“Qualified”: When Political Discourse Makes Word Stew


I woke up this morning to find a rather inane debate raging on Twitter and elsewhere (not surprising, I know, but stay with me…).  Bernie Sanders, my current preferred choice for the Democratic presidential nomination, said in a speech that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, was “not qualified.”  These remarks were a direct response to Clinton’s suggestion that he was also not qualified.  Just another day in the mud bath of politics so hum, right?

Well, this being 2016 and all, the remarks started all kinds of blowback against Sanders — who for the first time, finally saw his campaign on the front page for slinging mud, of all things — and even inspired Hillary supporters to start a Twitter hashtag meme #HillarySoQualified which, of course this being 2016 and all, was immediately co-opted by Sanders supporters for sarcastic purposes.

What gives?  The word “qualified” has seen its meaning discursively altered by political candidates this cycle, particularly those running for presidential nominations.  In fact, if we were to write up a dictionary for political discourse in 2016, the entry for “qualified” would look something like this:

Qualified (adjective)

  1. The condition of one having amassed a substantial career record, objectively measured in terms of education and relevant experience, that is deemed adequate to successfully perform the job that person seeks.
  2. The condition of one having political positions, both expressed and demonstrated, that subjectively identifies the person as an appropriate candidate for the job sought.

By the first definition, it would be really difficult to imagine that any of the candidates remaining in the field, Democrat or Republican, would be considered unqualified.  All fit the bill as described in the Constitution, as each are older than 35 and are natural born citizens (save your Cruz birther stuff for another time).  Sanders has served terms as mayor, representative and senator.  Clinton has served terms as senator and secretary of state.  Cruz has served as a representative and a senator, Kasich has served as governor, and even Donald Fricking Trump has what is arguably the most qualifying experience one can get for the presidency in the private sector, time as a CEO of a large company.

It is this first definition that so angers Clinton supporters, who are right to dispute the description on these grounds, and feminists, who’ve too often seen or heard sexism in action as men get jobs, promotions and pay raises over equally or more-qualified women.  And, they’re right, they have a reason to be pissed — Clinton is superbly qualified for the presidency by an objective measure of her record, something noted by the New York Times in its endorsement of her campaign:

“Voters have the chance to choose one of the most broadly and deeply qualified presidential candidates in modern history.”

On the other hand, Sanders and his supporters (and Clinton before that, in provoking the row) are using the second, newer definition of the word “qualified” that, as far as I can tell, largely started to describe Trump’s views on immigration, race and so forth.  This definition takes a subjective look at the candidates stances, both stated and acted-upon, to determine whether the candidate’s views and actions are appropriate for the presidency.

Yes, by design, this definition of the word “qualified” is fuzzy and dependent upon the individual at hand, which is exactly why it works well in politics because it can’t easily be measured or fact-checked. (Not that facts matter that much in politics, but I digress….)  It’s a convenient, one-word way to poke holes in the opposition’s legitimacy as a candidate without having to demonstrate a great deal of support for the argument.  It’s also easy enough to blur the second definition into a suggestion of the first.  In other words, it’s a politician’s wet dream.

So, what to make from this?  Is Hillary’s camp right, or is Bernie’s?  I argue that they’re both right, because they’re both using the second definition of “qualified” that depends solely on the political views of that who hears it.  It’s the Schroedinger’s Cat of this cycle’s political discourse.  Yet, the whole kerfuffle about the description comes from an intentional blurring of these two now-distinct definitions, in which both of the candidates argue the subjective version to describe their opponent, all the while using that description as inference to the original meaning.  It can be used to suggest a deeper attack on an opponent, or to rile up supporters at the perceived insult.

And, like that stupid color-changing dress, this is exactly the kind of word stew, boiled down so the component ingredients are no longer distinguishable. that will fuel ridiculous social media et al. nonsense for another few hours, making it a powerful tool in today’s political world.


Author: Andrew Shears

Andrew Shears is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at an intersection of the human-environmental nexus, and includes branches of mapping, technological, memorialization and urban geographies. He lives in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania with his wife Amy, a professional photographer.