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evil empire

evil empire

“Evil empire” was President Ronald Reagan’s name for the USSR.

Reagan often portrayed the struggle between the US and the USSR as a moral war between good and evil. In some of his most famous speeches, he advocated a strong stance against the USSR, warning that the alternative was to abandon the struggle between right and wrong.

Reagan first referred to the USSR as the “evil empire” during a speech he delivered to the British House of Commons in 1982. The following year, he used the phrase again when he spoke to a convention of the National Association of Evangelicals.

In the 1983 speech, Reagan urged Evangelical leaders to do their part in what he described as a “spiritual” crisis, a “test of moral will and faith.” He insisted that the USSR needed to be totally eliminated in order to keep America free:

…in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride–the temptation of blithely..uh..declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.

I ask you to resist the attempts of those who would have you withhold your support for our efforts, this administration’s efforts, to keep America strong and free, while we negotiate–real and verifiable reductions in the world’s nuclear arsenals and one day, with God’s help, their total elimination. [Applause]

While America’s military strength is important, let me add here that I’ve always maintained that the struggle now going on for the world will never be decided by bombs or rockets, by armies or military might. The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.

Reagan’s supporters have argued that his hard-line stance against the Soviet Union was crucial for bringing about the fall of the USSR and dismantling the Soviet bloc. Writing a quarter of a century after Reagan’s “evil empire” speeches, Newt Gingrich praised the “radicalism” behind those speeches. 

“By calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” Reagan sent a clear signal that America was going to challenge the Soviet Union morally, win the psychological information war, and de-legitimize it. If the government was evil, he argued, how could it have authority?” Gingrich reasoned.

Ironically, Reagan himself distanced himself from his “evil empire” rhetoric towards the end of his presidency. In 1988, the president visited Moscow, met with Mikhail Gorbachev, and toured the Kremlin and Red Square. A reporter asked him directly whether he still thought of the Soviet Empire as an evil empire, and he said that he did not. “You are talking about another time, another era,” Reagan explained.

During the same visit, Reagan spoke at the House of Writers in Moscow. There, he said that it was vital not to caricature any nation or group of people. He explained,

“Pretty soon,” he said, “at least for me, it becomes harder and harder to force any member of humanity into a straitjacket, into some rigid form in which you all expect to fit.”

every man a king

every man a king

“Every Man a King” is the title of a speech delivered in 1934 by Senator Huey Long of Louisiana. The speech, which Long delivered on national radio, is one of Long’s most famous speeches, along with his “Share the Wealth” speech.

Long, a populist politician, used the speeches to rail against the concentration of wealth in a few hands and to highlight the problems of the man poor people in his own state. The “every man a king” speech said, in part:

Now, we have organized a society, and we call it “Share Our Wealth Society,” a society with the motto “every man a king.”

Every man a king, so there would be no such thing as a man or woman who did not have the necessities of life, who would not be dependent upon the whims and caprices and ipsi dixit of the financial martyrs for a living. What do we propose by this society? We propose to limit the wealth of big men in the country. There is an average of $15,000 in wealth to every family in America. That is right here today.

We do not propose to divide it up equally. We do not propose a division of wealth, but we propose to limit poverty that we will allow to be inflicted upon any man’s family. We will not say we are going to try to guarantee any equality, or $15,000 to families. No; but we do say that one third of the average is low enough for any one family to hold, that there should be a guaranty of a family wealth of around $5,000; enough for a home, and automobile, a radio, and the ordinary conveniences, and the opportunity to educate their children; a fair share of the income of this land thereafter to that family so there will be no such thing as merely the select to have those things, and so there will be no such thing as a family living in poverty and distress.”

Long’s radio speeches also represented his break with President Franklin D Roosevelt. Long had introduced legislation into the U.S. Senate in an effort to limit incomes and redistribute wealth. However, his legislation never got off the ground; most of his fellow senators considered them to be too radical. 

Long had actually helped FDR win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1932, but broke with the administration in 1934, after he gave up hope that the New Deal would make a meaningful difference in the lives of most Americans. That’s when Long decided to appeal directly to the American people, with his “every man a king” and his “share the wealth” speeches.

Long had also used “every man a king” as a campaign slogan; he also made it the title of his autobiography, which was published in 1933. Long also used the phrase as the title of his campaign song. He co-wrote the song, “Every Man A King,” with Professor Castro Carazo, who was the head of the Louisiana State Band. 

The slogan may also be the origin of Long’s nickname, Kingfish.

Era of Good Feeling

Era of Good Feeling

The “Era of Good Feeling” refers to a period in U.S. history from about 1815 until about 1825, characterized by a sense of optimism and positivity. The era is closely associated with the presidency of James Monroe, who served two terms from 1817 to 1825.

Monroe easily won the presidential election of 1816, garnering 183 electoral votes while the opposing Federalist party won just 34. His victory signaled the effective end of the Federalist party and ushered in a period of total dominance by Monroe’s Democratic-Republican party.

After the election, Monroe went on a prolonged victory tour throughout New England. It was during this tour that one newspaper, the Columbian Centinel, published an article titled “The Era of Good Feeling.” The piece described a festive, upbeat mood which was shared by “eminent men of all political parties.”

The era was marked by America’s victory in the War of 1812. In Europe, the Napoleonic Wars were at an end, which also left Americans free to concentrate on their own affairs. The age is characterized by a growing isolationism.

Historians say that the era of good feeling was also shored up by economic prosperity. During Monroe’s first term, America put in place its first protective tariffs and established the Second National Bank. Congress, at Monroe’s request, also put an end to property taxes and other federal taxes. The federal government was able to pay off the nation’s extensive war debt using the money from tariffs.

At the same time, America continued to expand across the continent. In 1819, Andrew Jackson invaded Florida, which eventually led to a treaty with Spain that handed Florida over to the United States. During this period, America also stepped up its western expansion. In 1823, the president also articulated the Monroe Doctrine, which defined the Western Hemisphere as the United States’ sphere of influence and warned Europeans not to interfere in the region.

The era of good feeling was at an end by 1825. Even during Monroe’s second term, the sense of national goodwill was beginning to fade, and major conflicts over slavery and national expansion were making themselves felt. The period of one-party rule was also coming to an end. 

Since the Federalist party had collapsed, the presidential election of 1824 featured candidates who were all from the Democratic-Republican party. Four candidates vied for the presidency: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, Treasury Secretary William Crawford, and House Speaker Henry Clay. None of the candidates was able to win a majority in the electoral college, so that decision went to the House of Representatives. The choice was between Adams and Jackson; neither Crawford nor clay had enough votes to compete.

The House handed the presidency to Adams, although Andrew Jackson had won the most popular votes and the most electoral votes. The election marked a split in the party, leading Americans to re-organize into two new parties: the Democrats, loyal to Jackson, and the Whigs, who were allied to Adams. In 1828, Andrew Jackson ran again and, this time, defeated Adams in his re-election bid.

eunuch rule

eunuch rule

The “eunuch rule” is a reference to the provisions in many state constitutions which prevented state governors from running for a second consecutive term in office. Those provisions have been amended in almost every state; as of 2020, Virginia is the only state which still prevents governors from holding two consecutive terms in office.

The rules on gubernatorial qualifications, succession, and term length are decided on a state-by-state basis. In most states, governors serve a four-year term and may serve back-to-back terms; however, they may be limited to a number of consecutive or lifetime terms.

The “eunuch rule” got its name because, in theory, it put the incumbent governor in a weak position (like that of a eunuch, with no real power). William Safire wrote:

In most states, particularly in the South, governors are rendered politically impotent – LAME DUCKS from the moment they enter the Statehouse – by the eunuch rule. This was designed to prevent four-year governors from building long-lasting machines…Whenever the eunuch rule applies, the governor starts thinking about (1) running for senator, (2) laying the groundwork for a career in private business, or (3) “modernizing the state constitution to permit reelection.

Historically, politicians have gone to great lengths to get around the “eunuch rule.” In 1966 George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, was nearing the end of his term. Alabama’s state laws prevented him from seeking a second term in office, and so Wallace decided to put his wife, Lurleen, on the ballot instead. 

Lurleen Wallace beat out 10 opponents in the Democratic primary and also defeated her Republican opponent, James Douglas Martin. She became the first female governor of Alabama. Lurleen’s working class roots helped to make her very popular in the state. Like her husband, Lurleen actively opposed desegregation efforts. She is also remembered, though, for her efforts to improve mental health care and for her work to expand state parks and recreational facilities. 

Today, Virginia is the only state which prevents governors from succeeding themselves. There is an ongoing effort to amend the state’s constitution so that governors can serve consecutive terms. That state tends to be popular among Democrats, who have won recent gubernatorial elections; many Republicans oppose the proposed amendments.

In 2019, Dawn Adams, a Democrat from Richmond, sponsored House Joint Resolution 608, which would amend the state constitution to let governors elected after 2021 serve for two terms in a row. Adams described the current system as a “detriment to the commonwealth.” “She told Delmarva Now, “Now is the time we should look to pass a constitutional amendment for consecutive but limited governor terms.” Adams also noted that the current system leads to “inefficiency, waste, duplication of services, low morale and low productivity.”

However, Republicans in Virginia said the term limit is a much-need check to the strong power of the executive; Virginia’s governor has the power to amend and veto bills, appoint officials and order a special legislative session. Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, a Republican, said a big argument against the proposed change was also that he wouldn’t have wanted recent governors to stay in power for more than four years.

Said Norment: “I would very succinctly and ecumenically say two words: Gilmore and McAuliffe.”

Enemies List

enemies list

A list of political opponents kept by the Nixon administration. The phrase “enemies list” is now used as shorthand to refer to suspected abuses of power in any administration.

In 1973, former White House aide John Dean III told the Senate that President Nixon kept a list of his political opponents. The so-called “opponents list” had been compiled for Nixon’s trusted aide, Charles Colson. It featured the names of public figures who were thought to pose a threat to the Nixon administration. The list included notes about any known weaknesses of the “enemies,” and also suggested finding a way to “use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.”

Dean revealed the list’s existence during a hearing of the Watergate Committee. On the same day, the CBS journalist Daniel Schorr managed to get a copy of the list, which he began reading, out loud and on air, to his audience. (A second, longer version of the list appeared later that year.) 

“I got to No. 17, and I said, ‘No. 17, Daniel Schorr, a real media enemy,’ ” Schorr told The Hill, decades later.

“I almost collapsed on the air. I had never read it before, never seen it before, never expected it. But I continued and said, ‘No. 18, Paul Newman. No. 19, Mary McGrory [the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post].’ It was such a distinguished list,” he said, joking that the notoriety of the list made him more popular. “My lecture fees went up.”

Schorr wasn’t the only one who was proud to be on Nixon’s list. The Village Voice ran a tongue in cheek piece that year titled “The Shame of Being Left Off Nixon’s Enemies List.” The article speculated about what might happen to leftist commentators, activists, and others who prided themselves on being “anti-establishment,” if those people turned out not to be on Nixon’s all-important list:

“What newspaper is going to shell out hard cash for a columnist whose opinions are so tame that even the White House doesn’t consider him dangerous? Poor Nick Von Hoffman. Darling of the New Left, intimate of numerous Democrats, defender of the Chicago Seven, how does he face his readers, knowing that Nixon, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Dean all considered Max Lerner a greater threat to their empire? And Jimmy Breslin. For years he and Pete Hamill have fought tooth and nail to see which one could say the most outrageous things about the Nixon regime. How can Breslin even manage to drag his poor broken body out of bed in the morning now that Hamill has administered the tour de force?”

