Opinion | Democrats and Republicans No Longer Speak the Same Language

A dictionary for these polarized times.

By Michelle Cottle

Ms. Cottle is a member of the editorial board.

President Biden campaigned on a promise to unify America. An inspiring goal, to be sure, but one that ain’t anywhere close to happening. Decades of polarization, turbocharged by the us-versus-them philosophy of former President Donald Trump, have left the nation so divided that it can feel as though the two political teams are not only talking past each other but speaking in entirely different tongues.

English is a living language, built to grow and evolve, but the red-blue political split is pushing its limits. There are increasingly fierce disagreements over what it means to be “canceled,” what constitutes “bipartisanship” — and don’t even try to figure out what counts as “infrastructure.”

At this point, each team could use its own dictionary, with contested terms defined according to that side’s worldview. Think of it like a French-to-English dictionary, only angrier.

Some terms cry out for translation more than others:

Bipartisanship. This seems straightforward enough. If both political parties support a proposal, it’s bipartisan, right? Not so fast. There has been much debate of late about which team members count. If a majority of Republican voters and a majority of Democratic voters favor a bill, does that make it bipartisan? Democrats, and especially the Biden White House, say yes. Or is an idea only bipartisan if lawmakers from both parties sign on? Republicans in Congress appear to support this narrower interpretation.

Voting reform. Both parties agree on the need to shore up the integrity of the electoral system. But, for Democrats, voting reform means making ballot access easier and encouraging maximum participation. Republicans want to go in the opposite direction, with measures that risk hitting minority voters especially hard. As a piece in the conservative National Review asked this week, “Why Not Fewer Voters?”

Infrastructure. This may be the hottest linguistic battle now raging, spurred by the sprawling, multitrillion-dollar proposal from the White House. As the president and his people define it, infrastructure includes everything from the “care economy,” community colleges and electric vehicles to job training and investment in domestic manufacturing and scientific research. If you can dream it, Democrats want to count it as infrastructure. (Having fun with this sprawl, the Twitterverse has been offering its definition-expanding thoughts, such as “Firing Fauci is infrastructure” and “Prosecuting Matt Gaetz is infrastructure.”)

Republicans are pushing a more traditional definition, limited largely to physical, transportation-related structures such as roads, bridges and ports. Mr. Trump’s last director of the Office of Management and Budget, Russell Vought, has claimed that only 5 to 7 percent of Mr. Biden’s plan goes toward “real infrastructure.” By his definition, even basics such as railways and water systems do not qualify. More generous Republicans put the number at 30 percent.

Complicating matters, Republicans pre-Biden embraced a broader definition of infrastructure that included some of the elements, including broadband, that many of them are now dismissing.

Covid-19 relief. During the debate over this year’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, Democrats began with a maximalist definition that included an increase of the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. This was soon jettisoned.

Republicans — surprise! — took a stricter line, excluding measures such as direct aid to state and local governments. House Republicans tweeted out a pie chart that categorized only 8 percent of the bill as aimed at “crushing” Covid-19 — a figure limited to direct health spending — while 27 percent was labeled “State and Local bailouts.” “Stop calling it a ‘Covid relief’ bill,” the House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy grumped on Twitter.

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