The conventional wisdom in America is that there are three things you should never discuss: politics, religion, and money. All three of these are controversial topics that many people believe you should only bring up with your closest friends and family.
Politics is on this list because the politicians and issues you support often reflect your values, or things you think are most important in life. A conversation about these important issues can make people very emotional (especially when they don’t share your values), and there are some places, such as the workplace, where you want to be careful about offending people.
Even so, there is SO MUCH political news in a presidential election year like 2020. In addition to knowing the right political words in English you need to know the right way to say them! The topic will come up, so… how do you talk about it without upsetting anyone? We have three pieces of advice.
Our first piece of advice: stick to the facts!
For example, you can talk about what a candidate says about a specific issue, but try to avoid saying how you feel about that. Be careful expressing your own opinions.
Our second piece of advice: know these important terms and phrases!
1. Who is running for office?
“Running for office” is an English idiom that means someone has entered an election race. This race isn’t for the fastest time but instead for the most votes. The candidate with the most votes wins the race!
2. How many people are in the race?
America is a “two-party system”. Those two “political parties” are the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. In the “general election” (usually in November) it will usually be one Republican versus one Democrat. Although sometimes you may see other parties on the “ballot,” usually only a Republican or Democrat wins and gets the job. On “election day,” the voters “go to the polls” (each neighborhood has a location to which residents can go) and “cast their votes.”
Before the general election is the “primary.” This is when certain people (the “candidates”) run for the chance to represent the Democrats or Republicans in the general election. The candidate who wins a primary also “wins the nomination.” That winner is now the “nominee” and heads to the general election.
3. Who is the dark horse? Who is the frontrunner? Who is the underdog?
A “dark horse” candidate is one who starts with very little support but then gains enough support to potentially win the race. This term is also used in sports tournaments. The “frontrunner” is the person who is currently most likely to win the race. The “underdogs” (another sports term) are anyone who is not the frontrunner (and are therefore not as likely to win the race). An underdog can become a dark horse and even win the nomination!
4. Are they “on the left” or “on the right”?
When we say someone is “on the left” or “left-wing” it means they are “liberal.” In America, that means the Democratic Party. Liberals generally believe in “large government” that collects higher taxes and offers more services. They are also said to have “bleeding hearts,” meaning that they feel sympathy for people who are disadvantaged and want to protect minority rights. Being “on the right” or “right-wing” refers to “conservatives.” In America, that is the Republican party (or, “GOP – Grand Old Party”). Conservatives tend to believe in “small government” and lower taxes, preferring that people pay private companies for services rather than paying taxes to the government for the same things. They also tend to believe in maintaining “the way things are” rather than risking change, especially in terms of culture. The parties also both have mascots: a donkey for Democrats and an elephant for Republicans.
5. Do they have bipartisan support?
When something is “partisan” it means that only people from one party support it (and people from the other party do not support it). Conversely, “bipartisan” means it has support from both parties. Most people register to vote as either Republicans or Democrats which means that they can vote in their party’s primary. However, in the general election everyone can vote for whomever they want. When a candidate gets votes not only from their party but also from the other party, this is called “bipartisan support.”
6. What are they running for?
In America, the “legislative branch” writes the laws. This branch is broken up into “the House” (the House of Representatives) and the Senate. All of these positions are won in elections by the candidate who gets the most votes. The “federal branch” is run by the president, who is also elected but through a very complicated process called the Electoral College. Generally the candidate with the most votes wins but this doesn’t always happen: in 2000 and 2016, for example, the candidate who won the electoral college – and therefore the presidency – actually lost the “popular vote”.
7. Who are the “swing voters” and what are “swing states”?
“Swing voters” are people who are undecided through the course of a “campaign” (or, election cycle). They could swing from one party to the other and nobody knows for sure what their vote will be! These voters are therefore focused on a lot by candidates in the general election. “Swing states” are states that could go one direction or the other in the Electoral College. There are only a handful of these states and they get by far the most attention from the presidential candidates.
8. Who will get the most voter turnout?
If a candidate can’t persuade swing voters to vote for them, another way to win an election is “voter turnout.” In America, while all adult citizens have the “right to vote,” many people do not actually vote. Voter turnout is the measure of how many people actually voted in a given election. High voter turnout means a lot of people came to the polls to cast their vote for a candidate; low voter turnout is the opposite.
9. It’s all about spin.
In politics, as in life, there is what actually happens and then there is what people believe happened. In between those two things is “spin” – when people try to change the way you think about what just happened. Usually these people work for the candidates. Their job after an event – such as a “debate” where candidates discuss political issues on stage – is to go on tv and spin what happened in favor of their candidate.
These words and phrases should help you to discuss the facts of the election… which shouldn’t offend anyone 🙂
Our third piece of advice: practice talking politics in a Lingoloop online English class.
Practicing real conversations with our expert tutors is going to improve your English and build your confidence quickly! Sign up for a free trial class today!