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The Progressive's Guide to Corporate Democrat Speak

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Pete Buttigieg speaks at the Iowa State Fair.
Pete Buttigieg speaks at the Iowa State Fair.
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"Purity test"? "Pragmatic progressive"? "Free stuff"? What are these politicians talking about?

If you're confused, you're not alone. Certain words and phrases are routinely used by "centrist" political candidates. By design, these terms are imprecise, emotionally charged, and often self-contradicting. In fact, the word "centrist" is just such a term, since polling shows that the economic viewpoint of these candidates -- especially regarding health care, Social Security, education and other social programs -- is often well to the right of the general public.

Pete Buttigieg's recent use of the term "purity test" is a case in point. While the Midwestern mayor used it to describe criticism of big-donor fundraising, it has also been applied to policies such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez fired back a few days later. "For anyone who accuses us for instituting purity tests," she said, "it's called having values. It's called giving a damn."

Presumably, every Democratic primary voter has some core values that any candidate must at least nominally endorse to get their support. What makes one position a "value" and another a "purity test"? Given the confusion caused by this and other terms, and as an aid to the general public, here's a guide to centrist terminology.

The Centrist's Dictionary


Someone who presents a corporate-friendly agenda with less fervor than the typical Republican, with a modest measure of regulation as demanded by circumstances and with a patina of social liberalism.

"Choice" (when applied to a public good)

A word used as an attempt to distract people from the flawed state of the American social contract by forcing them to choose from an array of semi-functional, overpriced private-sector products. This allows policymakers to subsidize private corporations at public expense, while at the same time providing the public with something that loosely resembles -- but is not -- a functioning social safety net.

"Compete" (as in, "prepare workers of the future to compete")

A word used to describe what workers will be required to do to survive in the new, Randian economy. For example, to become competitive, workers are sometimes expected to run through a gauntlet of poorly conceived and insufficiently funded educational programs to re-train them for the "new economy" (defined below), often under the assumption that there is a secret app designer hiding inside every laid-off manufacturing employee. To "compete" after training, workers should be prepared to fight like crabs in a barrel for low-paying jobs that provide no employment security or benefits. (See also: "Jobs of the future," defined below.)

"Free stuff"

A term of contemptuous dismissal for public services that are commonly available in other developed countries, and which any decent society would make available to all human beings.

"Friend of mine" (as in, "John McCain was a friend of mine")

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Host of 'The Breakdown,' Writer, and Senior Fellow, Campaign for America's Future

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