U.S. Intellectual History Blog

"Politicizing" and the Rhetoric of Reaction

“Regardless of where anyone stands on the gun-rights debate, however, we will encourage everyone to try to refrain from politicizing the tragedy in Connecticut.” — Conclusion of statement by Michigan State House of Representatives’ GOP Caucus Press Secretary Ari Adler, asking the Governor of Michigan to sign a law to expand concealed carrying of weapons in Michigan (including in schools), December 14, 2012.

“A Tragedy Like Newtown Should Be Politicized, But Changing Anything Will Take Different Politicians” — Headline of a Time magazine article by Mike Grunwald, December 17, 2012.

Following Friday’s school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, calls for a debate about gun policy were predictably met by the objection that we shouldn’t “politicize” such a tragedy.  Whether or not we have a serious debate about gun policy, let alone a change in that policy, as a response to this mass shooting and the larger series of mass shootings that have taken place this year, at first glance, it seems that raising the specter of “politicization” will not, in and of itself, shut down discussion.  That, at least is a good thing.  The notion that dozens of people losing their lives in an act of violence in a public facility should not be an object of political reflection is truly bizarre. So where does this notion come from?

This post won’t be a comprehensive history of the idea of “politicization” in the pejorative sense that those urging us not to politicize the Newtown shooting use the term.  But it’s at least a preliminary attempt to sketch the outlines of what such a history might look like.  As best I can tell, this usage goes back to the 1960s and was largely created and cultivated by the political right.  And I think it might be productively connected to what the late Albert O. Hirschman called the “rhetoric of reaction.”*

According to the OED, “politicize” entered the English language in the mid-18th century as an intransitive verb meaning “to engage in or talk about politics.”  You don’t see this usage much anymore, though you can see it in the word’s first appearance in the New York Times, in Jo Ranson’s June 11, 1950, review of Ralph Foster Weld’s book Brooklyn is America:

“Brooklyn is America” builds up such a convincing case for local supremacy that a goodly number of the town’s intransigent politicos, reminded of the borough’s 300 years of culture and industrial acclaim, may again politicize that it is high time Brooklyn stopped being a tail to Manhattan’s kite and threaten to secede from New York City.

But we’re interested in the second, the transitive meaning of “politicize”: “to make political, esp. to make (a person, group, etc.) politically aware or politically active.”  This meaning according to the OED, dates back to 1846.  And it’s far and away the more common meaning today.

If Google’s ngrams are to be believed, the verb rarely appeared at all in print until the 1960s, when its usage took off, especially in that decade’s second half.

It’s thus fitting that the second appearance of “politicize” in The New York Times involves the second meaning and was published on March 23, 1969. Better yet, it occurs in a statement by President Richard Nixon, that font of the culture wars, concerning the ur-culture war topic of dissent and political violence on campus.  The Times published a long statement by President Nixon on this issue alongside a letter that his Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Robert Finch, had sent to university presidents pertaining to a new series of federal laws regarding crime on campus.  Here’s the relevant passage from Nixon’s statement:

Increasingly, it is clear that this violence is directed to a clearly perceived and altogether too conceivable objective: not only to politicize the student bodies of our education institutions, but to politicize the institution as well. 

Anyone with the least understanding of the history of freedom will know that this has invariably meant not only political disaster to those nations that have submitted to such forces of obfuscation and repression, but cultural calamity as well.

It is not too strong a statement to declare that this is the way civilizations begin to die.

Following Nixon’s statement, the word “politicize” appeared over and over again in the pages of the Times. Almost always it appeared as a pejorative and, through 1970, in relation to higher education.    An October 20, 1969, editorial entitled “Free Universities–Or Captive?,” decrying protests led by Black students at Dartmouth against an appearance by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist and infamous eugenicist William Shockley, concludes, “Pressures to politicize the universities–often in the name of high-minded goals–are pernicious because they imply that the institution henceforth will be held responsible for what is said and thought in its classrooms and lecture halls. It is a trend that must be resisted, whether the pressures come from the right or the left, from blacks or whites. What is at stake is not the structure, but the heart and mind of the campus.”

In a December 11, 1969, article outlining Spiro Agnew’s views on education (he thought there was too much of it), the Times quoted the Vice President: “denied political participation in the real community, the youth seeks to politicize the only community he has, the academic one.”

A July 16, 1970, editorial entitled “Crisis on the Campus” begins, “The efforts to politicize American higher education, along with the demonstrations of student unrest, have dominated public thinking about the nation’s universities and colleges.”

