“Backbencher” spike

Back in 2013, I looked at U.S. adoption of the British political word “backbencher,” referring to junior members of Parliament who literally sit in the back benches. [Update: As the comments reveal, this is not a good definition of British “backbencher.”] Three years later I noted failed Republican presidential nominee Jeb Bush’s habit of using the word to disparage his rivals in the race.

Now, Nancy Friedman reports a surge in U.S. use of the word, thanks to newly elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (aka AOC), a liberal Democrat who seems to really get on Republicans’ last nerve.  “Backbencher” is actually one of their milder epithets for her, but it might be the most popular. Nancy writes:

Do a Google search for “Ocasio Cortez backbencher” and you get results from the Orlando Weekly (“For all the attention paid Ocasio-Cortez, however, she’s just a backbencher”), The Federalist (“She could easily become yesterday’s news, dismissed like other backbenchers and cranks within the House Democratic caucus”), The Hill (“[I told her] to pick some of those issues and really lead on them from day one and not to be told to keep her head down or be a backbencher, but to come here and lead” – California Rep. Ro Khanna), The Advocate (“If she wants to even be moderately effective as a legislator and not some permanent backbencher … she’s gonna have to play the game”), and Esquire (“that backbenchers-should-be-seen-and-not-heard business should’ve died with Sam Rayburn”).

And she reproduced some tweets, including:

Screen Shot 2019-03-05 at 10.32.09 AM

It’s almost makes you think that all these people were working from the same talking points.

16 responses to ““Backbencher” spike

  1. Interesting subtle shift in nuance from UK to US. Generally in the UK “backbencher” isn’t considered a derogatory term. I don’t think a Member of Parliament (for example my MP) would be offended to be described as a “backbencher”, but regard it more as a statement of fact.

    Is this an example of the famed US drive to win at everything ?

  2. Nick L. Tipper

    I would argue that Jeremy Corbyn had more strength when he was sniping from the back benches at those in power – be they from the party opposite or his own – than he now has as Labour leader, where he must attack in measured tones and his every nuance is pounced upon and analysed. As a back-bencher he could launch the most scathing attacks and get away with it.
    (How I wish he would return to the rear of the chamber and do what he does better.)

  3. ‘Backbench’ is also a UK newspaper term, mostly referring to national titles that have backbench subs (copy editors).
    The Guardian in November 13, 2006 said this: Two newspaper stereotypes abide. The first is of aggressive men – the stereotype is largely male – on the “back bench”, the production heart of a newspaper. They rework copy to headlines and layouts that leave no room for inconvenient elements such as facts. The paper, they make clear, is theirs, with reporters there merely to provide the raw material from which they fashion, each night, journalistic magic.

    The second is of “down-table” subs, equally aggressive when roused, who show little interest in the copy they read between breaks at the pub. Their only joy, it is claimed, is the removal of jokes and originality. Condemned to the quasi-nocturnal hours of the newspaper business; jealous, as battery hens, of the free-range lives of reporters; confident that no good will come of any modernisation, they sit and moan. They are, it is estimated, the last generation of pipe smokers among the British population.

  4. Nancy Friedman

    Thanks, Ben!

  5. To expand on JLC, a UK backbencher is not necessarily “junior”. Churchill sat as a backbench Member for about 10 years after leaving office, but he was by no means “junior”.

    • Very true. At the moment our backbenches are stuffed with people who ought to be on the front bench, on both sides – the sacked, the cold-shouldered, those who have resigned or who wouldn’t serve for their current leadership under any circumstances. Thus the current chaotic wreck of our Parliament.

  6. Here in Wellington, New Zealand, we have a famous pub* across the road from Parliament called The Backbencher, which is decorated with large “Spitting Image” style puppets of well-known NZ politicians (former Prime Ministers and the like), and has regularly hosted a late-night TV politics show called “Back Benches” – a less formal show than most, with lots of audience participation.

    I used to take part in a pub quiz in the back bar at The Backbencher, and it wasn’t uncommon to see well-known politicians dining with their colleagues and mates in the front bar.

    The Backbencher: http://backbencher.co.nz/

    *I see it’s now calling itself a gastropub!

  7. Agreed that this is an unidiomatic use of the expression. Backbenchers can cause massive headaches for the government, because they are unconstrained by official party policy. Look at what the ERG are doing to Theresa May right now. Also, I wonder how well the expression translates with the US separation of powers. Surely all members of Congress are backbenchers because none of the them are part of the executive? In the UK, both the government and the opposition have a front bench and backbenchers, so “backbencher” doesn’t just mean “not in government”.

    • Although I get the impression that “government” is used slightly differently in the US, where it can mean not just the executive, but the whole legislature and civil service.

      • Peter from Oz

        That’s a good point, Paul. In political discussions in countries with the Westminster system ”the government” means the group of parliamentarians who have the confidence of of the Lower House and therefore can advise the Queen/Governor General on governing the nation.

      • Thatr’s true. Today’s coverage of the Paul Manafort trial reminds me that in U.S., “the government” is also used to refer to to the prosecution’s side in a criminal case, be it state, local or federal.

      • In the UK, of course, the prosecution is by the Crown.

    • I also understand that the concept of a shadow cabinet – opposition frontbenchers with positions corresponding to government ministers – doesn’t translate well into the US system.

      I remember a discussion on a science fiction newsgroup where an American had seen a British politician referred to as the Shadow Chancellor and reckoned that ought to be a character in a fantasy novel.

  8. Backbenchers are MPs who do not have an official post in the Government or Opposition. They are not junior MPs for a couple of reasons: backbenchers include long-serving and individually distinguished MPs or former Ministers, Prime Ministers, or Opposition frontbenchers; MPs are not thought of as junior; they have equal standing in the House, courteously underlined in the ritual welcome ‘to her / his place’ by every Member responding to them when they first speak; they can be elected by fellow MPs to influential positions such as chair or member of a Select Committee which has powers to investigate, compel witnesses, report and make recommendations to government; they join powerful Party groups, e.g. the Conservative group, chaired by Sir Graham Brady, a long-serving MP and former frontbencher. We have a couple of unofficial titles, including Father of the House and Mother of the House, for the longest- serving male or female MP and Baby of the House for the youngest (in age) MP but these are friendly more than anything. We do have junior Ministers but not MPs as such.

  9. “Backbencher” appeared last week in the Washington Post, as a description of Newt Gingrich and his allies in the early 1980s (long before Gingrich was speaker): https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/happy-birthday-c-span-we-need-you-more-than-ever/2019/03/15/01bb7c9e-41d3-11e9-922c-64d6b7840b82_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.a43c2774f690&wpisrc=nl_ideas&wpmm=1

    Tumulty is a liberal columnist, but the column is a neutral one devoted to praise of C-SPAN, and the use of backbencher seems meant as mostly descriptive with only a slight hint of pejorative.

    I disagree with some of those who have commented and said that the term makes no sense in an American context. The majority and minority leaders and whips and the committee chairman and ranking members do not head government departments, to be sure, but they do have considerable power. Committee chairmen are traditionally determined by seniority (not an absolute rule anymore, but still the main criterion). It seems useful to have a term for a powerless and obscure member, even if they do not literally sit on the back benches. (And of course Gingrich then and Ocasio-Cortez now were able to make themselves non-obscure despite their low rank on paper.)

    • P.S. I see you cited Gingrich as a popularizer of the term in your older post, so I guess it has all come full circle now.

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