A few decades later, some journalists and pundits began making comparisons between Nixon’s enemies list and the Trump administration. In 2018, the Trump White House announced that it had stripped the security clearance from former CIA director John Brennan and that it was considering doing the same to others. Mike Mullen, a former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Fox News that this meant the president was “creating a list of political enemies.”

eight millionaires and a plumber

eight millionaires and a plumber

“Eight millionaires and a plumber” is a dismissive reference to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first cabinet.

Eisenhower’s critics complained that the president’s top advisers were all wealthy and therefore, by implication, out of touch with ordinary people. The only exception – the “plumber” in the phrase – was Marty Durkin, the new labor secretary. Durkin had previously headed up the Plumbers’ Union.

Many of Eisenhower’s cabinet members came from the private sector and lacked experience in government. The secretary of the treasury, George Humphrey, had a background in law and eventually became the president and chairman of the board of the steelworks M. A. Hanna and Company. 

Eisenhower’s pick for Secretary of Defense, Charles Wilson, was an engineer who had risen to become the vice president of General Motors. Wilson was very open about his strong ties to the private sector; he considered them an asset, not a problem. He once famously told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.”

Martin Durkin, the “plumber” in the cabinet, came from a much humbler background than his colleagues. Durkin grew up in Illinois and attended evening school, leaving at the age of 17 to become a steamfitter’s apprentice. From there, he joined the plumbers’ and pipe fitters’ union, eventually rising through the ranks to become president of the union. In 1933, he became the Director of Labor for the State of Illinois. Durkin was also the only Democrat in the cabinet. A former Union man, Durkin pushed hard to revise the Taft-Hartley Act. He was unable to get the changes he wanted, and stepped down from his cabinet post after just eight months in office.

Decades later, pundits compared President Donald Trump’s cabinet to President Eisenhower’s. Screaming headlines criticized the president for appointing a team of wealthy individuals with little government experience. A piece in Politico was titled “Trump’s Team of Gazillionaires;” the article pointed out that the president’s cabinet picks seemed out of step with his campaign message, which had promised to fight for the forgotten working class. The Washington Post claimed that Trump had assembled “the richest administration in modern American history.” 

However, an op-ed in the Washington Post also pointed out that most of America’s presidents and cabinet members have been wealthy. JFK, FDR, and the trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt all had personal fortunes which allowed them to pursue independent policies. (In his own time, FDR was labeled a “traitor to his own class” for his tax policies, among other things.) The Post op-ed closed by defending Eisenhower’s “eight millionaires and a plumber” cabinet:

Although Republican President Dwight Eisenhower was from a more modest background, his Cabinet picks were roundly mocked as “eight millionaires and a plumber.” Yet they managed to serve their country well and selflessly, acting against their own economic interests by maintaining a top marginal income tax rate of 91 percent throughout Eisenhower’s eight years in office. The revenue helped build our interstate highways and create NASA, among other achievements.



To “electioneer” is to actively take part in an election by working for the election of a candidate or a party.

The word is almost always used in a pejorative sense. Most of the time “electioneering” is used to suggest something tawdry, or underhanded; the word implies discomfort with the way that campaigns are carried out.

Electioneering has had a bad rap since the time of the Founding Fathers. In 1796, James Madison wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson, grumbling that a statement from the French foreign minister (Pierre Auguste Adet) was being dismissed as mere electioneering. Madison wrote:

Adêts Note which you will have seen, is working all the evil with which it is pregnant. Those who rejoice at its indiscretions and are taking advantage of them, have the impudence to pretend that it is an electioneering manoeuvre, and that the French Govt. have been led to it by the opponents of the British Treaty.

A few years later, John Adams wrote at length about the problem with electioneering. Adams was also writing to Thomas Jefferson. His 1814 letter complains that electioneering is taking over just about everything – and he expects it to get worse. Adams wrote:

I dare not look beyond my Nose, into futurity. Our Money, our Commerce, our Religion, our National and State Constitutions, even our Arts and Sciences, are So many Seed Plotts of Division, Faction, Sedition and Rebellion. Every thing is transmuted into an Instrument of Electioneering. Election is the grand Brama, the immortal Lama, I had almost Said, the Jaggernaught, for Wives are almost ready to burn upon the Pile and Children to be thrown under the Wheel.

In 1801, Thomas Jefferson issued an executive order barring all federal workers from doing anything which would “influence the votes of others, nor take part in the business of electioneering.” Jefferson’s executive order is often seen as the forerunner of the Hatch Act, which puts strict limits on the political activities of government employees at all levels.

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 differentiated between electioneering and what it called “issue-related speech,” arguing that electioneering was not entitled to First Amendment protections because it involved an individual candidate or party, rather than an idea. That distinction has not been universally accepted, but it explains why legally, ads defined as “electioneering” can be restricted.

In 2012, for example, a US District Judge found that a series of ads produced by the Hispanic Leadership Fund should be classified as “electioneering communication.” The judge found that the ads in question seemed to implicitly endorse President Obama and could, therefore, be restricted during the 60 days before the election. 

The judge also rejected the claim made by the Hispanic Leadership Fund that the electioneering communication disclosure provisions violated constitutional rights to political speech and to due process. In his decision, the judge wrote in part,

“Both the Supreme Court and the Fourth Circuit have made clear that [the Federal Election Campaign Act’s] disclosure requirements for electioneering communications are constitutional because they are justified by the public’s interest in knowing who is speaking about a candidate during the election period.”

effete snobs

effete snobs

“Effete snobs” was a phrase used by Vice President Spiro Agnew to denounce anti-war protesters, and young intellectuals in general, during the Vietnam era. The phrase quickly caught on and was adopted as a slogan by the anti-war movement.

Agnew had a reputation as a no-nonsense, law and order politician and a dramatic orator. His law and order reputation was badly dented later when he was forced to resign as vice president amid charges of tax evasion and bribery. But in 1969, Agnew was at the height of his power.

His famous “effete snobs” speech called out not only leftist protesters, but a whole group of pseudo-intellectuals who Agnew believed were brainwashing young students:

Education is being redefined at the demand of the uneducated to suit the ideas of the uneducated. The student now goes to college to proclaim, rather than to learn. The lessons of the past are ignored and obliterated, and a contemporary antagonism known as “The Generation Gap.” A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete core of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.

Agnew was responding to the so-called Peace Moratorium, a national day of protest in which an estimated two million people across the United States took part in demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. A quarter of a million people gathered in Washington DC, singing songs and holding a late-night vigil. The police clashed with activists outside the White House and elsewhere in the country. In DC, the child development expert Dr Benjamin Spock told the crowd that the war was a “total abomination” that was crippling America and must be stopped.

Agnew delivered his “effete snobs” remarks about a week after the demonstration, at a fundraiser in New Orleans. The vice president asserted that “hardcore dissidents and professional anarchists” were inciting the protests, and that the demonstrators didn’t reflect the true views of most Americans. Nixon had already pledged that he would not be moved in any way by the protests.

Agnew made a series of speeches over the years, criticizing leftist student protesters; in 1970, the New York Times put together a collection of some of his most memorable quotes. The vice president said, for example:

Most of these young people who depend upon the ideology of ‘the movement’ for moral and mental sustenance will in time . . . return to the enduring values, just as every generation before them has done. But unfortunately, there is a much smaller group of students who are committed to radical change through violent means. . . . This is the criminal left that belongs not in a dormitory but in a penitentiary…

One of Agnew’s more memorable descriptions was of the media, when he called them “nattering nabobs of negativism.

Agnew’s “effete snobs” speech, though, quickly became notorious and was co-opted by the left for their own purposes. Political buttons soon appeared, reading, for example, “snob for peace” or “I’m an effete snob for peace.” 

The Baltimore Sun has pointed out that ever since Agnew’s speech, politicians have tried to make political capital by attacking out of touch “snobs” and “elitists” at America’s colleges. Ironically, the Sun notes, these anti-elitist politicians are all highly educated themselves.

dyed in the wool


“Dyed in the wool” is a phrase referring to people who hold very strong opinions and are unwilling to change them. Synonyms include “uncompromising” and “inveterate.” In politics, people might be can be referred to as “dyed in the wool Democrats” or “dyed in the wool Republicans.”

Merriam Webster notes that the phrase was first used in its modern sense in 1580. Merriam Webster says that in the 16th century, writers began to use the expression to discuss ways that “children could, if taught early, be influenced in ways that would adhere throughout their lives.” The phrase was used in its political sense as early as the beginning of the 19th century, when Daniel Webster complained about a certain type of Democrat whose views were “as unyielding as the dye in unspun wool.”

In its literal sense, “dyed in the wool” means that the wool has been dyed before it is spun into thread. This produces a strong and long-lasting color. Metaphorically, dyed in the wool means that someone’s opinions were formed and set at an early stage in their development and that they can’t be washed away.

In 1870 Frederick Douglass delivered a speech to new voters, urging them to vote their conscience; he described himself as a “Republican dyed in the wool” but told his audience that they had an absolute right to vote as they saw fit:

I hear some men say that if the black man, in this enlightened age, should vote the Democratic ticket let him be denounced. Gentlemen I do not share that opinion at all. 1 am a Republican – a Black Republican  dyed in the wool- and I never intend to belong to any other than the party of freedom and progress. But if one of my colored fellow-citizens chooses to think that his interests and rights and the interests of the country can be better sub-served by giving his vote against the Republican party, I, as an American citizen, and as one desirous to learn the first principles of free government, affirm his right-his undoubted right-to vote as he chooses.

Dyed in the wool can be used in either a positive or a negative sense, depending on who is speaking. For example, when President Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, some leftists complained that Sotomayor was not a reliable, or dyed in the wool, liberal herself. Sotomayor did not have a strong liberal record on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and the death penalty. “The fact that she hasn’t gone off on these sorts of questions I think shows that honestly she’s not a dyed in the wool liberal,” Thomas Goldstein, a leading appellate attorney, told Politico, adding, “There are places where Sotomayor will be more conservative than Souter.”

In contrast, in 2018 the chair of the Pennsylvania GOP asserted that Conor Lamb, who was then running for Congress, was a “dyed in the wool liberal” and a staunch supporter of Nancy Pelosi. The implication was that Lamb was trying to portray himself as more centrist than he actually was, and that his true colors would show through after election.


don’t change horses

“Don’t change horses” is a phrase used to urge voters to stick with the incumbent president during times of turmoil and conflict. The full expression is “don’t change horses mid-stream” (or, sometimes, “don’t swap horses midstream”).

