns most frequently modified by liberal, left-wing, and Democrat(ic), on the one hand, and conservative, right-wing, and Republican on the other. This is a crude approximation, since the pattern “[partisan adjective] [noun]” represents a small proportion of all partisan insults. Nonetheless, the results were intriguing. Out of a sample of about 1200 negative phrases gathered, these were the top 10 negative terms applied to liberals and conservatives by overall frequency:
The overall number of insults in the sample was split fairly evenly between liberals and conservatives, but the insults lobbed at liberals were more varied; the top insult for conservatives, extremist, was used three times as often than the top insult for a liberal, hack. In a time of much-lamented partisanship, it is perhaps unsurprising that words associated with ideological extremism (extremist, ideologue, radical, zealot) were among the most common terms of criticism. Similarly, the lack of civility in our political discourse shines through in the frequency of taunts suggesting stupidity and irrationality. Such terms were brandished on both sides, but liberals were more likely to be called morons, fools, and loons, whereas conservatives were most often derided as nutjobs, nuts, and lunatics. Idiot was a favorite on both sides of the aisle.
The type of adjective favored in insulting phrases varied by partisan affiliation as well. People insulting conservatives favored the adjective right-wing, which was more than twice as common as Republican and nearly four times more common than conservative. In contrast, the dominant adjective in negative epithets for liberals was— liberal. Liberal was used more than four times as often as left-wing, and Democrat and Democratic accounted for only a fraction of the insults for liberals, with the former used twice as often as the latter. Grammatically speaking, the preference for Democrat over Democratic as a modifier is perplexing, since Democratic is an adjective whereas Democrat is a noun (used attributively). However, it is in keeping with a longstanding tradition among Republicans of dropping the –ic in order to maintain a distinction from the broader, positive associations of the adjective democratic with democracy and egalitarianism.
The figure below shows the percentage of usage of the top insults in the sample applied to liberals and conservatives, respectively:
The range of negative terms applied mainly to liberals was broader, with insults aimed at conservatives being relatively concentrated. Hack, shill, and hypocrite suggest an impugning of liberals’ motivations, while hippie and elitist echo well-known stereotypes about those with liberal political leanings. The prominence of lemming, loser, and loon among insults for left-wing liberals points to a conservative affinity for alliteration, but the other L-word on the list, lunatic, is more often applied to conservatives. The list of negative words most often applied to conservatives was dominated by terms emphasizing ideological extremism: fanatic, extremist, ideologue, and zealot. The presence of obstructionist on the list reflects Democratic criticism of tactics used by Republican politicians in Congress, whereas the prominence of misogynist is likely related to Democratic efforts to portray Republicans as being engaged in a so-called “War on Women”. A case can be made that our language of partisan insults is as polarized as every other aspect of American political life. But there may be a ray of hope: partisans on both sides of the aisle accuse each other of being racists and bigots, demonstrating a consensus that intolerance and discrimination are universally reprehensible. And while there may not be much common ground between Democrats and Republicans, at least we can all agree on calling each other “idiots”.