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What does triangulation really mean?

Defining “the dirtiest word in politics”.

By New Statesman

Triangulation (n)

Described by Politico as “the dirtiest word in politics”, triangulation is a clumsy term for a slick concept. It’s the strategy used by a leader or political candidate to present their ideology as neither traditionally left or right wing. It is such a hated method for some because it undermines ideological “purity”; it requires adopting some of the ideas and tone of your political opponent in order both to take electoral/popular credit for them, and to shield your own side against attacks on that turf.

And why the triangle?


Photo: Wikimedia Commons


Triangulation first appeared as a political concept (previously only seen in Pythagoras’ email signature) during Bill Clinton’s first term as US President. His party, the Democrats, took a heavy beating in the 1994 mid-term elections, and Clinton needed an urgent strategy to ensure his reelection two years later. His adviser Dick Morris encouraged him to moderate his policies, combining Republican and Democratic proposals and rhetoric to maximise popular and political support, while distancing himself from the traditional two main parties. He called this triangulation.

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While it may still make political strategists misty-eyed with nostalgia and admiration, the word triangulation is generally used pejoratively these days. While it is still used in political debate in the US – the term had a renaissance during Barack Obama‘s first term regarding his proposal to cap certain government spending in his 2011 federal budget – it is mainly associated with compromise and selling-out among the leftier of US and UK voters. In Britain, it is strongly associated with New Labour and the broad-church politics promoted (and used to great electoral effect) by Tony Blair.

[See also: What is the Overton window?]

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