The expression is usually credited to Abraham Lincoln who, during the Civil War, said that voters should re-elect him because it would be foolish to change leaders in the middle of such a turbulent time. After his nomination to run for a second term, Lincoln told a group of his supporters,

“I do not allow myself to suppose that either the convention or the League have concluded to decide that I am either the greatest or best man in America, but rather they have concluded that it is not best to swap horses while crossing the river, and have further concluded that I am not so poor a horse that they might not make a botch of it in trying to swap.” 

Lincoln’s phrase spread quickly. Harper’s Weekly ran a political cartoon which showed “Old Abe” as a steady-looking, bearded horse with a voter sitting in the saddle. Lincoln’s opponent, George McClellan, was back in the bushes, surrounded with promises of peace and compromise.

In modern times, the message of sticking with your leader in times of trouble still resonates. Some pundits say that this is what allowed George W. Bush to beat out John Kerry and win a second term. Polls showed that more than anything, voters were concerned about global terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. That meant that Bush, the incumbent, was a natural choice for Americans who wanted strength and continuity.

The phrase doesn’t just apply to presidents. In 2009, in the middle of the global economic downturn, MarketWatch urged President Obama to leave Ben Bernanke in his post as chair of the Federal Reserve “so that he can ride out the financial crisis.” 

In March 2020, the New York Post suggested that Donald Trump was trying to portray himself as a “wartime president” in order to win the upcoming election. (The “war” he was engaged in was against the coronavirus pandemic.)

“Donald Trump, making his own case for re-election in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, has been wielding martial rhetoric more and more frequently in his barrage of daily briefings on the unfolding calamity,” The Post wrote. The paper also cited White House economic adviser Peter Navarro, who had told Fox News, “We have essentially a wartime president now, and the war is against this coronavirus. And there can’t be any dissension in the ranks.” The Post reported that Trump’s poll numbers had been up ever since he shifted to the “war president” strategy.

Of course, the “don’t change horses” strategy is not foolproof. In 1932, Herbert Hoover was the incumbent president; his supporters tried to portray him as a sort of wartime leader who was battling the Depression. However, many voters blamed him for the Depression. When Hoover’s supporters urged voters not to change horses, voters chanted, “change horses or drown!”

Hoover was defeated by Franklin Roosevelt. Ironically, FDR went on to win re-election by urging voters, once again, not to change horses in mid stream.

do nothing Congress

Do-Nothing Congress

In 1948, when President Truman was running for re-election, he frequently attacked the Republican-controlled Congress as the “do-nothing Congress.”

In fact, the 80th Congress passed 388 public laws, making it hard to call it exactly “do nothing.” But, the president charged that Republicans in Congress were blocking his “Fair Deal” legislation, which would have lowered housing and food costs. In a campaign event in New Jersey, in October of 1948, Truman said:

I have been trying to get the Republicans to do something about high prices and housing ever since they came to Washington.  They are responsible for that situation, because they killed price control, and they killed the housing bill.  That Republican, 80th “do-nothing” Congress absolutely refused to give any relief whatever in either one of those categories.

Some people say I ought not to talk so much about the Republican 80th “do-nothing” Congress in this campaign.  I will tell you why I will talk about it.  If two-thirds of the people stay at home again on election day as they did in 1946, and if we get another Republican Congress like the 80th Congress, it will be controlled by the same men who controlled that 80th Congress…

Since then, of course, the term “do-nothing Congress” has been applied again and again. In 2013, Politico ran a piece arguing that the 113th Congress was “on track to go down as the least productive in history.” (The article was titled The (really) do-nothing Congress.) The author, Manu Raju, noted that at the time of his writing, the 113th Congress had so far enacted only 49 laws, the lowest level since 1947.  

A few years later, in 2016, the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake chided the 114th Congress for its inactivity. Blake saw Congress’s inaction as part of a larger trend. He wrote, “With the 114th session of Congress coming to an end, we can now take stock of just how much was accomplished over the past two years. And for this entire decade, the answer to that question has essentially been: not much.” Blake pointed out that Americans are more divided, politically, than ever before, making it harder for politicians to reach across the aisle and make deals.

That trend has only continued, and it’s been aggravated by a series of government shutdowns. By 2019, ABC News reported that members of Congress were, themselves, frustrated by their own inability to pass laws. “What people want from congress is plenty,” ABC News noted. “What they get, can fall short. Both sides are disappointed so far. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), said so far it’s been “100 days of nothing.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called that chamber a “legislative graveyard”.

Of course, as William Safire pointed out, politicians have been accusing each other of being “do nothings” for hundreds of years. In medieval France, the Merovingian dynasty became known as the “do-nothing kings;” in the 20th century, FDR mocked Herbert Hoover as a “do nothing” president. More recently, historians have tried to redeem Hoover’s legacy, but the image of him as a do-nothing president has stuck.


domino theory

The domino theory was critical in shaping US foreign policy during the Cold War. Domino theory argued that if one nation became communist, its neighboring states would go the same way. In theory, if one state “fell” to communism, its neighbors would also fall, setting off a chain reaction comparable to a line of toppling dominoes.

The drive to contain communism was a major influence on the Truman administration, motivating the government to start providing aid to the French government in Indochina. Truman also assisted Greece and Turkey in the late 1940s in an effort to contain the spread of communism.

However, it was President Eisenhower who really popularized the concept of domino theory. At a press conference in April, 1954, a reporter asked Eisenhower about his opinion on Indochina and its strategic importance. Eisenhower replied, in part:

You have, of course, both the specific and the general when you talk about such things. First of all, you have the specific value of a locality in its production of materials that the world needs. Then you have the possibility that many human beings pass under a dictatorship that is inimical to the free world.

Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the ‘falling domino’ principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.

Eisenhower returned to this concept repeatedly, in speeches about the “aggressive” nature of communism and the need to contain its spread. The Eisenhower administration also used domino theory to explain why the US was intervening in Indochina but not, for example, in Franco’s Spain. The National Security Council agreed that it did not want to “police the governments of the entire world” – it did, however, want to fight communism and beat out Moscow.

Domino theory was closely linked to US presence in Vietnam. Both the Kennedy and the Johnson administrations used domino theory to justify escalating the American military presence in Vietnam. Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State under Presidents Nixon and Ford, was a vocal defender of the theory. Speaking at a press conference in 1975, Kissinger said, “We must understand that peace is indivisible. The United States cannot pursue a policy of selective reliability. We cannot abandon friends in one part of the world without jeopardizing the security of friends everywhere.”

Decades later, President Reagan again referenced domino theory to explain US intervention in Latin America; Reagan argued that any communist presence in Latin America was a threat to the entire Western Hemisphere. “We believe that the government of El Salvador is on the front line of a battle that is really aimed at the very heart of the Western Hemisphere and eventually at us,” Reagan told reporters, adding that if El Salvador were to “fall” to communism, then “I think Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama and all of these would follow.”



The Dixiecrats were a group of Southern Democrats who broke away from their party in 1948 because they objected to the Democratic Party’s stance on desegregation. The Dixiecrats were also known as “States’ Rights Democrats.” They represent part of a massive shift in party allegiance that reshaped the politics of the South during the second half of the 20th century.

Up through the end of the Second World War, the Democratic Party dominated the US South; it was virtually impossible for Southern politicians to win office unless they were Democrats. There were rumbles of discontent in the 1930s, as many southern politicians objected to FDR’s social policies and to his support of the labor movement. Still, southern Democrats remained loyal to their party. 

That all changed in 1948, when President Harry Truman presented a pro-civil rights platform at the party’s political convention. A group of southern Democrats, led by Strom Thurmond, walked out of the convention in protest. Those men, who became known as the Dixiecrats, organized their own, separate presidential convention in Birmingham Alabama; footage from the time shows participants waving confederate flags as they strode into their convention hall. An estimated six thousand people from 13 southern states participated in the convention. 

Their plan was to field their own presidential candidate in the upcoming election. They didn’t expect to win, but they hoped to earn all the southern states’ electoral votes, so that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans would be able to win the election.  This would have meant that the House of Representatives would decide the vote, and the Dixiecrats believed that southern states had enough power in the House to deadlock the outcome until Truman dropped his civil rights platform.

In the event, the Dixiecrats nominated Strom Thurmond as their candidate for president. Fielding L. Wright was nominated as vice president. Thurmond was a prominent opponent of de-segregation efforts. A native of South Carolina, he went on to have a long career in the US Senate, where he eventually became the oldest serving senator (until he was overtaken by Robert Byrd of West Virginia). He made a name for himself as a staunch opponent of civil rights legislation and a proponent of military spending. In 1948, Thurmond received over one million votes. He carried four states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama) and won 39 electoral votes. 

After 1948, the Dixiecrats never fielded another presidential candidate. However, they did meet later that year for a second convention, this time in Oklahoma City. There, they drew up and unanimously adopted a party platform. The platform calls for an end to de-segregation and for an increase in states’ rights. It reads, in part,

“We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race; the constitutional right to choose one’s associates; to accept private employment without governmental interference, and to earn one’s living in any lawful way. We oppose the elimination of segregation, the repeal of miscegenation statutes, the control of private employment by Federal bureaucrats called for by the misnamed civil rights program. We favor home-rule, local self-government and a minimum interference with individual rights.” 

city on a hill

city on a hill

A “city on a hill” is a phrase used to refer to America’s supposed standing in the world, as a “beacon of hope” which other nations can look to for moral guidance.

The phrase can be traced back to the New Testament. In the Sermon on the Mount (as recounted in the book of Matthew), Jesus tells his followers:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good.

John Winthrop, who helped found the Massachusetts Bay colony, was the first person to apply the phrase to America. In 1630 Winthrop and a group of his fellow Puritans traveled from England to the New World, in order to found a colony near Plymouth. While aboard the Arabella, Winthrop delivered a speech which has become known as the “city on a hill” sermon.

Winthrop told his fellow Puritans that they would have to work hard, sacrificing their own personal desires for the good of the community and for the sake of their religion: “for we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”

In 1961, president-elect John F Kennedy told the people of Massachusetts that, as he prepared to assume the presidency:

I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier.

“We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill — the eyes of all people are upon us.

Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us–and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city on a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.

A few decades later, Ronald Reagan made frequent references to the “city on the hill.” Reagan made John Winthrop and the “shining city” the centerpiece of his farewell speech to the nation, at the end of his second term:

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind, it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind swept, God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace – a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here…

And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the Pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.

chilling effect

chilling effect

A “chilling effect” is a situation in which rights are restricted, often because of indirect political pressure or overbroad legislation. Chilling effect is usually used to refer to free speech restrictions.

The term, and in fact the doctrine, first became widespread in the middle of the 20th century. That’s when the courts were asked to respond to McCarthy era laws aimed at monitoring communist sympathizers. In a series of landmark cases in the 1960s, the Supreme Court ruled that even when they don’t explicitly infringe on speech, laws can effectively restrict speech through intimidation.

Today, we mainly use “chilling effect” to talk about the subtle ways that politics, money, and power can impact free speech. The phrase is in frequent use by people on all points of the political spectrum. It doesn’t always refer to free speech; a “chilling effect” can also deter people from taking unpopular political positions, or from carrying out certain actions.

