Opinion What we really mean when we say ‘woke,’ ‘elites’ and other politically fraught terms

(Washington Post staff illustration/iStock images)
(Washington Post staff illustration/iStock images)

Because it’s election season, you’re probably reading a ton of stories about Politician X appealing to Voting Bloc Y with Z-ish rhetoric. Journalists, political strategists and even politicians themselves deliver much of this information in a kind of code — terms and phrases that show up only in coverage of politics. Here’s a guide to the election-speak — and a plea to move on from it.

What we say

Culture wars. Cultural issues. Identity politics. Social issues.

What we mean

Abortion. The rights of people who are bisexual, gay, lesbian, queer and/or transgender. Racial issues. Women’s issues.

The “culture wars” are usually invoked in reference to gender, LGBTQ and racial issues and those who advocate for them. So Black politicians condemning police brutality are described as practicing identity politics, but White ones who strongly defend the police are not.

The bias in the use of these terms isn’t the only problem with them. They are vague. Their meanings are not universally shared. They often obscure more than they explain (perhaps intentionally). Speaking of intentionally vague …

What we say

Woke, wokeness.

What we mean

Left-wing/very left-wing on issues of gender, LGBTQ and race.

This term could have been in the previous section, but it is newer and merits its own explanation. “Woke” was once used largely by Black people, invoking the idea that they should stay mindful of racism in America. The term is now used by political figures on the center-left, center-right and right as a kind of epithet against those they view as too left-wing on racial, gender and LGBTQ issues.

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Like “identity politics” and other similar phrases, “woke” and “wokeness” are vague. They don’t have a broadly agreed-upon meaning. It’s fairly clear that using the term “Latinx” is considered woke or too woke by those in the political center and on the right. But I’m not sure whether supporting reparations is woke, too woke or not part of wokeness.

How ‘woke’ became the least woke word in U.S. English

I suspect that lack of clarity is why some people like using these terms. Slamming wokeness allows people to oppose left-wing views on very fraught issues without spelling out their specific objections.

What we say

Elites. Establishment.

What we mean

Democratic and Republican Party leaders. Elected officials. Political pundits and commentators. The wealthy. Political operatives.

There are individuals in America with much more power than ordinary people — and those individuals are usually elected officials, wealthy people and those who are employed by them. We should name them, as opposed to implying there is some anonymous, powerful elite controlling the country.

What we say

Evangelical, White evangelicals.

What we mean

Conservative Christians. White and Latino Christians with conservative views on issues such as abortion, LGBTQ rights and race.

What actually constitutes evangelical Christianity or makes someone an evangelical is somewhat contested. But generally, evangelical Christianity denotes a specific set of religious views and practices, such as believing that the Bible is the authoritative word of God. People who hold those beliefs often describe themselves as born again or simply Christian instead of evangelical. Churches with evangelical beliefs use terms such as “biblical” to describe their theology.

Also, in part because the term “evangelical” has become synonymous with the Republican Party, many Christians who vote for Democratic candidates, particularly Black people, have evangelical views but don’t describe themselves as evangelicals. On the other hand, some Republicans describe themselves as evangelicals even though they don’t actually hold those views or even regularly attend church.

So “evangelical” is a term used more by reporters than churchgoers. And reporters are almost always invoking evangelicals in reference to White and Latino Christians who oppose abortion and transgender rights and who vote Republican.

What we say

Far-right, far-left.

What we mean

More conservative, very conservative. Right-wing. Aligned with former president Donald Trump. More liberal, very liberal. Progressive. Left-wing. Aligned with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Attaching “far” to political beliefs has a negative connotation, implying views that are on the fringe and therefore bad. There are less loaded terms to describe politicians who are further from the ideological center than others.

What we say

Mainstream. Moderate.

What we mean

Centrist. Center-left, center-right.

This is the flip of above — “moderate” and “mainstream” are words with positive connotations. What is more accurate and less loaded is that some politicians (including President Biden) are closer to the center than others (Sanders). “Center” and “centrist” have positive connotations as well, but they aren’t quite as complimentary as “mainstream” in particular.

What we say

Nationalist. Populist.

What we mean

Trump-like, Trump-style, Trump-aligned. Sanders-aligned. Left-wing, left-wing on economic issues.

“Nationalist” and “populist” are often invoked in reference to Trump and his political style. But those terms have had a lot of meanings in various contexts, both in the United States and abroad. In recent years, both Trump and Sanders have been described as populists. A term that is being applied to such different politicians is of limited analytic use.

It was hard to define Trump’s political approach in 2015. But now, describing a Republican politician as Trump-aligned or Trump-like is much more useful than calling her a populist or a nationalist.

What we say

Suburban women, White suburban women.