A September 5, 1970 story entitled “Hester Warns N.Y.U. Won’t Tolerate Disruptions” describes NYU President James Hester’s issuing “a strong warning yesterday to faculty and staff members and students that the university would not tolerate efforts by extremists to ‘politicize’ the school during its coming academic year.”

An October 6, 1970, op-ed by Princeton historian Frederick Starr defended his institution’s new plan to give students a one-week recess prior to election day against attacks, largely from conservatives.  One of the objections Starr cites is “The recess will ‘politicize’ campuses.” Starr replies that “[m]any are already politicized, thanks in part, at least to President Nixon,” before continuing to argue that, in fact, the recess was designed specifically to keep the campus politically neutral and to encourage students to pursue their politics off-campus (unlike, Starr notes, Northern Illinois’ decision to offer a course on “Fieldwork in Political Campaigning,” which is “precisely the situation that the Princeton Plan seeks to avoid”). 

An October 16, 1970 editorial entitled “The Angela Davis Tragedy,” on the occasion of the FBI’s capture of Davis, takes us (with Davis herself) off campus…but the topic of course still involves academia:  “Already attempts are under way by her defenders to politicize her case, and to deflect attention from the specifics of the charges against her to the merits of the causes she espoused.”  (The thought that the Davis case was not already politicized, let alone that it would be inappropriate to do so, is pretty laughable.).**

A November 14, 1970, article entitled “Kent Coach to Resign Over Campus ‘Fatalism,'” details outgoing football coach Dave Puddington’s decision to quit following “negativism on campus” in the wake of the Kent State killings.***  “The fatalism around us and the current tendency to politicize every fact of life–even sports–has certainly affected the young men in our football program,” Puddington is quoted as saying.

Starting in 1971, the term’s appearance in the Times seems to move beyond the walls of academe, to cover other areas of concern.  The AFL-CIO, for example, worried in the fall of 1971, about attempts by the Nixon administration to “politicize” the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  And positive uses of the term even show up occasionally (in January 1972, the Rev. William Jones, at an event honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., is quoted as saying “Blacks and other minorities must politicize their numerical strength and collectiveize [sic] their economic power.”).  

But the conservative, culture-war quality of those 1969 and 1970 appearance of the term set the tone for the most common political uses of “politicize” in ensuing decades.

In recent years, death has been as prominent a realm as higher education when it comes to conservative arguments about politicization.  The October 29, 2002, memorial service for Paul Wellstone, killed on October 25 in a plane crash, was immediately and rather ludicrously denounced by conservative talkingheads for “politicizing” his death and has been used, ever since, as a kind of template to discourage Democrats from talking politics when prominent Democrats die (Media Matters for America did a nice piece on this around the time of Ted Kennedy’s death).

The idea that deaths, especially untimely violent deaths like Wellstone’s and those of the Newtown victims, should have a politics-free zone built around them is somewhat different from the notion that colleges and universities should be politics-free.  Yet, the two arguments share, I think, at least two things beyond the word “politicize.”

The first is the sense of a threat to the core values of civilization.  Back in 1969, Nixon very effectively articulated the idea that “politicizing” campuses might lead to “cultural calamity.” Similarly, accusations that liberals are showing an insufficient reverence for the dead fits into a larger narrative of dangers of relativism and secular humanism. 

The second similarity is where Albert Hirschman comes in.  In The Rhetoric of Reaction (Belknap Press, 1991), Hirschman argues that, going back to the French Revolution, conservative critiques of progressive social programs have tended to employ three typical arguments, which he calls the perversity thesis (“any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy”), the futility thesis (attempted social transformations will simply not work), and the jeopardy thesis (“the cost of the proposed change is simply too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment”).  Obviously all three of these rhetorics are employed against gun control:  if guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns (perversity); prohibition never works (futility); if assault weapons are banned, schools will be safer but we will have lost our freedom (jeopardy).  In a sense, arguments from the right against “politicizing” things from campuses to mass shootings, are a kind of shorthand for these rhetorics of reaction.  Some things need to stand beyond politics because sometimes–very often, in fact, according to conservative rhetoric–politics cannot work.

Against such a view, simply having a political discussion is a useful act of resistance.


* Hirschman passed away last week.

** This editorial is, incidentally, a textbook example of New York Times liberalism. It concludes: “Whatever the eventual outcome, the tragedy is that one who might have made a significant contribution to the nation’s normal political debate and to its needed processes of peaceful change became so alienated that she finally went over to revolutionary words and perhaps even worse.”