In 2016, for example, a prominent critic of the Clintons argued that President Obama should not have endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. Peter Schweizer, the author of “Clinton Cash,” said that the endorsement was likely going to deter the FBI from investigating Hillary Clinton’s email setup.

“The timing is horrible,” he said of Obama’s endorsement. “The optics are horrible. And you’re not going to convince me, I don’t think anybody’s going to convince me, that this is not going to have some sort of chilling effect on the FBI.”

A few years later, Democratic lawmakers expressed concern that President Trump had allegedly silenced a whistleblower. The whistleblower in question claimed that he had information about Trump’s conversation with the Ukrainian leader, in which Trump allegedly asked for an investigation of then-vice president Joe Biden’s son.

However, as the Washington Post reported, Democrats weren’t just concerned about the whistleblower in that case. They were concerned, they said, about the knock-on effect this might have on future whistleblowers. “The President’s brazen effort to intimidate this whistleblower risks a chilling effect on future whistleblowers, with grave consequences for our democracy and national security,” said Adam Schiff, Elijah Cummings, Jerrold Nadler and Eliot L. Engel.

Around the same time, former FBI agents told CNN that they were concerned about a possible chilling effect within the FBI as a result of comments from President Trump and Attorney General William Barr. The former FBI agents said that Barr’s “harsh” rhetoric was likely to stop current agents from “sticking their necks out” and undertaking other politically risky investigations.

“These comments will have a chilling effect on the workforce,” said one recently retired agent who has handled surveillance warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the kind abused according to the inspector general report.

Of course, the term “chilling effect” isn’t always about politicians and their actions. Sometimes, the phrase is used to describe a broader culture that discourages free speech. In 2016, for example, Conor Friedersdorf published an article in the Atlantic arguing that college campuses were becoming so obsessed with “political correctness” that they were dampening free speech.

chicken in every pot

chicken in every pot

“Chicken in every pot” was Republican campaign slogan of the late 1920s. The slogan is often incorrectly attributed to Herbert Hoover; it became a means for Democrats to attack Republicans as out of touch with economic reality.

The desire for there to be a “chicken in every pot” dates back at least to 16th century France. That’s when Henri IV supposedly wished that every peasant in his kingdom, no matter how poor, could have a chicken in his pot every Sunday. (It’s not clear whether Henri ever actually uttered these words, but the story persists.)

Centuries later, the phrase resurfaced in the United States. In 1928, a group of Republican businessmen created an ad touting the supposed gains the Republican Party had made for working Americans. The ad ran in the New York World and the headline read, “A Chicken in Every Pot.”

“The Republican Party isn’t a poor man’s party,” the ad began. It went on to say that “Republican efficiency has filled the workingman’s dinner pail – and his gasoline tank besides…Republican prosperity has reduced hours and increased earning capacity, silenced discontent, put the proverbial “chicken in every pot.” And a car in every backyard, to boot.”

Later that year, Al Smith, the Democratic candidate for the White House, waved the ad around and quoted from it derisively. According to William Safire, Smith read out some of the ad to a waiting crowd and then asked his audience, “just draw on your imagination for a moment, and see if you can in your mind’s eye picture a man working at $17.50 a week going out to a chicken dinner in his own car with silk socks on.”

Hoover easily beat Smith in the 1928 election.  It’s worth noting that Hoover never actually promised Americans a chicken in every pot, as Smith suggested. But Hoover did run on a “prosperity” platform, promising ordinary Americans a better life. That may be why the “chicken in every pot” slogan stuck to him so well, and caused him so much trouble later on.

In 1932, Hoover was running for re-election and America was in the throes of the Great Depression. Many Americans blamed the president for the economic downturn, and the language of the time reflects it. Slums were known as “Hoovervilles,” and empty, turned-out pockets were known as “Hoover flags.” The promise of a car in every back yard and a chicken in every pot seemed laughable to many, which helps explain the record turnout to vote Hoover in.

Decades later, when John F. Kennedy was running for president, he dredged up the “chicken in every pot” slogan all over again. JFK attributed the quote to Hoover, expanding the original slogan to include twice as many chickens as before. In a speech in Blountville, Tennessee, JFK said,

“It is my understanding that the last candidate for the Presidency to visit this community in a Presidential year was Herbert Hoover in 1928.President Hoover initiated on the occasion of his visit the slogan “Two chickens for every pot”, and it is no accident that no Presidential candidate has ever dared come back to this community since.”

cemetery vote

cemetery vote

The “cemetery vote” refers to a form of voter fraud, in which votes are cast in the names of registered voters who have, in fact, passed away. The term is also sometimes used when a vote is improperly cast by someone who no longer lives in the electoral district.

It’s related to “ballot box stuffing.”

In 2016, a CBS investigation found that there had been “multiple cases” of votes being cast by dead men and women in Denver, Colorado. The votes were cast months, or years, after the actual voters passed away.

In one instance, CBS found that ballots had been cast in the name of a woman named Sara Sosa in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013. However, Sosa had died in October of 2009. Her husband, Miguel, died in 2008 but a vote was cast in his name in 2009.

Chicago has its own, storied history of voter fraud, and the Chicago Tribune ran a cheery editorial after CBS unearthed fraud in Colorado:

As Chicagoans, we have one thing to say: amateurs. The Denver investigation turned up only four confirmed cases of corpses actually casting ballots. And the whole scandal seems to be the work of a few hapless freelancers — presumably, someone getting hold of a ballot mailed to the home of the deceased and deciding not to waste it.

After all, the famous, cheeky order to “vote early and vote often” is closely linked to Chicago. Historians are not sure who, exactly, first uttered the phrase, but it’s always attributed to a Chicagoan. It’s thought that it was either the famous gangster, Al Capone; Richard Daley, mayor from 1955 to 1976; or William Hale Thompson, who was mayor from 1915-1923 and from 1931-1935

In mid-century Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley was rumored to regularly engineer voter fraud so that his Democratic allies kept on winning. Many people said that Daley was also behind the 1960 victory of John F Kennedy; Daley supposedly “stole” the presidency for JFK by making sure that the Chicago vote went his way. That account has been disputed, but it’s still a popular and widely-believed story.

More recent reporting, though, indicates that cemetery votes are still being used in Chicago. A 2016 investigation by CBS2 found that over the course of the previous decade, 199 dead people had “voted” a total of 229 times.

A Board of Elections spokesman downplayed the investigation, dismissing the votes as accidents or as irrelevant mistakes. “This is not the bad old days,” Jim Allen told CBS. “There are just a few instances here where a father came in for a son, or a neighbor was given the wrong ballot application and signed it.” Allen argued that a number of the “fraudulent” votes were simple clerical errors.

The CBS investigation found that 60,000 voters had not been purged from the city’s voting rolls. In several cases, relatives of people who had passed away complained that they had repeatedly notified officials of their family members’ deaths – only to find out later that their family members had “voted” several times after death.

captive candidate

captive candidate

A “captive candidate” is one who is allegedly “owned” by special interests or political groups. Calling someone a “captive candidate” is similar to saying that they are the puppet or the pawn of an interest group.

As William Safire has pointed out, the phrase is often associated with Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1952. Stevenson ran against the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower’s campaign accused Stevenson of being in the pocket of the Democratic political bosses and the labor unions. Republicans had been making similar charges against Democrats for decades, but by 1952 they were beginning to stick.

Stevenson, though, fought back by reclaiming the word. At first he was content to laugh off the Republican allegations. Soon, he turned the expression around and used it to attack Eisenhower. He argued that Republicans in general were beholden to big business and that their voting record proved it. In a Labor Day speech to his supporters, Stevenson depicted Eisenhower as the pleasant, slightly vacant face of the Republican party:

It’s a good thing the people have the Democratic Party to count on. For it’s a sure thing they cannot count on the Republican Party. The Republicans are still the party of the special interests, still the errand boys of the big lobbies, still the ones who want to exploit labor and the farmers and the consumers. The only thing different about them this year is that they are trying to hide behind a new face–their lonely, captive candidate.

They have tried disguises before. They always try to put a new face on the elephant at election time. But the disguise never works because the rest of the elephant is too big to hide–and the rest of the elephant has the record of Republican reaction written all over him.

We might not use the phrase “captive candidate” very often these days, but similar allegations get thrown around in every election cycle. One of the most common threads in political attack ads is the claim that one candidate or another is the tool of a special interest group.

In politics, the opposite of a “captive candidate” is probably a “grassroots-funded” candidate. During the 2020 primary season, both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders claimed that their campaigns were “100% grassroots funded.” The implication is that they weren’t beholden to special interests or lobbyists, since they were funding themselves through small donations from ordinary voters. As the Washington Post reported, this claim was a mixture of fact and omission.

Donald Trump put an interesting twist on all of this back in 2015, when he was running for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump repeatedly argued that his opponents were being bought by the special interests who contributed to their campaign funds. By contrast, Trump asserted, he was unbuyable – because he was so rich already that nobody could tempt him with cash.

As Politico reported, Trump imagined a scenario in which all of his rivals were beholden to their donors and would have to do the donors’ bidding down the line:

So their lobbyists, their special interests and their donors will start calling President Bush, President Clinton, President Walker. Pretty much whoever is president other than me. Other than me. And they’ll say: ‘You have to do it. They gave you a million dollars to your campaign.



The acronym CREEP is short for The Committee for the Re-election of the President, which in 1972 was the fundraising organization of then-president Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. The committee officially launched in 1971 and was originally abbreviated CRP. After the Watergate scandal, it retroactively became known as CREEP. Formed ostensibly to “do whatever it takes” to get Nixon to a second term, members of CREEP would ultimately get caught up in the Watergate scandal, sending some of them prison and all of them to infamy.

As described by Smithsonian: “The Committee to Reelect the President was organized to win a second term for Richard Nixon in 1972. Headed by former Atty. Gen. John Mitchell, CRP included many former Nixon White House staffers. As advertising and marketing plans for Nixon’s campaign moved forward in the spring of 1972, so did covert plans — wiretaps and other forms of harassment directed against the president’s opponents — that would eventually bring down the second Nixon administration.”

When Nixon set out to be re-elected, he faced some fierce opposition and plenty of people that Nixon perceived to be “enemies.” As laid out on, it was fertile ground for the formation of a committee like CREEP: “A forceful presidential campaign therefore seemed essential to the president and some of his key advisers. Their aggressive tactics included what turned out to be illegal espionage. In May 1972, as evidence would later show, members of Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President…broke into the Democratic National Committee’s Watergate headquarters, stole copies of top-secret documents and bugged the office’s phones.”Among the more famous members of CREEP were campaign director John Mitchell and campaign manager G. Gordon Liddy. Both of them would be indicted.

In addition to its re-election duties, and its support of the burglars who broke into Watergate, CREEP was known to use money laundering and slush funds as part of its activities. As described by Vox, the committee also illegally attempted to interfere in the 1972 Democratic primaries by promoting the nomination of George McGovern, as they thought he was more easily defeated. “CRP operative Donald Segretti was involved in many of the worst of these efforts, including fabricating multiple documents with stationery from Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, the 1968 vice presidential nominee and a strong contender for the presidency that year.”

