Political campaigns are in their summer doldrums, and most voters have better things to do with their time — which makes this a good moment to explore how we approach politics, and, more specifically, the language we use to do it.

As George Orwell memorably demonstrated in “Politics and the English Language,” the way we speak and write about public affairs affects how we perceive it — and, as his essay makes clear, words and their proper use are a crucial factor in determining whether democracy or tyranny will govern.

It was two decades ago when I first started noticing that a losing candidates was described as “failed.” It seemed an awkward and unfortunate way to describe the work of putting oneself forth for public office, with all the hard work and personal cost it involves. Yet rather than quickly disappearing, the “failed candidacy” has become almost a cliché in contemporary accounts of politics.

By this standard, Abraham Lincoln was a “failed” candidate. So was Franklin Roosevelt. Both lost multiple races before becoming the greatest presidents of their respective centuries. In Maine, both Ed Muskie and George Mitchell “failed” before succeeding at a higher level.

There is something pernicious and even ugly about describing a candidate as “failed” just because he or she got fewer votes than an opponent. Losing hurts, and it disappoints supporters, but should it be considered dishonorable and inept?

The problem with this language is that it encourages the go-for-broke, say-anything-to-win, destroy-your-opponent strategies that have now led us to you-know-who. Let’s ban the phrase and come up with something better.


If the “failed” candidacy can be accurately attributed to reporters, then it’s the activists who should be held to account for an equally faulty usage concerning the eternal battle between Ds and Rs. In most of the interminable fundraising appeals that appear in our inboxes, appeals to support one candidate or another are described in terms of “flipping” the House or the Senate.

We’re generally not told why this candidate is worthy of our vote, other than that they’re not the other, much worse guy, but it’s the “flipping” part that bothers me. Partisan control of Congress and state legislatures is a crucial result of elections, yet the idea that they can, or should be, “flipped” is offensive to anyone who has thought carefully, or even agonized, about their choices. Not trivializing elections should be something we can all agree on; let’s ban this one too.

My final peeve results specifically from the 2016 presidential campaign, and the language that came to dominate the insurgent campaigns on both sides — prevailing among Republicans though not among Democrats. There is actually precious little that connects Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, but the use by both candidates of the phrase “rigged game” is one common point.

It’s entirely understandable that large numbers of voters should decide that the game is “rigged,” by Wall Street, the rich, or some other mysterious “elite.” For two decades, both parties have been extraordinarily negligent in avoiding doing anything about, or even discussing, the plight of the average American, who rightly wonders how her children can graduate from college without crushing debts, find a good job, and get health care for their families.

But hammering the point that the “game” is “rigged” has unintended consequences. It’s not as if the blame can be distributed equally. In this crucial sense, as Catholics see it, Republicans are guilty of sins of commission, while Democrats have sinned by omission.

And if you actually want to do something about the “rigged game,” rather than just get angry about it, you will need to find some way to unrig it. If the rigging theory is correct, that can’t happen just by electing a president — someone who the “elite” will quickly conspire to neutralize.

No, only through the difficult process of reform and rethinking can we reclaim and rebuild a political system that at last works, even though it will still not please everyone. Calling it a “rigged” system generates hopelessness and despair. If you really want things to change, you should stop using it.

Instead, we could refer to the “failed” party systems of our day, and say so accurately. Then we must begin the process of laying the groundwork so, one day in the not too far distant future, they can start succeeding again.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 31 years. He will read from his new book, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” at Barnes & Noble in Augusta on Saturday at 6:30 p.m.

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