On June 17, 1972, Washington, D.C., police arrested five men for breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. Although the administration’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, dismissed the crime as a “third-rate burglary,” its scope would grow to consume Richard Nixon’s presidency and then bring it to an end 26 months later.
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But unlike those two precedents, the Watergate Office Building would be immortalized as the catchall term for political scandal.
“Watergate,” in this context, is an example of metonymy. A part – the site of the break-in – comes to stand for the larger whole: the illegal acts committed by Nixon’s administration, as well as the subsequent investigation into them.
Metonymy is a common way in which English is fortified with new vocabulary – think of “the Pentagon” as a stand-in for the U.S. military, or “Hollywood” as a way to refer to the motion picture industry.
What’s unusual about Watergate is that one syllable splintered off to become the universally recognized designator for political malfeasance. When boozy government-sponsored parties that broke COVID-19 lockdown rules came to light in the U.K., the scandal quickly became known as “partygate.” But the syllable has also migrated beyond politics, becoming a tag for wrongdoing of virtually any kind.
Other splinters have also been pressed into service to create new words. For example, “-athon,” from “marathon,” can emphasize an event’s long duration – telethon, dance-a-thon, and hackathon. Similarly, “-aholic,” from “alcoholic,” denotes an addiction: shopaholic, workaholic, sexaholic.
But in terms of sheer productivity, “-gate” has no peer. Wikipedia’s list of -gates has over 260 entries.
During its remarkable career, it has often been wielded as a linguistic cudgel, and few other four-letter strings have such power to stigmatize and to demonize.
The early years
A year after the Watergate break-in, the humor magazine National Lampoon referenced “Volgagate” – a fictitious Russian scandal – in its August 1973 issue. This seems to have been the first use of -gate as a generic label for a political scandal.
A month later, Newsweek characterized a scheme to peddle cheap Bordeaux as “Winegate.” Its extension to viniculture suggested that -gate might have a life outside of politics.
But the real popularizer of -gate was William Safire, Nixon’s former speechwriter. As a conservative political columnist with The New York Times for over 30 years, Safire created or promoted many such terms. These included Billygate, Lancegate and Briefingate to describe scandals that emerged during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. He also popularized Travelgate and Whitewatergate during the Clinton years.
These episodes didn’t rise to the seriousness of Watergate, of course. But by making them into -gates, Safire was implying that Democrats could be just as corrupt as Republicans.
Apart from Safire’s inventions, few episodes from the 1970s to the 1990s were referred to as -gates. Only about 10% of the terms on Wikipedia’s list date from the 20th century. Even major political scandals of the period only occasionally received this epithet.
Consider the Reagan administration’s scheme to use Iranian arm sales to fund the Nicaraguan Contras. All the attributes for a Watergate-style comparison were present: illegal activity, conspiracy and an attempted cover-up.
Despite this, The New York Times referred to the episode as “Reagangate” just twice, “Contragate” only 11 times and “Irangate” about 100 times. In contrast, the paper used the phrase “Iran-Contra” nearly 6,000 times in its coverage.
Opening the ‘flood-gates’
In the new millennium, however, -gate became totally unmoored from politics.
For those who value precision in language, this as a problem – because if everything is a scandal, then nothing is.
Consider “Ponytailgate.” In 2015, New Zealand’s prime minister, over a period of several months, repeatedly tugged on the ponytail of a young café waitress. He persisted despite repeated requests from both the waitress and the prime minister’s wife that he stop. Such behavior is boorish at best.
But does it belong in the same category as events involving corruption, a conspiracy, or a cover-up?
A pleasing sounding suffix
It may be that -gate is used because nothing better has come along. Replacement terms have enjoyed only limited popularity.
The splinter “-ghazi” arose in reference to the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya. It was occasionally deployed against the Obama administration. For example, when President Obama wore a tan suit to a press conference, “Beigeghazi” was born. But -ghazi probably failed as a suffix for scandal because it was too much of a mouthful.
Bridgegate won out – undoubtedly because it was shorter and simpler. Resonance also seems to apply for other scandals: “Deflategate” simply sounds better than “Ballghazi” as a name for the New England Patriots football scandal.
One size fits all?
But like most successful trends, the widespread use of -gate has engendered significant backlash. As with Ponytailgate, many of these coinages fail to differentiate the mundane from the momentous. This invites accusations of journalistic laziness, in which events are merely lumped together rather than analyzed.