As part of one of the biggest scandals in political history, the legacy of CREEP is one of deception, burglary, illegal banking activity, forgery and perjury. From ”Besides bringing shame on the office of the President of the United States, the illegal acts of the CRP helped turn a burglary into a political scandal that would bring down an incumbent president and fuel a general mistrust of the federal government that had already begun festering as protests against continued U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War took place.”

concession speech

concession speech

A “concession speech” is the speech a candidate delivers after the vote results are clear, when they publicly acknowledge that they’ve been defeated in an election. These speeches are typically delivered in front of supporters, and when they’re at their best are well-choreographed political events.

Much has been written about the importance of a good concession speech. As noted in Newsweek: “One of the most sacred traditions in American politics is the loser of presidential elections conceding victory to the winner. The peaceful transition of power is one of the pillars on which the country’s democracy is built…”

In a commentary from a 2018 article in San Diego Union-Tribune, the author posits that “concession speeches are an important and necessary ritual.”

Additionally, a 2016 USA Today article points out: “How a candidate drops out can be as important as how he/she announces. A good model is Hillary Clinton, who, in conceding the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama in 2008, said that ‘although we weren’t able to shatter the highest, hardest glass ceiling this time … it’s got about 18 million cracks in it!’”

Political scientists and speechwriters study concession speeches. In a 2012 interview with NPR, former Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson claimed that good concession speeches show “unity, gracefulness and also, frankly, a kind of fundamental humility,” using Al Gore’s 2000 concession speech as an example of one exhibiting all of those qualities.

A Time Magazine article touches upon the history of the concession speech, and traces the first “congratulatory telegram” to the election of 1896, when William Jennings Bryan conceded to William McKinley. At noted in the article: “Al Smith gave the first radio-broadcast concession speech in 1928 and Adlai Stevenson first did so on television in 1952.”

The article goes on to point out the “formulaic” nature of concession speeches, adding “The basics of that formula are such: the speaker says that he or she has congratulated the winner—usually not that he or she has lost; the word ‘concede’ is rarely heard—to the opponent; the speaker calls for unity; the speaker summons supporters to both accept the result and to continue to fight for their cause in the future.”

While it’s clear that there is a certain formula to concession speeches, historians are quick to point to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 speech as veering from that formula, breaking from tradition by saying a word no other presidential loser has ever said: “sorry.”

While there is much debate about who delivered the best presidential concession speeches of all time, a 2016 Business Insider article put together a list of the Top 10.

compact of fifth avenue

Compact of Fifth Avenue

In the summer of 1960, aspiring presidential candidate Richard Nixon met Nelson Rockefeller in Rockefeller’s New York City home to discuss Nixon’s campaign. What resulted from that meeting is known as the “Compact of Fifth Avenue.”

Also referred to as the Treaty of Fifth Avenue, the compact was a way for Nixon to receive the backing of Rockefeller, a powerful force in the Republican party. In fact, Rockefeller himself was considering seeking the nomination for the presidency that year. But when it was determined he couldn’t win, he decided to take on the role of kingmaker instead.

As laid out by “Rockefeller, though no longer seeking the nomination, was determined to influence the GOP platform. As critical as any Democrat of [Eisenhower] administration military policy, the New York governor strongly echoed the 1958 Rockefeller Brothers Fund report on national security, especially the recommendations for a mandatory national fallout shelter program, for accelerated ICBM development, and for bigger conventional forces.”

Rockefeller, long considered a more moderate voice than many Republican candidates, gave Nixon his support, but in return Nixon promised to incorporate Rockefeller’s agenda into his campaign and the ensuing presidency, should he win.

As described in the Denver Post: “This was no small tête-à-tête. Nixon succumbed to a GOP policy agenda executed by the Rockefeller, stamping this meeting as a key example of the post-New Deal moderation of the Republican Party.”

According the description of the compact from a 1967 edition of Congressional Quarterly, the key points of the Compact of Fifth Avenue were: “It called for expansion and acceleration of the defense program; strong federal action to remove discrimination in voting, housing, education and employment; stimulation of the economy to achieve a minimum 5-percent growth rate; and a medical care plan for the aged.”

Many political scientists consider this compact to be a key component of the birth of modern conservatism. But the compact didn’t sit well with all Republicans: “The so-called Compact of Fifth Avenue created controversy at the convention; conservatives saw the treaty as a backdoor surrender of conservative principles to the moderate Rockefeller.”

Fifty-two years later, during the height of the 2012 Republican primaries for president, the co-op where this so-called treaty was brokered made news again when it went on the market for $27.5 million. From “Half-century later, that apartment is up for sale and the Republican Party continues to hash out divisions between conservatives like presidential hopefuls Gov. Rick Perry, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and moderates like former Gov. Mitt Romney. Real estate prices have gone up, but in some ways, it’s just like it’s 1960 all over again.”

clothespin vote

clothespin vote

A “clothespin vote” is a colorful term referring to a vote given to the “less objectionable” candidate despite a distaste for him or her. It’s commonly used during elections in which both choices are equally disliked. The concept is akin to “holding one’s nose and voting” and is closely related to the “the lesser of two evils” principle.

The term can be traced back to the tradition of depicting a person, particularly in cartoons, of trying to avoid unpleasant odors by putting a clothespin on his or her nose.

One notable example of a “clothespin vote” was during the French election of 2002, in which The Telegraph described the election as a choice between “cholera” Chirac and “plague” Le Pen, adding: “Many are promising to go to the polling booths tomorrow wearing rubber gloves, with clothes pegs on their noses as a symbol of their disgust.”

During the 2000 presidential election, William Safire lamented in the New York Times the choice between Al Gore and George W. Bush:

So I’m conflicted. But failing to vote is not an option; I know that even when one’s candidate does not win, choosers are never losers. Here’s my way out: our system offers us an opportunity to hedge our bets. Even when forced to cast a ”clothespin vote” (go explain that metaphor to a washer-dryer generation that has never seen a clothesline), we have a way to ease the pain of choice.

In the summer of 2016, disapproval of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was so high that a website called was launched. As described here: “In excess of 25,000,000 Americans engaged in the primary process did not choose Clinton or Trump as a presidential candidate. The Washington Post cited in early June over 12,000,000 votes have been cast against Hillary and more than 15,000,000 votes against Trump. These voters have three options: don’t vote, write in, or cast a Clothespin Vote for one of the options on the ballot.”

There is much debate about concept of the clothespin vote, and whether it’s worth voting at all if you strongly dislike both choices. As argued by The Foundation for Economic Education:    “Every eligible voter will have to decide, based on his or her own conscience, whether the Common Good compels voting for the LOTE. Each will have to assess the relative moral harm of the candidates, based on their own values.”

A 2016 Psychology Today article suggests that the clothespin vote – or compromise – is a hallmark of democracy:

Some people do apply the ‘lesser of two evils’ logic in their everyday life. They bolt upright and say ‘I’m not going to take this anymore. No compromise!’ It rarely turns out well for them. So why do we apply that logic to a national democratic election? To live in a democracy means compromise. Why suddenly the proud switch to a no-compromise rule when most of us know better than to apply that rule in everyday life?

can't win technique

can’t win technique

The “can’t win technique” is a campaign strategy used during the primary season. Typically, it means telling delegates and voters that your rival can’t possibly win the general election. The idea is to present one candidate as more electable, while diminishing the other, more exciting candidate.

In the mid 20th century, Robert A. Taft was an ambitious senator from Ohio. His father, of course, was the former president William Howard Taft. A fiscally conservative Republican, Taft led a coalition of Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans; he was considered a formidable foe to President Truman. Taft was widely known as “Mr. Republican” and was seen as a natural opponent to the East Coast, moderate branch of the GOP.

Taft tried to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1940, 1948, and 1952. By the second time he ran, Taft’s rivals were declaring that “Taft can’t win.” And sure enough, Taft lost the Republican nomination in 1948. In 1952, Taft’s rivals again convinced the Republican party bosses that Taft didn’t have a chance. Eisenhower ran against him and won. The race is generally seen as a contest between a moderate (Eisenhower) and a hardliner (Taft), but it’s also an instance of the can’t win technique at work.

Further back in American history, a man named Henry Clay fell victim to the can’t win technique. Clay, known as the “great compromiser,” was running for the Whig nomination to the presidency in 1840. That’s when Thurlow Weed, a political boss who wanted Martin van Buren to win, started a campaign to convince Whigs that Clay didn’t have a chance of winning. Weed’s plan was effective. (Years later, a bitter-sounding Clay said, “I’d rather be right than be president.)

In modern elections, voters often agonize over who the most “electable” candidate might be. The more polarized the electorate, the more voters fret about electability. In the lead up to the 2020 presidential election, many Democratic voters said that they wanted to choose whichever candidate had the best chance of defeating the incumbent president, Donald Trump. Unfortunately, though, this led to what some journalists called a feedback loop, or a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As NBC News described the can’t win technique: Some pundits and voters say one candidate — former Vice President Joe Biden — is the most electable, so they tell pollsters they want Biden, which produces media coverage that reinforces the idea that Biden is most electable, which then filters back down to voters concerned about “electability.”

And in fact, some people – like the pollster Nate Silver – argue that it’s almost impossible to know who is truly electable:

Political scientists study electability, but electability ain’t no science. Instead, researchers say, it’s basically a layer of ex post facto rationalization that we slather over a stack of psychological biases, media influence and self-fulfilling poll prophecies. It’s not bullshit, exactly; some people really are more likely to be elected than others. But the reasons behind it, and the ability to make assumptions based on it, well …

clean sweep

clean sweep

In politics, a “clean sweep” occurs in an election when a candidate or party achieves an overwhelming or complete victory, winning in all or almost all districts or precincts. A related term is “landslide” or “wipeout” victory.

In open democracies that are deeply partisan, as in the United States, clean sweeps on a national level are uncommon. Even locally, true clean sweeps, in which one candidate or party receives the vast majority of the vote, are rare.

In the history of presidential elections, there has never been a true clean sweep, but in 1972 Richard Nixon won 49 of 50 states, and in 1984 Ronald Reagan lost only Minnesota and Washington, D.C.

Notably, in many countries where corruption is built into the political system, clean sweeps are much more common, as in Belarus and Iraq, in which Saddam Hussein would commonly boast of “clean sweeps,” often winning 99% of the vote.

There are examples of legitimate clean sweeps occurring in nationwide elections, when there is overwhelming rejection of a country’s political class, as in the 2018 national elections of Barbados, in which the opposition party won every seat in the country’s parliament.

Sometimes, if an opposition party boycotts an election, a clean sweep can happen by default, as was the case in the Jamaican elections of 1983, in which the Conservative JLP party “won all 60 House seats and formed a one-party legislature.”

One of the most storied true clean sweeps in electoral history took place in 1987 in New Brunswick, Canada, as described by the CBC: “Liberal Frank McKenna had expected to win, but he never expected this. His Liberal party has won every single seat in the New Brunswick legislature. A clean sweep like this has only ever happened once before, in P.E.I. in 1935. ‘I did not anticipate it, and I guess it really hasn’t sunk in yet, as to what it means,’ says a stunned McKenna in this CBC news clip. McKenna must now get to work to figure out how to run a government with no opposition.”