What we mean

White women, White women who are swing voters, White women with ideologically centrist views, White women with middle or high incomes.

About 55 percent of Americans live in suburban counties, as opposed to urban or rural ones, according to the Pew Research Center. So saying a politician should appeal to women in the suburbs isn’t that much more descriptive than saying he or she should appeal to women.

Also, it’s not as though the suburbs aren’t filled with very partisan voters. Black women who live in the suburbs are likely to be stalwart Democrats. So are the White women who live in suburbs such as the D.C. area’s Montgomery County that are close to big, left-leaning cities. White women who are Christian conservatives and live in the suburbs are typically Republicans.

Got more words to add to this guide? Submit them to Perry Bacon Jr.'s Thursday Q&A at noon.

In political contexts, the phrase “suburban women” is usually code for White women with middle or high incomes who swing between the parties, particularly those who might support abortion rights but be more conservative on economic issues.

What we say

Voters in the heartland, voters in the Midwest. Voters in the South. Coastal voters.

What we mean

Swing voters in the Midwest. Republican voters in the South. Democratic voters who live on the coasts.

“Heartland” is usually code for GOP or swing voters, but heavily Democratic Chicago is in the Midwest. Thirty-four percent of the people in California voted for Trump, and 41 percent in Missouri for Joe Biden. There is no need to cast states and regions as one-party monoliths.

What we say

Working-class voters, working people, White working class.

What we mean

Lower-income voters. Voters without a bachelor’s degree. White voters without four year-degrees. Ideologically centrist and conservative White voters.

There are no formal classes in America. There is no agreed-upon definition of what constitutes a person in the working class, the middle class or the upper class. You could argue that, say, dishwashers in restaurants are clearly in the working class. But we don’t have much data that drills down on the voting preferences of people in specific jobs, to distinguish between, say, dishwashers and factory workers.

The term “working class” evokes a lower-income person. And we do have data on voters in households with incomes below $50,000 — about 53 percent backed Biden in 2020, compared with 44 percent for Trump, according to Pew.

You might be surprised to learn that Biden, not Trump, won the votes of more lower-income Americans, because news coverage often describes Democrats as out of step with the working class.

Where the Republicans have gained ground and Democrats have lost it over the past decade in particular is among White Americans without four-year college degrees, a group that the news media often shorthands as the White working class. But “working-class” and “non-college-educated” are not interchangeable phrases. Many people with college degrees don’t make a lot of money, and some people without degrees do.

“White without a college degree” isn’t that useful of a description, either. Most Americans are White, and most Americans don’t have bachelor’s degrees. Trump won about 80 percent of White Americans without degrees in Georgia in 2020, but only about half of that bloc in Maine.

American voters are best understood by looking at ideology, geography and race, not education, income or class. The Republican base is White Americans with conservative views, particularly those who live in the South, not the White working class.

The voters who have swung the last three campaign cycles are moderate, centrist, liberal on some issues but conservative on others, or not particularly ideological at all, which explains why they back politicians as different as Trump and Barack Obama. Saying that the parties are fighting over “ideologically unmoored” voters isn’t as compelling as talking about class or education, but it is way more accurate.

I don’t expect politicians, political operatives or pundits with a clear ideological lean to start using this more honest language. In politics, defining the terms is part of the fight. So if you are a Republican, you want to suggest that the Democrats are out of step with “working-class voters,” as opposed to “White and Latino people with centrist or conservative views.” If you are a Biden-aligned Democrat, describing yourself as part of the party’s “mainstream” wing and the Squad as “far-left” is very useful.

But if you’re a reporter or just a regular voter, you don’t have to speak in code. Say what you actually mean.

Understanding the 2022 Midterm Elections

November’s midterm elections are likely to shift the political landscape and impact what President Biden can accomplish during the remainder of his first term. Here’s what to know.

When are the midterm elections? The general election is Nov. 8, but the primary season is nearing completion, with voters selecting candidates in the New York and Florida primaries Tuesday. Here’s a complete calendar of all the primaries in 2022.

Why are the midterms important? The midterm elections determine control of Congress: The party that has the House or Senate majority gets to organize the chamber and decide what legislation Congress considers. Thirty six governors and thousands of state legislators are also on the ballot. Here’s a complete guide to the midterms.

Which seats are up for election? Every seat in the House and a third of the seats in the 100-member Senate are up for election. Dozens of House members have already announced they will be retiring from Congress instead of seeking reelection.

What is redistricting? Redistricting is the process of drawing congressional and state legislative maps to ensure everyone’s vote counts equally. As of April 25, 46 of the 50 states had settled on the boundaries for 395 of 435 U.S. House districts.

Which primaries are the most competitive? Here are the most interesting Democratic primaries and Republican primaries to watch as Republicans and Democrats try to nominate their most electable candidates.