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Dissing the Democratic Party

Q: Why do Republicans refer to the Democratic Party as the Democrat Party? The first time I remember hearing this was out of the mouth of Newt Gingrich.

A: I too have noticed that Republicans often use the noun “Democrat” as an adjective in phrases like “Democrat Party” or “Democrat platform” or “Democrat politician.” The correct adjective is “Democratic,” as we all know and as dictionaries will confirm. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, for example, defines “Democratic Party” this way: “One of the two major political parties in the United States, owing its origin to a split in the Democratic-Republican Party under Andrew Jackson in 1828.”

But deliberately messing up someone’s name—mispronouncing it or otherwise misusing it—is an age-old form of disrespect. The misuse says, in effect, “You’re not worth the effort of getting your name right.”

Also, some Republicans are reluctant to use a favorable adjective like “democratic” to describe the opposition party or a politician belonging to it. And those Republicans say they want to be able to refer to one of their own as a “democratic” politician with a small “d” and not have him be confused with a big “d” politician.

William F. Buckley Jr., writing in the National Review in 2000, acknowledged the possible confusion between big “d” and small “d” politicians, but he nevertheless had “an aversion to using ‘Democrat’ as an adjective.”

“It has the effect of injecting politics into language, and that should be avoided,” he wrote, adding that “it’s our job to get the correct meaning transmitted without contorting the language.”

Yes, Newt Gingrich did a lot to encourage the use of “Democrat Party” as a not-so-subtle form of denigration, but the practice began well before he arrived on the scene. During the Truman-Dewey presidential election campaign in 1946, for example, B. Carroll Reece, who was then chairman of the Republican National Committee, used the adjective “Democrat” as a weapon. (Truman, in turn, suggested calling the GOP the Publican Party, a reference to the tax collectors of the New Testament.)

So the use of the term “Democrat Party” is quite an old trick. In fact, researchers have found references from as far back as 1855, though at that time the term may have been inoffensive and not intended to show disrespect. The linguist Geoffrey Nunberg has cited negative references from the early 20th century, but he says the practice didn’t become “a Republican tic” until mid-century.