Why Do We Call the Gang of Six a "Gang"?

Answers to your questions about the news.
July 22 2011 3:37 PM

Why Do We Call the Gang of Six a "Gang"?

Blame the Communists.

Jiang Qing. Click image to expand.
Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Zedong

President Obama on Wednesday endorsed the debt plan developed by the so-called "Gang of Six" senators. Explainer readers may recall other political "gangs," such as the "Gang of 14" who, in 2005, successfully negotiated a compromise over filibustering judicial nominations. Where does the "Gang of ___" expression come from?

China. The first political group to earn the "gang" tag consisted of Mao Zedong's wife, Jiang Qing, and three other Communist Party officials who were instrumental in engineering the Cultural Revolution. It was Mao himself who coined the term, in 1975, when he felt that Jiang and her small band of associates were accruing too much power. He warned Jiang: "Don't form a gang of four–don't do it! ... Forming a minority is bad; throughout all history it has always been bad." It's thought he was alluding to the Green Gang, Shanghai's famous criminal organization. (Jiang grew up in Shanghai.) A media campaign was launched against the group after Mao's death, blaming the so-called "Gang of Four" for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution.

The term "gang" was first applied to an American political group in May of 1980. Worried about growing conservatism under Ronald Reagan, liberal Republicans Robert Stafford and Charles Mathias and three (later four) other like-minded politicians worked together to modify proposals on environmental policy, at times threatening to or actually voting with Democrats in so-called "floating coalitions." In a nod to Jiang's clique, Sen. Pete B. Domenici called them a "gang of five," criticizing their role in slowing down negotiations. Stafford and company took a liking to the phrase and turned it to their benefit. They were said to have worn large red buttons proclaiming "Join the Gang of Five" in black Chinese calligraphy. The media then started using the "gang" moniker with a neutral or even positive connotation.

The next prominent "gang" consisted of seven Republican freshmen representatives (including current Speaker of the House John Boehner) who were highly critical of the Democratic majority during the early 1990s. The media gave the Republican freshmen this name, but the group embraced it and even posed for a black-and-white photograph with the caption: "The Gang of Seven. We closed the House Bank. We're changing Congress. Join the fight."

Once used rather sparingly, the "gang" tag is getting ever more popular. In the past decade along there have been at least five political gangs. And although the first two American gangs were composed of Republicans, all gangs since then have been bi-partisan. Prominent examples include the aforementioned "Gang of 14," the "Gang of 12" that in 2007 worked on immigration reform, and the "Gang of Six," which attempted to negotiate a bipartisan health bill in 2009.

Bonus Explainer: Say you're a senator. How do you join a "Gang of ___?" There aren't formal rules for joining a gang but, usually, members are senior senators who have previously worked together and trust one another. Gangs are exclusive, mostly due to the fact that they need to remain small to be effective.

Got a question about today's news?  Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Sarah Binder of the Brooking Institute, Alex Cook of Berkeley University, Don Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office, and Eric Sands of Berry College.

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