In addition, overuse has transformed -gate constructions from the somewhat clever coinages of Safire’s day into the tired clichés of today. It can also be difficult to tell when a -gate construction is intended ironically, which makes interpretation difficult.
Finally, sometimes shorthand is just too short. “Reagangate” may have failed as a label for Iran-Contra because it wasn’t specific enough. The term could have referred to any of several different episodes during Reagan’s eight-year administration.
At the other extreme, the same -gate has been applied to very different controversies. “Sharpiegate” referred to Terrell Owens’ signing of a football in 2002. But it was also trotted out for President Donald Trump’s edit of a map of Hurricane Dorian’s path in 2019. And in 2020, it became associated with allegations of ballot fixing in Arizona.
But even half a century later, -gate is still finding gainful employment in politics. It was used, for example, to tag several Trump scandals, from Russiagate to Ukrainegate. And President Joe Biden has had to contend with Kabulgate and #formulagate.
No president has resigned since Nixon, arguably in the face of worse scandals than Watergate.
As with the wear and tear on an overused suffix, one has to wonder: Have voters become numb to political scandal, too?
Roger J. Kreuz does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip in 2022
6. North Carolina
7. New Hampshire
Interactive: 10 Senate seats most likely to flip
Analysis: About the rankings
There’s nothing like a Supreme Court vacancy to get people in Washington talking about the Senate.
It’s less clear, however, whether the voters who will decide control of the Senate nine months from now are attuned to that conversation, especially since the ideological makeup of the court is not in the balance.
Justice Stephen Breyer’s decision to retire came as President Joe Biden’s approval rating stood at 42%, with 55% disapproving, according to CNN’s average of six recent national polls. The best scenario for Democrats is that the vacancy and Biden’s pledge to nominate a Black woman will help drive base enthusiasm and remind moderates who care about abortion rights, for example, of what’s at stake in the battle for the Senate. But that may be a lot of theoretical dot-connecting for most Americans preoccupied with high prices at the pump and the checkout line.
Still, the seat most likely to flip partisan control is the place where Democrats see the Supreme Court vacancy as having perhaps the biggest impact. That’s not a new development: Pennsylvania has led the list since CNN started ranking the 2022 races nearly a year ago. But it speaks to the demographics Democrats need to turn out in the Keystone State — their urban base and suburban voters.
The ranking is based on CNN’s reporting and fundraising data, as well as historical data about how states and candidates have performed. Fundraising reports for the fourth quarter of 2021, which were due to the Federal Election Commission by Monday, showed some Democrats raising massive sums of money, while some Republican candidates poured significant personal wealth into their campaigns. As the year progresses, more polling and advertising spending data will become bigger factors in the ranking.
While Pennsylvania still leads the list, Republicans are feeling more confident about the seat, which GOP Sen. Pat Toomey is vacating, than they have in months, thanks to some new candidates. But it remains a question, as is the case in several other races, how much embracing former President Donald Trump in the primary comes back to haunt the eventual GOP nominee in the general election in a state Biden won in 2020.
As he resumes his campaign-style rallies, with a heavy focus on his 2020 election lies, Trump is signaling that he won’t be sitting 2022 out quietly, even if he’s not on the ballot. The jockeying for his support has already led to massive spending — especially in Pennsylvania, where the GOP primary has attracted $18 million, mostly in December and January alone, according to a CNN analysis of AdImpact data.
“I still say it’s 50-50,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told CNN’s Manu Raju last week about the GOP’s chances of flipping the chamber.
The Kentucky Republican backed the bipartisan infrastructure law, one of Biden’s biggest achievements to date, but he’s standing in the way (along with two moderate Democrats) of the President’s other priorities, such as his social spending and climate change plan and voting rights legislation, both of which stalled in the Senate.
Vulnerable Democratic incumbents on this list — Sens. Mark Kelly, Catherine Cortez Masto, Maggie Hassan and Raphael Warnock — all voted in favor of eliminating the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation. While taking that position has become a new litmus test of sorts in Democratic primaries (again, see Pennsylvania), and some Republicans are attacking Democrats over it, it’s far from clear that the fate of the 60-vote threshold is a salient issue for American voters.
There’s been plenty of effort to get voters’ attention. Candidates and outside groups have already spent twice as much on TV and radio ads as they had at similar points in the 2018 and 2020 cycles, according to a CNN analysis of AdImpact data.
Look for that spending to increase quickly ahead of spring primaries, with the first big Senate contest of the year (Ohio) happening on May 3. Until then, stay tuned for more updates to this ranking.