Political correctness may be the biggest stealth issue in this political season, partly because people are afraid to talk about it.
For example, a new poll by Rasmussen Reports finds that 74 percent of the Americans surveyed regard political correctness as "a problem" -- and 57 percent believe the country has become "too politically correct."
How did the pollsters define "politically correct?" They didn't. The respondents were left to define PC any way they wanted and, whatever that happened to be, most of them didn't like it.
PC is like flu season: Everybody hates it, but it keeps coming back. We try to inoculate ourselves the best we can, hoping we don't get hit by some new, unexpected strains of offense that we never expected.
Witness, for example, then-Sen. Joe Biden's irritating many African Americans in 2008 with an unfortunately condescending-sounding use of "clean" and "articulate" to compliment then-Sen. Barack Obama. At least Biden wound up with the vice presidency.
Biden's presence came in handy when President Obama found himself offending conservatives by saying the Cambridge police behaved "stupidly" in arresting Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates in his own home. Everybody hates PC, it seems, yet everybody seems to have their own version of it.
Political correctness generally is defined as a ban, usually unwritten, against language or practices that could offend women, minorities and other legally or socially protected groups.
Personally, I prefer to call it by the old-fashioned label that my parents taught me: good manners.
But PC becomes more problematic when it tries to codify what's going to offend people or even violate rights when people and situations can be so different.
Efforts to protect one group sometimes can offend others, as in Grand Rapids, Mich., where state civil rights officials are investigating an unnamed 31-year-old woman for posting an advertisement at her church last July seeking a "Christian roommate."
That violates fair housing laws, the director of the local Fair Housing Center of Western Michigan told Fox News, "No exemptions."
You don't have to be paranoid to wonder whether cases like that are filed by somebody who deliberately wants to make fair housing laws look bad.
On the other hand, you have cases like Carl Paladino, New York's Republican gubernatorial nominee, who declares, "I'm not politically correct," in ways that make political correctness look good.
He proudly espoused his opposition to PC when asked, for example, about sexually and racially charged e-mails he had forwarded to friends. One of his missives famously featured a digitally altered photo of Barack and Michelle Obama as a pimp and hooker. Not too classy.
But, alas, in a democracy, unlike the private sector, voters can decide what's politically correct in their candidates.
Besides, if politics don't work out for Paladino, for example, he received an offer from Hustler publisher Larry Flynt to be the magazine's executive editor, Politico reports. "It's clear he's better suited to join our team," said Flynt, "than be the governor of the State of New York."
That's why I think PC is a stealth issue in these midterm elections. Although all political sides have their own versions of political correctness, liberal PC further enrages the already-aroused right when they sense, for example, that it protects President Obama from criticism.
The tea party movement, for example, doesn't like to have their nonracial concerns about taxes and government spending dismissed as "racist" -- and liberals don't like to have their concerns about health care and job stimulus dismissed as "elitist."
Today's PC battles date back largely to the 1960s. By the end of the decade, traditional partisan differences about how government should be run were recast into a culture war between self-styled forces of good and evil that over time have become even more polarized.
Actor Hal Holbrook once said he hates PC because, "It causes us to lie silently instead of saying what we think." We'd be better off discussing what we think openly, candidly and sensibly, if we aren't too afraid to talk.