Ah, the joys of a presidential election year. We’re inundated by labels and buzzwords meant to rally a political base by inciting hatred or reinforcing a negative stereotype about other groups. Politicians and pundits wield these stereotypes like verbal bullets, and while they are often blamed for perpetuating these images, it could be said that they are merely reflecting what is already ingrained in our national consciousness and culture. Here are 10 political stereotypes that American politicians have exploited in recent years.
10. Welfare Queens
Ronald Reagan gave birth to the term “welfare queen” in popular culture. During the 1976 presidential campaign, the GOP presidential candidate told the story of a Chicago woman who assumed 80 different names, 30 different addresses and 12 different Social Security numbers, all to get $150,000 each year in Medicaid, food stamps and welfare. Reporters and researchers disagree on how much of that story was true, but Reagan’s welfare queen likely combined three different welfare cheaters, including one Los Angeles woman who bilked the government out of almost $400,000 in benefits, lived in a house with a swimming pool and drove a Mercedes Benz, Rolls Royce and, yes, a Cadillac. Whatever the veracity of Reagan’s tale, the welfare queen became a powerful symbol for abuses in the welfare system; such cases of abuse, although exceedingly rare, resurfaced in the mid-1990s during the bipartisan move to reform the U.S. welfare system. GOP politicians use different terms nowadays — “food stamp recipients,” “people dependent on the government” — but their implication is clear: the Democrats support people who do not want to work and want to rely on government handouts.
Long before Larry the Cable Guy or Jeff Foxworthy, there were the poor farmers in the South whose sunburned necks earned them the moniker “red necks.” In the early 20th century, some U.S. politicians actively tried to rally this “redneck” vote. Although the term has become a buzzword in U.S. culture recently thanks to a glut of reality shows such as Hillbilly Handfishin’, Redneck Riviera and Rocket City Rednecks, politicians know better than to utter the word. Instead, they mention it in code phrases, such as during the 2008 presidential campaign when Barack Obama famously proclaimed that some working-class Americans “cling to guns or religion.” More recently, Newt Gingrich attempted to appeal to a certain white, rural demographic by saying, “You can’t put a gun rack on a Chevy Volt.” The Volt statement backfired on Gingrich. To prove Gingrich wrong, someone actually did install a gun rack on a Volt and, a GM spokesperson went so far as to liken a gun rack on a Volt to training wheels on a Harley. You can do it, but why?
A group of environmentalists made international news in the late 1990s with their organized protests to save a stand of old-growth redwoods in California. One woman, Julia “Butterfly” Hill, even lived 180 feet up in one of the redwood trees for two years. Although those activists didn’t invent the term “treehugger — which traces its roots to India in the 1970s — the term has since been used by some conservatives to disparage environmentalists. For these conservatives, the term conjures images of Birkenstock-shod liberals, aging hippies and extremist troublemakers.
7. Religious Right
This term emerged in the late 1970s, following the birth of Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority.” Falwell used the term “Religious Right” to describe himself and his adherents. The term was used extensively in the 1980s to describe social conservatives, but conservatives have sought to distance themselves from the description, as many people now equate the term with radicals who commit evil acts in the name of God. The term has also been used by liberal opponents to suggest an ideology that cherry-picks Bible passages to justify conservative views on hot-button social issues such as gay marriage or abortion.
6. Cultural Elites
It may seem hard to believe in today’s polarized political landscape in the U.S, but in 1972 and again in 1984, the GOP candidate for president (Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, respectively) both won 49 of the 50 states. Changing voting patterns and demographics has led to the well-known presidential electoral map we see today, with the GOP candidates generally winning rural and suburban areas, while the Democratic candidates win the urban areas, the Northeast and the East and West coasts. Hoping to appeal more to their “base,” some conservatives began criticizing the highly educated, coastal, “citified” segment of American society. Today, the stereotype is being perpetuated as Republican pundits criticize President Obama for schmoozing with the Hollywood elite (never mind that these pundits’ hero, Reagan, was once a member of the Hollywood elite). More broadly, use of the term “cultural elite” represents how divided the U.S. has become in recent years, with a middle full of stereotypical Joe the Plumbers, book-ended by cosmopolitan, secularized elitists on the coasts.
5. Evil Businessmen
This stereotype has certainly been perpetuated by pop culture. There is a long list of evil businessmen in Hollywood history, from Gordon Gekko in Wall Street to RDA Corporation executives who try to ruthlessly exploit the planet Pandora in the smash hit Avatar. Even The Muppets, one of the most beloved franchises of all time, introduced an evil businessman stereotype, “Tex Richman,” in their 2011 film. Democrats have worked hard to exploit the stereotype in American politics, pointing out the contributions corporations make to the GOP, and noting how conservative policies aid corporations. In 2012, Democratic strategists have specifically targeted GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s business experience with Bain Capital. Romney himself recently suggested that any prospective president should meet a “business requirement.”
4. Illegal Aliens
The first modern illegal aliens didn’t speak Spanish. They didn’t cross the border from Mexico. They weren’t entering the country illegally to “take our American jobs.” The first illegal aliens were from Greece, Russia, Poland and other parts of southern and eastern Europe. When the 1920 U.S. census showed that these ethnic groups were outpacing “native-born” Americans in some part of the country, a public outcry led to a law limiting immigration from those areas of Europe. The same scenario seems to be playing out today in American society, not with Europeans but with immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Tough anti-immigrant laws in Arizona and Alabama have been praised by conservatives and blasted by liberals. And even though advocates of this population segment prefer the term “undocumented workers,” don’t expect critics in the GOP to abandon the polarizing term “illegal alien” anytime soon.
The term that has come to be associated with a whole generation of lazy, unmotivated youth has been around for several generations. Though the word dates to the late 1800s, during World War II it came to be associated with draft dodgers. The word became common parlance today thanks to the 1991 movie Slacker and other pop culture references. Most recently, this stereotypical view of what many conservatives perceive to be a generation of slothful, cynical and apathetic losers played out during the Occupy Wall Street protests when politician Rudy Giuliani yelled out to protestors: “How about you occupy a job? How about working? …. I know that’s tough … Woodstock is a lot more fun than working eight hours a day.”
2. Urban Americans
It’s believed the first time “urban” was used in relation to African-Americans was in 1910, with the formation of the National Urban League. Yet this was a fitting title for a group founded to address issues facing blacks migrating from the rural South to northern cities. For many years, the word “urban” meant “cities,” but over time, the word has evolved to signify African-Americans and African-American culture, from fashion to music. The explosive popularity of hip-hop and rap music in the 1980s solidified “urban” as code for a race. So when a conservative politician talks about “urban” problems, he’s probably not talking about broken water mains or streets that need repaving, but about African-American crime and other issues that negatively portray that segment of the population.
1. Middle Americans
Just as many conservatives deride “coastal elites,” liberals often dismiss much of America between New York and L.A. as “flyover country,” a land over-run by “Middle Americans.” Middle America has come to represent a state of mind, where God, guns and family rule — and not necessarily in that order. Like many other stereotypes on this list, this is of relatively recent origin. In 1970, Time named “Middle Americans” as its man and woman of the year. The magazine noted that in the late 1960s this “silent majority” had begun to assert itself quite powerfully in the political realm. Politicians from both sides are still trying to appeal to this Middle America demographic, which will play a key role in such presidential swing states as Ohio and North Carolina.