Not limited to politics, the term “clean sweep” is also used in sports, as in Major League Baseball, where there have been 21 World Series sweeps, in which a team has won the series without losing a game.


“Camelot” is a reference to President John F. Kennedy’s administration.

Kennedy’s brief, ill-fated presidency has been highly mythologized; some people point to it as a shining example of what the US government should look like. Calling that administration “Camelot” highlights its idealized qualities.

Camelot, of course, was the castle at the center of Arthurian Britain. In legend, King Arthur and his knights of the round table lived in Camelot, or at least they rested there in between adventures. (Camelot is an imaginary spot, but historians believe that it may have been based on a real location in Cornwall or Wales. In the same way, Arthur may have been based on a real Celtic leader.)

The word “Camelot” evokes utopian ideals and high hopes. King Arthur and his knights are supposed to be pure-hearted, chivalrous, and endlessly courageous. In the same way, the Kennedy administration is sometimes remembered as a period of optimism, expanding opportunities, and humanitarian goals. JFK has been lionized as a civil rights hero; he is also remembered for his dream of exploring outer space.

Jackie Kennedy, the widow of John F. Kennedy, was the first to refer to the JFK administration as Camelot. She gave an interview to Life magazine just days after JFK’s assassination. Jackie deliberately brought up Camelot during the interview, and even quoted from a popular musical of the day.

“Don’t let it be forgot, that for one brief, shining moment there was Camelot,” she said, borrowing a line from her husband’s favorite Broadway musical. Years later one of Jackie’s Secret Service agents, Clint Hill, wrote that Jackie had deliberately planted the reference. “She wanted to be sure he was remembered as a great president,” Hill said.

Of course, calling the JFK administration “Camelot” also implies a kind of monarchy. The Kennedy family is sometimes called “American royalty,” and pundits love to talk about how that family is the closest thing America has to a royal family. Linking the administration to one of the most famous kings in history just furthers that association.

It’s worth noting that JFK’s critics argued that he never managed to achieve most of his own high-flown goals. His plans to enact Medicare and to expand civil rights were postponed until the Johnson administration. His actions may have helped embroil the U.S. in Vietnam. And his Bay of Pigs invasion was a thorough failure. Even so, Kennedy’s idealism and charm have gone a long way to make him the most popular president in American history.

Decades after JFK’s death, Barack Obama tried to sum up the Kennedy legacy:

To those of us of a certain age, the Kennedys symbolized a set of values and attitudes about civic life that made it such an attractive calling. The idea that politics in fact could be a noble and worthwhile pursuit. The notion that our problems, while significant, are never insurmountable. The belief that America’s promise might embrace those who had once been locked out or left behind. The responsibility that each of us have to play a part in our nation’s destiny, and, by virtue of being Americans, play a part in the destiny of the world.

deep state

deep state

The “deep state” is a conspiracy theory which suggests that collusion exists within the U.S. political system and a hidden government within the legitimately elected government.

The term “deep state” was a term was originally used to describe a shadow government in Turkey that disseminated propaganda and engaged in violence to undermine the governing party.

However, during President Donald Trump’s administration the term has come to refer to an organized resistance within the government, working to subvert Trump’s presidency. Trump allies blame career bureaucrats, many of whom they see as loyal to former President Barack Obama, for leaking damaging information to the news media.

A Washington Post article suggested that people close to Trump believe these longtime government workers amount to a “Deep State” that could undermine his presidency.

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) told the New York Times: “We are talking about the emergence of a Deep State led by Barack Obama, and that is something that we should prevent… I think it’s really the Deep State versus the president, the duly elected president.”

Former White House adviser David Gergen told Time magazine the term was appropriated by former Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon in order to delegitimize Trump’s critics.



A “cabal” is a group of people involved in a secret plot or conspiracy. Cabal can also refer to the plot itself, or to the secret organization of the plotters.

Cabal originally is derived from the Hebrew word Kabbalah, which refers to a mystical Jewish tradition centered around the “direct receipt” of scriptural knowledge. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Christians in Europe were becoming more aware of the Jewish tradition of Kabbalah. Still, it was little understood and was associated with a sense of mystery and with secret, jealously-guarded knowledge.

Cabals can operate on a small or a massive scale. There are, of course, true plots and cabals, some that might be hatched in “smoke-filled rooms.” But more often, cabals exist in the realm of paranoia. They’re often the subject of conspiracy theories, with people imagining that a secret cabal is plotting to take over the world. The BBC has noted, for example, that the Bilderberg Group, an organization of businessmen and politicians, has spawned any number of conspiracy theories. So has the Freemasons organization.

In modern times, conspiracy theories spread more quickly than ever. QAnon, for example, is a pro-Trump conspiracy theory which claims that a cabal of “Deep State” activists are plotting against the president. The left has its own theories about the Trump administration’s involvement in secret cabals.

In 2018 Ben Rhodes, who served as a national security adviser to President Obama, published an op-ed in the New York Times. It was titled “We Are Not a ‘Cabal,’ Just Critics of Trump.” Rhodes was responding to a National Security memo obtained by The New Yorker, in which members of the Trump administration claimed that a “network” of former Obama officials was working together to “undermine President Trump’s foreign policy.” Rhodes wrote that

“the memo is a glimpse into a world in which dissent is viewed as dangerous. A group of aides to a president from a different party must be part of some cabal, manipulating the media and working against America’s interests. This goes hand-in-glove with the “deep state” conspiracy, which has led President Trump to disparage the intelligence and law enforcement community, purge the State Department of expertise, urge investigations into political enemies and strip security clearances from former officials.”

Of course, the Trump administration is not the first administration to imagine that its enemies are conspiring against it. Back in the 1990s, the Clinton White House put together a 332 page report about an ongoing “conspiracy commerce” against the president. The memo claimed that there was a “vast right wing conspiracy” against the Clinton White House and that the media was being used to spread false information about Whitewater and about the suicide of White House aide Vincent Foster.

The memo, obtained by the Wall Street Journal, confirmed what many reporters already believed about the state of mind at the White House.

The Washington Post wrote:

The conclusion has long been a favorite of Clinton loyalists: that a cabal of right-wing extremists had figured out how “fantasy can become fact” by advancing rumors about Whitewater and Clinton’s personal life through a “media food chain” that starts in ideological journals and ultimately finds its way onto the front pages of mainstream U.S. newspapers.

madman theory

The “madman theory” is a political theory commonly associated with President Richard Nixon’s foreign policy during the Cold War.

Nixon tried to make the leaders of hostile Soviet bloc nations think the American president was irrational and volatile. According to the theory, those leaders would then avoid provoking the United States, fearing an unpredictable American response.

The Atlantic notes that Nixon used the theory in April 1971 when he faced an impasse in negotiations with the North Vietnamese to end the Vietnam War. Nixon told national security adviser Henry Kissinger to convey the United States might use of nuclear weapons.

NIXON: You can say, “I cannot control him.” Put it that way.

KISSINGER: Yeah. And imply that you might use nuclear weapons.

NIXON: Yes, sir. “He will. I just want you to know he is not going to cave.”

Some believe that President Trump employed his own “madman theory” in dealing with several nations, but as Jim Sciutto says in his book, The Madman Theory, it was probably sometimes intentionally and sometimes not.

The concept of a madman theory dates back to at least 1517 when Niccolò Machiavelli wrote in The Prince that sometimes it is “a very wise thing to simulate madness.”



A boondoggle is a wasteful or extravagant project with no practical value. Usually, a boondoggle makes use of public funds and carries at least a whiff of corruption.

The word boondoggle dates back at least to the 1920s, when it was the name for a harmless boy scout craft. Scouts used their downtime to make lanyards and bracelets, and the craft was known as boondoggling.

Then, in 1935, the New York Times reported that the Works Progress Administration (WPA) had funded a 3-million-dollar program to teach white collar workers shadow puppetry and boondoggling. In theory, the program was training people to teach underprivileged kids how to make arts and crafts out of reusable materials. However, readers were horrified at the sum being spent on lanyards. From that day on, boondoggling has been synonymous with wasteful government spending.

In 2012, The Atlantic wrote about what it called “the Federal government’s $10 billion plutonium  boondoggle.” The magazine warned that, even as they wrangled over the details of a new student loan plan, both Democrats and Republicans were throwing away money in a “plutonium pit.”

From The Atlantic:

Some members of Congress are trying to restore billions in funding for a new factory at the Los Alamos National Laboratory to make plutonium cores for nuclear bombs that the military doesn’t need. Meanwhile, President Obama is plowing ahead with plans to make plutonium fuel rods for power reactors that no power company wants to buy. Together, construction costs for these two radioactive white elephants add up to over $10 billion, and rising.

In 2015, CNBC had a piece titled “The $20 Million Political Boondoggle That Just Won’t Die” about an elaborate project which involved shipping coal from the hills of eastern Pennsylvania all the way to the town of Kaiserslauntern in Germany. The coal in question was used by a large US military installation, where people were under strict orders to burn only the anthracite coal shipped from the US. CNBC reported that the cost to taxpayers was $20 million per year – not even accounting for the cost of transport.

Boondoggle is often used in ways that are roughly synonymous with “slush funds” and “grifting.” In 2020, amid the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic, politicians started throwing around accusations about boondoggles. Lisa McCormick, a candidate for US Congress from New Jersey, has been critiquing the “COVID boondoggle.” McCormick said that relief funds appropriated by Congress to ease the economic pain of the global pandemic had been misapplied and has implied that it’s disproportionally benefiting Trump donors.

Said McCormick: “The Congress enacted this massive appropriation without safeguards or oversight to ensure that taxpayers would be protected, and now the money is gone and only predators seem satisfied while 22 million Americans are filing for unemployment. In addition to the .2 trillion included in the bill is another trillion that the Federal Reserve will distribute as part of Trump’s slush fund.””



A “boodle” refers to a large sum of bribe money or graft money.

Boodle can also be used to mean a large collection of something. In fact, some linguists believe that the phrase “the whole kit and kaboodle” is a corruption of the phrase “the whole kit and boodle.” However, “boodle” rarely used in this sense today.

The word “boodle” originally comes from the Dutch “boedel,” meaning wealth and riches. Boodle was first used in its modern sense of dirty money in 1858.

Today, boodle is often used to refer to ill-gotten gains by grifters. In 2019, the New Republic wrote about the Ukrainian oligarch Kolomoisky, who has been accused of laundering millions of dollars through US real estate purchases and shell companies. The New Republic wrote that:

Instead of plopping his funds in Manhattan high-rises or Miami beachfronts, Kolomoisky’s network tried a different tack, opting to stuff his boodle in metallurgy plants across the Rust Belt and buildings in downtown Cleveland.

Boodle can also mean political spoils, or an undeserved windfall. In this sense, the boodle might not be illegally come by. This is sometimes called “honest graft.” But using the term “boodle” suggests that the recipient doesn’t truly deserve the money.

In 2019, for example, the Boston Globe wrote about what it dubbed the “tale of two welfare programs.” The newspaper criticized the bailouts that the Trump administration was handing to American farmers in the midst of cuts to the SNAP food stamp program. The Globe called the payouts to farmers inefficient and wasteful, writing,

“Some of the boodle is going to people who are barely farmers at all. (Hey, Senator Grassley!) Most of it is buoying not mom and pop farms, but the giant operations that gobble them up.”

