It’s been six years since Ben Yagoda first noticed a spike in the U.S. usage of backbencher, a term with a specific meaning in British parliamentary politics – MPs who hold no ministerial or shadow-ministerial offices and therefore are consigned to the back benches of their respective houses – and none in U.S. government, where representatives and senators sit wherever they please on their party-defined sides of the aisle. In December 2015, Ben’s UK counterpart, Lynne Murphy, anointed backbencher the UK-to-US import of the year; one of the nominators said she’d noticed that backbencher was being used in print (and some TV) “to refer to the members of a certain congressional caucus who were first elected in the elections of 2010/2012/2014, and so at this point can't all be referred to as ‘freshmen’, the usual term for first termers.”
Backbenches in Canada’s Parliament, via the very lively Parli, the Dictionary of Canadian Politics. which includes the category “Scandals, Crises, and Bon Mots”
Now backbencher is in the news again, thanks to newly elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old Democratic Socialist from the Bronx, who isn’t shy about claiming the spotlight. She has already co-sponsored “Green New Deal” legislation and played an active role on Twitter; she’s identified by her monogram, AOC, just like FDR and JFK. She really gets under some people’s skin, which seems to fire her up even more.
YOU'RE A BACKBENCHER https://t.co/aa5LqZID6F— Jeff Fecke (@jkfecke) February 23, 2019
honey, you're a backbencher in the House and will never pass a bill that gets through the senate to the president's desk— Tᴏᴍ Vᴀɴ Dʏᴋᴇ (@DykeVanTom) February 23, 2019
you're not in charge of shit https://t.co/8Toll0C9qU
Smacking AOC, and she deserves it. Green New Deal, my sweet patoot!— Lee in Iowa #TeamPelosi #SaveButterflies (@Lee_in_Iowa) February 23, 2019
That thing is jammed with all Bernie's poorly thought out "policies" like free college and union jobs for all. Pipe dreams of a shallow backbencher.
Real policies for combating climate change? Not in there. https://t.co/DTMmwQjkf3
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”).
Not that AOC gets all the scorn. Here’s a tweet leveled at a gentleman who ran for president in 2016 as a Democrat.
Can you believe this old white backbencher? Who in the hell does Bernie Sanders think he is? Other than a speech & pandering designed by 10 million $ man Tad Devine, Bernie Sanders has NOTHING. He claims unless we vote for him, we're voting based on gender or race— ☇RiotWomenn☇ (@riotwomennn) February 19, 2019
Backbencher is a nonpartisan, equal-opportunity epithet. GV Wire, which covers California’s Central Valley from its Fresno office, asked last December whether formerly powerful GOP Congressman Devin Nunes was “now a backbencher.” The Los Angeles Times, where backbencher shows up frequently, said of another Republican from California, the still-under-indictment Duncan Hunter, that “he’s essentially a backbencher with virtually no high-profile legislative accomplishments.”
And then there’s Travis Allen.
Narrator voice: It did not. (Los Angeles Times, May 25, 2018)
Ben Yagoda traces the U.S. backbencher trend back to Newt Gingrich, who in 1988 was an ambitious five-term Congressman from Georgia who filed ethics charges against Speaker of the House Jim Wright. “If Jim Wright were a backbench member, I probably wouldn’t have done anything,”' the New York Times quoted Gingrich as “confiding.” “But he’s the Speaker, and everything he could have done all his life as a backbencher becomes self-destructive when he becomes third in line to be President of the United States.” In subsequent articles, the term stuck – to Gingrich himself, at least in the pages of the Times. “After consolidating more power in the office than anyone in recent decades, he would probably find life as a backbencher unbearable,” the Times reported in 1998. In 2012, the Times’s Andrew Rosenthal introduced a quote from Gingrich this way: “In 1985, when he was a backbencher in the Reagan G.O.P., to put it generously.”
The most curious use of backbencher I’ve seen so far is in an August 2018 San Francisco Chronicle story about the hometown baseball team, the Giants. This line jumped out: “Backbenchers Austin Jackson and Hunter Pence had huge pinch hits.” I am no sports authority, but I do know that baseball has a bench (the literal seat in the dugout where players wait to enter the game, as well as — metaphorically — the list of players who are eligible to play) and that sports and other fields may have a deep bench (a large pool of qualified players or workers), but I’d never heard of baseball having a backbench* and indeed could not find any references to one other than that 2018 story. Maybe it’s an indication of backbench’s impending triumph in the U.S. that it’s making inroads into the national pastime.
One place I haven’t seen a rising tide of backbencher is, surprisingly, the U.S. trademark database, where not a single backbench or backbencher shows up. I found examples outside the U.S., but nothing here. You hear that, desperate craft-beer makers? You’re welcome! Leave your email in the comments and I’ll let you know where to send an entirely reasonable check.
The Backbencher gastropub, located opposite Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand. There’s also Backbencher Developers in Gujarat, India; and a Backbencher store with a Pune, India, address, which sells a single T-shirt style. And that’s it for commercial exploitation of backbencher.
I’ll leave you with a short video of AOC on an actual bench, or at least a low, flat platform suitable for sitting.
People were sharing their cute animals yesterday 4 #NationalLoveYourPetDay. I don't have one :( but I do have this video of Charlie, a bulldog from Parkchester (a constituent!) attacking @AOC over the summer while she was on the phone. Sorry for laughing instead of helping, alex pic.twitter.com/wPuIG62jx2— simone norman (@whysimonewhy) February 21, 2019
* I checked in with Ben Yagoda, who is a sports authority. He sent me a terse response: “No. One bench. Never heard the term in baseball.”