Decode Dictionary: What's a maximalist?

What does the president's new favorite word mean?

A regular feature that decodes political phrases. This week we look at the term "maximalist".

Where we’re hearing it:

During an hour-long interview with New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman last week, President Barack Obama invoked the word "maximalist" on numerous instances. It’s a term you don’t hear very often in Washington but recently seems to have become the president's new favorite word, at least judging from the Times article.

Obama compared the “maximalist” leaders taking power in Middle Eastern countries to the "extremist" conservatives who he believes are taking control of the U.S. congressional system.

From the Times:

"Our politics are dysfunctional,” said the president, and we should heed the terrible divisions in the Middle East as a “warning to us: societies don’t work if political factions take maximalist positions. And the more diverse the country is, the less it can afford to take maximalist positions."

Not sure what the president was talking about? Don't worry, if the word maximalist seems new to you, you're not alone.

Where did the word come from?

While the president used the word maximalist to talk about both U.S. and Middle Eastern politics, the term was first used to refer to a segment of early 20th century Russian politics, specifically radicals in Russia’s Socialist Revolutionary Party. In that context, a maximalist meant “one who insists on all his demands.”

Today the term means something slightly different. Merriam-Webster defines a maximalist as “one who advocates immediate and direct action to secure the whole of a program or set of goals.” Those goals can be both social and political.

Often the term is used to refer to a person or group that is attempting to take direct action to change an entire social party, region, or political group.

Iraq’s terrorist organization ISIS fits the bill. The group stated goal is to establish an Islamic state, or caliphate, which would replace the social order in Iraq and Syria.

Where will we see it?

Sorry Mr. Obama, even American presidents themselves aren’t safe from the maximalist label. 

In a book written this year titled ‘Maximalist’: American foreign policy since World War II, career diplomat Stephen Sestanovich defines all U.S. presidents as using either maximalism or retrenchment in their approaches to diplomacy. According to Sestanovich, “the maximalists are those looking to put America’s stamp on the world and launch countermeasures against potential threats.”

Today a maximalist in America often refers to a group or politician who attempts to control entire areas — like representatives who gerrymander a district to make sure they routinely win.

So even though you might not have head of the term much before, expect to hear 'maximalist' in more political vocabularies in the future. 

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