The term boodle is often associated with the kind of corruption found in machine politics. In Chicago, during the gilded age, the city’s government was rife with low-level graft. Many of the city’s politicians were Irish American and were referred to “Irish boodle politicians.” During this time, boodling also referred to the practice of selling city franchises to private businessmen.

In 19th century America, sheriffs had their own kind of specialized boodle. According to most state and local laws, authorities were allowed to arrest vagrants and lock them up in jail. They were assigned funds to feed the prisoners and run the jails, but often pocketed most of that money. The jails which housed vagrants came to be known as “boodle jails.”

The word boodle is used in a few different countries, generally with a different meaning than in the United States. In South Africa, boodle means a money but does not have the negative connotation that it does in the US; the meaning seems to be closer to what Americans would call a “bundle.” Boodle Loans is one of the leading payday lenders in South Africa.

In the Philippines, a “boodle fight” is a meal that’s spread out on a table and eaten without utensils. “Boodle” refers to the plentiful food, and “fight” refers to the fact that, since everyone is sharing, they end up fighting to get the most food. The tradition started in the Filipino military, where it was supposed to instill a sense of brotherhood among soldiers.

bleeding heart

bleeding hearts

The term “bleeding hearts” refers to people who care deeply  — so deeply that their hearts bleed — about the suffering of the needy. The term is almost always derogatory. It’s usually applied to those on the left, hence the phrase “bleeding heart liberal.”

“Bleeding hearts” has a long history in literature. Merriam Webster points out that the phrase dates back at least as far as Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer’s 14th century poem Troilus and Criseyde describes the experience of unrequited love as having a bleeding heart. “Bleeding heart” can also have religious connotations; in Christian religious writing, there are many references to Jesus’s feelings for the poor and the downtrodden.

Today, a “bleeding heart” is someone who empathizes very strongly with the oppressed and the poor.  A bleeding heart liberal is someone who wants social programs and government safety nets to care for the poor. Bleeding hearts are criticized by their enemies for being naïve at best, or hypocritical at worst; the term is often used as an insult. The natural opposite of a bleeding heart liberal is a “heartless conservative.”

A newspaper columnist named Westbrook Pegler first used “bleeding heart” in a political sense in the 1930s. Pegler was a frequent critic of Franklin Roosevelt’s programs. He believed that they were using a humanitarian façade to win votes and rouse people’s emotions. In 1938, Pegler denounced an anti-lynching bill which, he thought, didn’t address the nation’s real problems:

I question the humanitarianism of any professional or semi-pro bleeding heart who clamors that not a single person must be allowed to hunger but would stall the entire legislative program in a fight to ham through a law intended, at the most optimistic figure, to save fourteen lives a year.

American liberalism probably reached its peak expression during the administration of Lyndon Johnson, whose “Great Society” programs aimed to roll back poverty and expand educational opportunities for Americans from all walks of life.

By the late 1960s, though, some former bleeding hearts were experiencing a change of sentiment. As the Brookings Institute has noted, that’s when some “maverick liberals in government and academia” started to question their own long-held assumptions. They wondered why the kinds of liberal programs they’d pushed for hadn’t, in fact, made a major difference in society; they questioned whether social policy was, in fact, beginning to have unintended and negative consequences. These doubters became known as neo-conservatives.

Not every bleeding heart is a liberal, of course. Jack Kemp, a Republican politician and a self-described “bleeding heart conservative.” Kemp talked often about his sympathies for the poor and for minorities; he believed that his particular brand of conservative economic policies would improve their lives. He famously helped to architect the Reagan administration’s sweeping tax cuts, which he argued would benefit the poor just as much as the wealthy. Kemp later tried to reform the nation’s public housing system by giving residents the chance to become owners of their own apartments.

big tent

big tent

In politics, a big tent refers to an inclusive party which encourages a wide swathe of people to become members. The opposite of “big tent” would be a party which is narrowly focused on only a few issues, or which caters to a particular interest group.

Merriam Webster notes that the expression was first used in its current, political sense in 1975. Big-tent can also be used as an adjective.

The benefits of having a big tent are obvious. A big-tent party can amass support from a huge range of voters. It isn’t beholden to any one group, since it has a broad base of support. Losing one group of voters doesn’t spell its political end.

Having a big tent liberates  a party from the need for a “litmus test” or an ideological “purity test,” as Barack Obama pointed out during the 2019 primary season. Speaking to a group of Democratic donors in California, Obama warned against limiting the reach of the party. “We will not win just by increasing the turnout of the people who already agree with us completely on everything,” Obama said. “Which is why I am always suspicious of purity tests during elections. Because, you know what, the country is complicated.”

On the other hand, some politicians argue that having a big tent means that a party can lack focus. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, a Democratic-Socialist member of Congress from New York, has sometimes criticized the Democratic party for being too inclusive.

In January of 2020, Ocasio Cortez grumbled to New York Magazine that “Democrats can be too big of a tent.” She complained that even the term “progressive” had been watered down and had lost its meaning. The Congressional Progressive Caucus should impose some kind of rules about who could join, Ocasio Cortez said, but instead “they let anybody who the cat dragged in call themselves a progressive. There’s no standard.”

It can be hard for pundits to agree on the practical definition of “big tent.” Is the Republican party a big tent party right now? Journalists periodically get excited about the Republican Party’s growing tent, especially when the party appears to veer away from social conservatism. In 2003, the New York Times wrote that the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California was a sign that the party was, indeed, opening up. Citing the long-time Republican consultant Frank Luntz, the Times wrote that

A Schwarzenegger victory would send a strong message that the Republican Party is a tent big enough to include a pro-abortion, pro-gay rights Hollywood superstar who has acknowledged manhandling women and smoking marijuana.

In 2016 Mitchell Blatt, writing in The Federalist, argued that the GOP is indeed the “real” big tent party; Blatt pointed to the fact that the Republican presidential candidates talked about socialized healthcare and the decriminalization of drugs. He saw this as an indication that the party was expanding into new territory. However, NPR has argued that the Republicans’ big tent is “lily white,” which ultimately limits just how big-tent the party can truly be.

big government

big government

Broadly speaking, “big government” is a political term that refers to how much influence the federal government has on the day-to-day lives of American citizens. More granularly, as defined by the Brookings Institute, it refers how much government spends, how much it does and how many people it employs.

Even more granularly, how “big” the government is can be determined by the number and scope of federal agencies, how much money goes into that bureaucracy, the amount of legislation and/or regulations that the government passes, and how much financial help the government provides to people in need.

Over the years, the concept of “big government” has become a highly partisan rhetorical issue, with most conservatives being against it and liberals being more in favor of it. In 2017, a Gallup revealed that 67% of Americans considered “big government” the biggest threat, adding: “Republicans primarily drive this pattern, as they consistently show more concern than Democrats about big government — and even more so when Democrats occupy the White House.”

One of the early battlegrounds over the size of government was in 1933. With FDR poised to take over and vastly expand the government with his New Deal, Herbert Hoover warned of the consequences. From The Atlantic: “Throughout the campaign, Hoover had attacked what he considered a ‘social philosophy very different from the traditional philosophies of the American people,’ warning that these ‘so-called new deals’ would ‘destroy the very foundations’ of American society. As Hoover later put it, the promise of a ‘New Deal’ was both socialistic and fascistic; it would lead the country on a ‘march to Moscow.’”

The success of the New Deal notwithstanding, over the last 50 years, many Republicans have run campaigns with anti-big government messaging as one of their main tenets. In 1986, Ronald Reagan famously said the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

While most Democrats embrace a larger role for government, many political scientists attribute the success of Bill Clinton in the 1990s to his ability to co-opt the right’s anti-big government messaging. Indeed, in his 1996 State of the Union address, Clinton famously proclaimed “the era of big government is over.” From The Hill: “Republicans were aghast. He was stealing their issues. He was talking like a Republican, but he was still a liberal at heart. Republicans knew that if Clinton governed like them, he would be hard to beat. They were right. He was hard to beat, and Bob Dole didn’t put up much of a fight.”

The role of government will always be debated, and it will continue to expand and contract with the times. As described in The New Republic, the age-old argument about how big a role the government should play took on new resonance during the coronavirus pandemic: “It didn’t occur to the right that a more terrifying series of words than ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help’ would turn out to be ‘I’m from the government, and I guess I anticipated that the private sector would have engaged.’

bargaining chip

bargaining chip

In politics, a “bargaining chip” refers to something that is used as leverage in a negotiation, an attempt to pass legislation, or an effort to get concessions from another party.

More often than not, the term is used cynically, or in a pejorative sense, as politicians often use “bargaining chips” to gain advantage without concern for how the parties being used as the “chips” are being affected.

In 2018, when reporting on President Donald Trump’s push for immigration reform, The Washington Post accused the president of using dreamers as “leverage in a high-stakes game of political horse-trading.” The same year, the Post suggested Trump was also using federal employees as “bargaining chips” to try to pressure Democrats to fund his border wall.

U.S. Presidents and politicians have a long history of using bargaining chips in the process of pushing proposed legislation or political agendas. A 2008 U.S. News and World Report article describes the relationship between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich:

Although the abortion issue was important for the large contingent of social conservatives in his party, Gingrich viewed it as a bargaining chip that could be used to exact concessions from Democrats on issues that were more important to him, such as increased spending for defense and space exploration. Neither he nor Clinton wanted it to block their larger agenda.

Not limited to domestic politics, bargaining chips have long been a tool used in international diplomacy, even between enemies. After World War II, FDR famously used financial aid to USSR as diplomatic leverage: “Roosevelt, mindful of the inherent conflict between American democracy and Soviet communism, counted on using U.S. military aid to the Soviet Union as a bargaining chip in post-war diplomatic relations.”

A more recent example is outlined in a 2015 article in The Diplomat: “The history of the S-300 in Russo-Iranian relations shows that this particular weapons system, long sought by Tehran and dangled just out of reach by Moscow, serves primarily as a bargaining chip for the Kremlin in its relations with the West and is unlikely to actually be delivered to the Iranian military.”

One of the most controversial use of bargaining chips throughout history is the use of hostages, most famously by the Iranian regime, and more recently by North Korea. Since the early 1970s, the United States has a long tradition of not acknowledging hostages as bargaining chips, and not engaging with foreign governments that use them as leverage.

However, in 2020, the New Yorker magazine warned of a more recent erosion of this long-standing policy.

balanced ticket

balanced ticket

A balanced ticket is a paring of political party candidates designed to appeal to a broad swathe of the electorate. A balanced ticket normally includes candidates likely to be approved of by different racial, regional, and religious groups.

The term was first used in 1937, according to Merriam Webster.

In modern presidential elections, the presidential nominees choose their running mates carefully, hoping to create a balanced ticket. This is going to look different for every candidate. The general rule is that the running mate should possess whatever important quality the presidential candidate is lacking. Of course, this will also depend on the electorate and their perceived requirements.

