If the line between love and hate is indeed a thin one, it certainly couldn’t be truer of the relationship between this year’s Republican presidential candidates and “political correctness,” a concept frequently disparaged in stump speeches and interviews, yet one that also comes with considerable political advantages.
Donald Trump invokes the term often, including earlier this month while arguing that the United States should “take out” the family members of terrorists to defeat ISIS. Chris Christie talked about it when defending his position to block all Syrian refugees; Jeb Bush talked about it when he was dodging criticism for calling the children of certain immigrants “anchor babies;” Mike Huckabee talked about it after joking that trans women were lying about their gender identities to “shower with the girls.”
And though not a presidential candidate, New York Rep. Peter King – who once chaired the House Committee on Homeland Security – most recently cited “blind political correctness” as the primary roadblock to enhanced surveillance of U.S. mosques, demonstrating just how deep the theme runs within the Republican party.
For these and other GOPers, “political correctness” is more than a subject of heated debate among college students; it’s a threat to the very fabric of American society. And they’ve made its demise a central theme of their campaigns.
But here’s the thing: While GOP candidates now appear to be fighting a war against “political correctness,” there’s reason to believe they actually love it. Not only does “political correctness” protect them from the harshest brand of attack in the same way it protects traditionally marginalized groups, but “political correctness” also gives Republicans a kind of get out of jail free card for any time they say something offensive, inappropriate, or patently false. As a talking point, “political correctness” is a license for them to cross the line and stay there.
Coined in the 1920s and 1930s by communist groups, the term “political correctness” rose to prominence in the late 1980s to describe a concerted push, primarily within academic circles, to become more inclusive of minority voices. The movement soon became a target for prominent conservatives, however, who defined “political correctness” as a widespread effort to forcibly liberalize American culture and police the thoughts of anyone who dared disagree.
The term is largely used in the same context today – a source of frustration not just for conservatives, but also for liberals, many of whom believe “political correctness” goes too far and stifles free speech.
Critics on the right view “political correctness” as essentially synonymous with the language of the mainstream media. After all, as Jonathan Chait pointed out in a controversial New York Magazine piece earlier this year, stories that tug at our “politically correct” heartstrings are often huge moneymakers. “Every media company knows that stories about race and gender bias draw huge audiences,” Chait wrote, “making identity politics a reliable profit center in a media industry beset by insecurity.” This year, with Republican presidential candidates on an anti-media kick like never before, rants against “political correctness” are likely wrapped up in a broader strategic effort to score political points at the expense of the media.
Yet if, in fact, “political correctness” is the language of the mainstream media, then anti-PC Republican presidential candidates don’t acknowledge how the door swings both ways, benefitting conservatives as well as the political left. True, PC terminology generally applies to matters of sex and race, and now tends to surround conversations on college campuses about “microaggressions” and “safe spaces” – terms developed to promote sensitivity for the experience of marginalized or historically oppressed communities.
But the principles that govern PC culture, broadly defined as one where people should be careful to avoid language or behavior that could offend a particular group, arguably serve the traditionally “privileged” class as well. It’s why articles use the term “second amendment activist,” for example, rather than the more politically incorrect “gun nut.”
What about when a writer is punished for expressing a fairly benign opinion about a House vote to limit Syrian refugees – could that be “political correctness?”
Ben Carson touched on this arrangement in a recent CNBC debate, during which he accused the left of trying to “frighten people” into silence and argued that his opposition to same-sex marriage didn’t make him a “homophobe.”
“You know, that’s was the PC culture is all about,” Carson said, “and it’s destroying this nation.”
The jab was a memorable one, even for a debate that essentially turned into a media punch-a-thon, and helped solidify Carson’s standing as a leader in the war against “political correctness.” What his supporters probably don’t remember, however, is that none of the CNBC moderators had suggested he was a “homophobe.” No mainstream media outlet would – or more accurately, could – despite the fact that Carson has warned marriage equality would lead to polygamy or that LGBT parents were not “of the same value” as traditional families.
Indeed, most major news organizations aim to create “safe spaces” for political discourse, ones that include all manners of opinion. Yes, the AP stylebook bans some terms conservatives would probably prefer to use, such as “illegal immigrant,” but it also discourages words that could be used against them, like “homophobia” – a regulation the Guardian’s Patrick Strudwick criticized in 2012 as one that “whitewash[es] hate and prejudice.”
RELATED: GOP ‘painful’ at Jewish group forum
Journalists are, of course, guided by an ethical code to present information truthfully and objectively. But the level of caution regularly adhered to in the media is basically “political correctness” at work — often to the benefit of conservatives.
“ ‘Political correctness’ is a term that supports democratic values, that says ‘We should be inclusive of ideas and a diversity of people,’” said Jung Min Choi, sociology professor at San Diego State University and co-author of book, “The Politics and Philosophy of Political Correctness.”
“Anti-PCers are having difficulty digesting the idea that in a democracy, every group, however historically marginalized, has the right to be treated in the same dignified manner as anyone else. Viewed in this manner, what the ultra-right is doing is in some ways demonizing the word ‘democracy’ every time they disparage political correctness for its emphasis on inclusion.”
“Ironically,” he continued, “the very concept that they belittle, ‘political correctness,’ protects their rights as well.”
For Republican presidential candidates, “political correctness” offers more than mere protection; invoking the term also allows them to say whatever they want, and shrug off whatever they don’t.
“The Republican presidential candidates and the far-right echo chamber have made ‘politically correct’ an all-purpose dismissal for facts and opinions they don’t want to hear,” said Eugene Robinson in a recent op-ed for the Washington Post.
When Donald Trump was fact-checked for wrongly claiming that “thousands and thousands of people” in New Jersey had cheered on 9/11, he cast off the charge as “political correctness.” Similarly, when Ben Carson was challenged for stating that a Muslim should not be president, even though the Constitution prohibits a “religious test” for public office, he dismissed the scrutiny as “political correctness.”
As Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, explained, crying “political correctness” is an easy way for these candidates to dodge criticism for saying something untrue or offensive, while at the same time appealing to their “target audience.”
“It’s a very convenient line of argument,” said Jamieson. “If someone registers disapproval, instead of defending what you said, you can counter attack by saying that you are in fact the victim of ‘political correctness.’”
At the same time, the charge “becomes an indictment of liberalism,” she continued – a way of saying liberals won’t engage in real issues or solutions because they’re “always afraid that someone is going to be offended.”
For years, the “political correctness” trope has been a favorite among conservative talk radio hosts, said Jamieson. That it’s now being used so pervasively by the candidates themselves might have to do with the particular issues at the forefront of this election – immigration and ISIS, for example — both of which incite strong opinions and often politically incorrect language. It could also be because there are more “outsider” candidates in this race.
“The idea that the left wraps its ideas in a suffocating language of political correctness is a standard Rush Limbaugh line of argument,” Jamieson said. “The fact that this year conservative candidates have invoked that rebuttal more frequently than in the past may reflect the fact that there are more outsider candidates unaccustomed to policing their own public language and, hence, more subject to critique and in need of the ‘political correctness’ rejoinder.”
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Dec. 5, 2015, and was updated to reflect a Dec. 27 interview with Rep. Peter King on “Fox News Sunday.”