When 'Not About Politics' Means 'All About Politics'

Feb 22, 2012
Originally published on February 23, 2012 5:12 am

Politicians are notorious for sometimes saying the opposite of what they mean. That seems to be especially true when they insist an issue "isn't about politics."

Nowadays, politicians of all stripes seek the moral high ground by claiming something "isn't a political issue." Instead, it's always "about" something else — jobs or education or the American people.

Tougher penalties against drunken drivers in New Mexico? "This issue is about public safety. It's not about politics," according to state Rep. Tim Lewis, a Republican.

Grilling Attorney General Eric Holder about the botched Fast and Furious gun operation? "It's not about politics," said GOP Rep. Ted Poe of Texas. "It's about people dying."

Allowing insurers and employers to block coverage of birth control on religious grounds? "This isn't a political issue," Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts explained in a video released last week. "This is about freedom to practice your religion without government interference."

Brown is co-sponsoring an amendment that would overturn language in the federal health care law championed by President Obama. That law wasn't about politics, either — or so Obama claimed back in 2009.

"This isn't about politics," he said. "This is about a health care system that is breaking America's families, breaking America's businesses and breaking America's economy."

Whenever politicians say something isn't about politics, "they're saying it's about politics," says Michael Cohen, a fellow at the Century Foundation who previously worked as a speechwriter for Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.

"It makes the opposition to your argument out to be purely political," Cohen says. "It's one of those statements you use because you want to present your opponent's views as completely out of the mainstream and make them seem like everything is purely about politics."

In these polarized times, there may be matters that rise above partisan political rancor — although, with even the Girl Scouts attracting controversy, that list may have shrunk.

But aside from motherhood and apple pie, there are issues where there is, in fact, near-universal agreement — the injustice of slavery, for instance, suggests Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Politicians saying an issue "isn't about politics" are similarly trying to lift their position above the partisan fray, Nunberg says, "depicting political issues as really matters of consensus and hence not subject to debate."

Of course, he adds, nobody ever says something isn't political unless, in fact, they're treating it as political — by sponsoring legislation, say, which is an inherently political act.

But this expression has become so common that politicians now use it even when they are talking about things that are only about politics — as when South Carolina state Sen. Tom Davis said his endorsement of Texas GOP Rep. Ron Paul for president was "not about politics."

The junior senator from his state, Republican Jim DeMint, suggested that this year's election itself wasn't going to be about politics.

"What we have to do as Republicans is realize it's not about politics," DeMint said last month on CNN. "It's about people, it's about their family, their jobs and their future."

Reader, remember the name of this blog — it's all politics.

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