*** You really can’t make this stuff up!

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Keeping the discussion rooted in the 1960s, my sense is that this form of “politicize” is also linked to the backlash against feminism—the whole “personal is political” mantra, Betty Friedan, and the history outlined by Sara Evans in *Personal Politics* (1979/1980). So reactions against “politicizing” things may also have gendered undertones. – TL

  2. Absolutely, Tim. Defining the home, e.g., as political space was one of the goals of second-wave feminism, though I think most feminists would say that it was always already political. And consciousness raising was all about politicizing people who did not yet understand their situations politically.

  3. Nice timely piece Ben! I would add the phrase politically correct to politicize, both are intended to disarm and shut down a voice opposing the status quo.

  4. Interesting post Ben. Actually, I’m not entirely sure that the late 60s/early 70s meanings you lay out here are comparable to contemporary usage. The idea of “making something political” has at least two meanings, one of which appears dominant in the passages you quote, but seems different to my ear from contemporary usage. These passages involve a substantive conversion of some putatively neutral entity (say, the university) into a political one. Today, however, the sense in many of the usages I hear is to instrumentalize some event for political, and especially partisan, advantage. Taking political advantage of a “tragedy” is converting it into an instrument to achieve political ends and is disparaged because, at least on the surface, it can be made to appear disrespectful or insensitive to use someone’s suffering for partisan gain. This seems very different than the substantive infusing of politics (or struggles over power) into an arena that was viewed as neutral or outside the scope of the political.

    • Very interesting observation, Dan. I noticed that shift, too, though I guess I felt it was less fundamental than you do (fwiw, though it’s hardly historically dispositive, the OED folds both these uses into a single meaning). I suppose the question is the relationship between the ’60s/’70s uses and the contemporary ones. I still think it’s pretty direct, despite this shift, in part because there are still continuities. In a sense, the memorial service is an intermediate case, involving both the conversion of a neutral entity into a political one _and_ using suffering for political gain. And the Newtown case, I think still retains a resonance of keeping politics out of non-political areas (schools and, in an odd way, guns), even while the focus is, as you say, on not instrumentalizing a tragedy.

  5. Ben – Several of your quotations are from NYT editorials, and in your second note you refer to the paper’s “liberalism,” but you seem to summarize by referring to their “conservative, ‘culture-war’ quality.’” What support is there for your assertion that the right “set the tone for the most common political uses of ‘politicize’ in ensuing decades.” I don’t know, but it might be supportable if you stick to that form of “politics” or the “political.”

    I guess it would take a linguist to clarify fully how the -ize suffix conditions, alters, is constrained by or subsumed in, the “root” term. But a historian might wonder what rationale there might be for breaking word-based histories [perhaps problematical in their own right] into evermore micro histories based on numerous available suffixes or, why not, prefixes of a given “keyword.” I mean, just because google does it, doesn’t make it right.

    Would one count “the personal is political” as an instance of “politicizing,” or is it something different? Feminists might have believed that the personal is always already political, but somebody had to make the assertion at the outset. Maybe the right, once again, is taking cues from the “other side.” And I’m never sure whether “culture war” has two participants, or just one.

    Now somebody is going to think that I’ve joined the blogging chorus on the right, but no.

    Just putting out a question, or thought — how far can you get isolating “politicizing” from a much large, ongoing collective process of working through – too teleological a way to put it – the meaning and boundary of politics, vis-à-vis what? the market and civil society? state of nature? Check out Hartman.

    • A very fair objection, Bill! I think you’re 100% correct that to turn this from a blog post to a (more substantial form of) history would necessarily involve looking at a broader context and the one you suggest (notions of the political) seems like a very good one to me (and also points to Varad’s comment above…I honestly don’t think anyone I’d discussing is thinking of Schmitt’s sense of “the political,” but it’s an interesting thing to throw in the mix).

      I do think, both in the late ’60s and more recently, accusations of “politicization” have been more associated with the right than with the left, but I don’t think they’re exclusively conservative, nor are my examples so. As I’ve said above (and you repeat) vis a vis feminism, the New Left, I think, often tended to argue that things simply were political, so the notion that politics could be excluded from them is an ideological fantasy. A liberal publication like the New York Times would have been more likely to agree with conservatives that some things should be and could be beyond politics.

      But about the limited utility of isolating “politicize” (or any other single word), I basically agree.

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