America’s presidential race is the latest exercise against the "establishment" label

Why are US politicians and others so scared to be pigeonholed as "establishment" figures?

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The super-charged term "establishment" seems to be the select word for this stage of the US presidential race, being used constantly on both the left and right, for good and bad.

For example, Tea Party favourite and Five Nights at Freddy's animatronic Ted Cruz, and person with real hair Donald Trump, have both made significant progress as Republican candidates. However, the Iowa caucus result on Monday night produced a barrage of columns declaring Marco Rubio as the real victor, with his strong third-place showing, as he could become the "establishment" choice, capable of taking on a formidable Hillary Clinton and unifying the party. The two aforementioned frontrunners in the Republican Party are still nonetheless using the same term to attack Rubio, Jeb Bush and other more mainstream candidates.

On the Democrat side, supporters of Bernie Sanders have used the exact same word to describe Clinton, as a weapon to portray an uninspiring and less radical view of politics. This is odd, as Sanders has been active in electoral politics for almost 50 years. Given his name has been a mainstay on the American left for so long, he too is a part of the so-called establishment.

The flexibility of the word ultimately renders it meaningless.

These types of popular, nebulous, words are always being used by politicians and supporters, firing up loyalists and making room for a "them against us" storyline. But it's strange how the labels used to describe and create political outcasts have shifted in American politics over recent years. Take the 2008 and 2012 presidential races. The leading Republican figures were constantly trying to prove their "conservative" credentials in races that quickly untangled, which have left the party in tatters ever since.

It started with John McCain defending his conservative principles, even though his voting record was startling proof there wasn't a need for him to do so. Four years later, Mitt Romney abandoned his socially liberal views as the former Massachusetts governor in order to become the conservative of choice. Those tactics never quite worked for them, unsurprisingly, as most floating voters (and this isn't just limited to the US) dislike being labelled or to vote for clear-cut idealogues when the moment presents itself.

In the current race, Sanders did something unusual by addressing his mud-slinging "socialist" label head-on, identifying himself as a European-style democratic socialist, in line with the likes of former president Franklin Roosevelt. It's working to his advantage so far, given the polarised state of what else is on offer.

It's also a stark contrast with Barack Obama's bid in 2008, when he was seen as a refreshing choice, and called everything from a "liberal" to a "socialist", a "communist" and an "anti-imperialist" by the American right (as insults, of course). Nonetheless, his two terms show just how centrist and pragmatic his tenure has been. Some would say a modern "Rockefeller Republican". He'd disagree with this categorisation, the same way most politicians would with being pigeonholed as a member of their opposition – take the "Red Tory" accusations levelled by the left at Labour's modernisers in the UK, for example. But I guess that's the things with labels. They tell us more about those who use them than those who are subjected to them.

Emad Ahmed writes about science and gaming. He tweets @ThisIsEmad.

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