I remember the first time I heard the term “politically correct.” Living in Provincetown, Massachusetts for a summer at the ripe age of 18, I decided to attend a tiny club where the lesbian comedian, Robin Tyler, was doing a stand-up routine. She told a joke that night that stuck with me over the years. She opened her sketch by proclaiming, “I am so politically correct.” Then she told the small audience about a friend of hers who was having a baby girl. Tyler sent her a card that read, “Congratulations on your bouncing, baby… woman!” I laughed because, at the time, I was working for a feminist boss who chastised me every time I referred to a female associate as “girl.” She would ask, “Do you call your male friends ‘boy’?”
But the joke went deeper than that; it poked fun at those who would contend that language is the be-all and end-all of social change. If we could just talk and write differently, equality would be assured. No need to pass the E.R.A. or raise working wages for single women.
Among the left in the 1980s, “politically correct” served often as a put-down. It suggested someone was nitpicking at language to give the appearance of purism. It meant rigidity and excessive self-examination rather than actual engagement in political action aimed at larger power structures; it was an in-house joke used to criticize peers on the left who prioritized “consciousness”-raising over institutional reform. “You’re so P.C.,” rolled out of the lips of many an activist I knew.
So I was taken aback during this last election cycle when I heard this term being used with such frequency by those on the right. “We don’t have time to be politically correct anymore” was a constant Trump-stump refrain. It wasn’t only at his rallies either; it was everywhere. But, thankfully, we now have the good fortune of being able to read Maximillian Alvarez’s piece at The Baffler to help us understand what happened to this term and how it became a right-wing meme over the course of this fateful year.
What Alvarez so shrewdly articulates is that our past is filled with “key words,” to use a term the historian Daniel Rodgers developed. These terms structure people’s thinking and can take on a life of their own. They can become dog whistles in American politics, repeated over and over without any real articulation, being redefined as they enter new echo chambers. Alvarez clearly shows how the two key words so dominant during Trump’s campaign—political correctness—helped structure one political worldview while also destroying the term’s original meaning—of which Robin Tyler’s joke is a good example.
Alvarez reminds readers that the term “politically correct” has a longer history on the left than even my memories of being a leftist teenager during the 1980s can latch onto. “Many today would probably be very surprised to hear that ‘politically correct’ was an epithet used by socialists and those we might today call ‘liberals’ to criticize members of the Communist Party.” The term was used to poke “fun at Communists who were too slavishly loyal to the party line.” I can indeed remember, during my activist days in the 1980s, being barraged by party line touting Workers World Party members at various rallies. They were convinced of their own correctness, upon which they placed far more emphasis than historical reality. This helped provide a warning to people like me—I thought of myself as an anarcho-syndicalist at the time—that my own politics could swerve too far from reality; I needed to be careful. As Alvarez reminds us, the term could also be applied to those on the right who were just as rigid, including fascists.
And so what Alvarez helps us understand is how “political correctness” was plucked out of the in-house discussions of the American left to become a cudgel for the right. And it’s been quite a reworking. First, he argues that “conservatives ingeniously rebranded PC as a political monopoly that only applied to liberals and the left.” After which conservatives “set up shop as the permanently aggrieved victims of a slew of conspiracies.” And this is where the term links up with another key term from the 2016 election—“identity politics.” The right “proclaimed feelings of (white, Christian) ‘persecution,’” using this to celebrate “its brand of patriotism and traditionalism.”
What Trump did this past election cycle, and will likely repeat as he assumes the presidency, was to pitch “his hostility to political correctness as a kind of common-sense realism, a truth that cuts through the bullshit of liberal ‘good manners.’” He was the perfect calls-them-as-he-sees-them candidate, which helped him build a lot of support, especially when he played it off against Hillary Clinton’s tight-lipped, cautious persona. Trump was a candidate who connected with voters through “culture and feeling,” as Alvarez argues.
This attack on “political correctness, ” when combined with Trump’s narcissism and psychic fragility, was a winning formula that allowed him to build on a myth that has been central to conservative thinking over the course of the last number of years: that of being victims of liberal conspiracies—ones that can never be proven, but rather asserted and deeply felt. “Donald Trump,” Alvarez writes, “is simultaneously more tyrannical about silencing opposition (‘Get ‘em out!’; ‘Lock her up!’) and infinitely more whiny…and sensitive about people hurting his feelings (‘So unfair!’ ‘They’re very mean to me!’).”
Political correctness has indeed become one of the most successful tools in the conservative playbook. Donald Trump simply perfected it and grafted it onto his insecure, underdeveloped ego. This is a shame for all of us. Not only because the term has become a self-propagating smear. It also sadly robs leftists and liberals of their ability to use the term the way Robin Tyler did at that club in Provincetown: as a statement of humor and humility. “Politically correct” is no longer something that we on the left can use to put our rhetoric into perspective. Instead, it’s now a weapon used to chastise and denounce. And our contemporary political culture is certainly the worst for it.