In 2008, Barack Obama announced that Delaware senator Joe Biden would be his running mate. Biden was seen as a foreign policy expert; he was also someone with decades of experience in Washington. In that way, he balanced out Obama’s relative lack of experience and lack of foreign policy credentials.

Obama’s opponent, John McCain, picked a relatively unknown running mate – Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska. While Palin was criticized as a lightweight, some pundits argued that, in fact, picking her was a stroke of genius. Her freshness and energy could balance out McCain’s age and experience. The McCain-Palin ticket was a combination of political insider and brash outsider, in much the same was as the Obama-Biden ticket way.

In 2016 the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, chose Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate. Analysts pointed out that Kaine represented Virginia, a “battleground” state; Kaine also spoke fluent Spanish and had “working class roots.” But Kaine was also expected to balance the ticket by the sheer fact that he was a white man, a demographic which the Clinton campaign was struggling to win over.

Clinton’s opponent, Donald Trump, chose Senator Mike Pence as his running mate. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Andrew Downs wrote:

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been unconventional, but the naming of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as Trump’s vice presidential choice is quite conventional. Pence balances the ticket in almost every way.

What many people may notice first is how Trump’s and Pence’s personalities balance each other. Trump is unpredictable, forceful and, at times, impolite. Pence is predictable, some might say to a fault. Pence does not shy from a fight, but “forceful” is not a word that is used often to describe him. Pence is Midwestern polite. “

Some analysts argue that balancing the ticket isn’t always a great idea. Yes, a balanced ticket is likely going to appeal to a broader group of voters. But in some cases, it could turn off core voters who were energized by the nominee and might not necessarily want those qualities to be evened out.

In this vein, a 2020 op-ed in the New York Times argued that the system of balancing the ticket is outdated and that it’s far more important for the candidate to pick someone whom they align with. The piece argued that “imposing a running mate for the purpose of pushing the nominee’s positions in a certain direction can lead to a tense and nearly dysfunctional White House.”



A “backgrounder” is an off-the-record briefing for members of the media. Reporters are free to report on what they learn at a background briefing but normally are restricted as to how they cite their sources. Merriam Webster says that the term was first used in 1942.

Government officials give background briefings in order to announce, for example, new legislative proposals or new developments in foreign relations. International organizations (like the World Bank or the IMF) also give background briefings. So do advocacy groups and think tanks announcing new developments in their field, and businesses launching new products.

Like a pen and pad briefing, a background briefing is never filmed or broadcast; its purpose is to inform reporters only. Some backgrounders allow reporters to join by phone or video link, while others are live. Briefers are normally given anonymity; in articles about the briefing, they’re cited as “administration officials” or similarly. Depending on the briefers’ preferences, journalists may not be allowed to use direct quotes in their reporting.

The term backgrounder could also refer to the packet of research and/or photos sent to reporters to give them information on a given topic. That background information is sometimes referred to as a white paper. And the term backgrounder is sometimes used to mean an “explainer” piece run in a newspaper. In that case, the backgrounder is a long-form article meant to give readers context on an ongoing issue in the news.

Advocacy groups and think tanks often publish their own backgrounders, which are meant to provide foundational information on a little-known issue. However, these reports can also reflect the bias or narrow focus of the groups which produce them

Political reporters are often critical of background briefings, which are perceived as a way for the government to “spin” the media. Writing in the Atlantic in 2015, Ron Fournier complained that reporters were too willing to let public relations teams guide their coverage of politics, business, and sports.

Fournier argued that background briefings allow the government to get their messages into the press without having to stand behind what they say. Because officials are speaking anonymously, they never have to take public responsibility for the things they’ve said. Fournier wrote,

“Of the many ways that modern journalists cede power to authority, none is easier to fix than the notion that government officials are allowed to gather several reporters in a room or on a conference call, spew their clever lines of lies and spin, and declare it all “on background”—shielded from accountability “on condition of anonymity.”

Writing in the Washington Post, Paul Farhi also noted that background briefings are a way for the government to control the news cycle. Not only do officials impose rules about reporting, they also handpick the journalists allowed to attend their briefings, which creates an incentive for journalists to try and stay on officials’ good side.

Farhi wrote, “White House reporters tend to view the background briefings as a kind of mixed blessing. While they bristle at the rules, they say the briefings occasionally generate useful information they wouldn’t learn another way. Quoting a senior official without identifying him is imperfect, they acknowledge, but better than nothing.”

back channel

back channel

A “back channel” is an unofficial means of communication between two nations or two political entities. “Backchanneling” is also used as a verb, to refer to the act of holding behind-the-scenes talks.

Back channels are often used when two governments don’t have formal diplomatic relations with each other. The United States and North Korea, for example, often rely on back channel diplomacy when they want to exchange messages. They have a few long-established informal “channels” of communication. One is in New York, where North Korea’s ambassadors  can meet with US officials at UN headquarters. (North Korea does not have a diplomatic presence in Washington DC, and the US doesn’t have a diplomat stationed in Pyongyang.)

Even when a high-profile meeting does take place between US officials and North Koreans, that meeting has normally been preceded by extensive backchannel communication. That’s because the public meetings are rare and are usually high-stakes. Both nations rely on backchanneling to help prepare ahead of time and lay ground rules.

Before the historic summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, for example, the two countries held private talks to plan out all the details. Preparatory back channel talks typically cover issues like location, timing, and topics to be included.

The US government uses back channels in its communication with Iran, Cuba, and other nations or groups which it doesn’t have formal relations with. In some cases, third parties – countries which have diplomatic relations with both of the countries – can facilitate discussions.

Further back, private channels have sometimes paved the way to establish diplomatic relations between two states. During the onset of World War Two, Franklin Roosevelt’s administration used back channels to make contact with the Soviet Union. The State Department was not involved in the private talks, which eventually led to formal diplomatic relations between the US and the USSR.

During the Kennedy administration, Robert Kennedy served as an informal go-between during negotiations between the US and the USSR. Those back channel talks helped diffuse tensions over the Cuban missile crisis and eventually led to the Soviets pulling their missiles out of Cuba.And during the Nixon administration, the US and Soviets kept a shaky peace thanks, in part, to an ongoing back channel negotiation between Henry Kissinger and Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin.

Since 2016, there have been a number of concerns raised about the private channels of communication used between the Russian government and Donald Trump’s team. Before Trump’s election, members of his campaign reportedly had close contacts with Russian officials and with “operatives” linked to Russia. These contacts were not disclosed to those outside of the campaign, but at least nine other campaign staffers were aware of them.

After Trump was elected, Trump’s son in law, Jared Kushner, reportedly discussed the possibility of setting up a back channel between the Trump transition team and the Kremlin. Russia’s ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, told Moscow officials that Kushner had made that suggestion to him personally during a meeting in Trump Tower in December 2016. Kushner later denied the report.

It is unusual for a president-elect to set up a back channel with another state. However, PBS notes that it’s not unprecedented; Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama were all accused of doing just that.



In politics, a “bellwether” refers to a geographic area whose political beliefs and voting preferences reflect that of a wider area.

For example, a county might be said to be a “bellwether county” if it consistently votes the same way as the majority of the state. A state is considered a “bellwether state” if it usually votes the same way as a majority of the country.

According to Merriam-Webster, the term is derived from the Middle Ages:

Long ago, it was common practice for shepherds to hang a bell around the neck of one sheep in their flock, thereby designating it the lead sheep. This animal was called the bellwether, a word formed by a combination of the Middle English words belle (meaning “bell”) and wether (a noun that refers to a male sheep that has been castrated).

One famous example of a specific bellwether in politics is known as the “Missouri Bellwether,” in which the state of Missouri has voted for the presidential winner in every election from 1904 to 2016. This phenomenon is explained in a 2016 article from The American Conservative.

Political scientists spend a great deal of time analyzing bellwethers to try to discern voting patterns and political affiliations. But as pointed out by NPR in 2008, true bellwethers are becoming harder and harder to come by as demographics change on both local and state levels: “Every election season, reporters fan out to states and counties that claim to be political bellwethers. After all, if the voters in these places have been right in the past, maybe they’ll be right again. But in presidential politics, there are actually few true bellwethers left.”

An example is the state of Ohio, which was also long considered a bellwether for national voting preferences, but started losing its status as a bellwether as the state started more conservative, as noted by the New York Times in 2016.

A Michigan State University academic paper points out that the concept of a bellwether itself is not held with as much regard as it used to be:

Bellwethers aren’t traditionally embraced by political science. But that is because the concept is traditionally measured in very poor way. Counties are termed bellwethers based on a history of coincidence wherein a county has picked the winner of the state or country for the last X elections and what defines a successful county pick is a very arbitrary 50% cutoff.

To make the concept of a bellwether more precise and accurate, political scientists have identified three types of bellwethers:

  • All-or-Nothing Bellwethers: these bellwethers are states or counties that have chosen the national presidential winners with a great deal of accuracy, such as Missouri, Ohio and New Mexico.
  • Barometric Bellwethers: these bellwethers are ones that best reflect the national vote percentage.
  • Swingometric Bellwethers: these bellwethers are counties or states that directly reflect the swing in voting on a national level, and tend to vote differently depending on the specific candidate or issue.

A related term in politics is “battleground.”



In politics, a Bircher is an adherent to the teachings and philosophies of the John Birch Society, an anti-communist organization founded in 1958. The heyday of the Bircher movement was in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the organization had 60 staffers and over 100,000 paying members, in addition to an estimated 4 to 6 million followers nationwide.

Most active in the aftermath of the McCarthy era and into the 1970s, Bircherism has mostly been defined by its support for limited government and an antipathy towards wealth redistribution, unionization, communism, workers’ rights, and socialism.

While active in mainstream politics, Birchers have long had a reputation for being mainly a fringe organization. From The Conversation:

Birchers expressed a belief in domestic communist conspiracies. They went so far as to accuse President Dwight Eisenhower and Chief Justice Earl Warren of being communist dupes and agents – building on the legacy of Sen. Joseph McCarthy whose movement of predominantly Midwestern Republicans found the society’s agenda appealing.

Positions over the years have been controversial and wide-ranging, including opposition to Civil Rights and the Equal Rights Amendment for women’s equality, and a hard-line stance on immigration.

The Birchers’ most notable presidential endorsement was in 1964, when they backed right-wing firebrand Barry Goldwater. A Goldwater spokesman was once quoted as saying about the Birchers: “All those little old ladies in tennis shoes that you called right-wing nuts and kooks…they’re the best volunteer political organization that’s ever been put together.”

Among their most complicated relationship was with Richard Nixon, who the Birchers considered an enemy, in part because of the group’s fervent anti-Vietnam War beliefs. In turn, Nixon once said that the Birchers were a fringe group that will “pass.” Yet even with a history of being anti-Nixon, Bircher chief Welch was quoted in 1975 New York Times article as calling his ouster part of an “international communist conspiracy.”

While most of the tenets of Bircherism fell out of favor during the last few decades with the rise of neoconservatism, the presidency of Barack Obama and the subsequent election of Donald Trump has led to resurgence in Bircher philosophies, particularly in the Deep South states such as Texas, and are fueled mainly by conspiracy theories.

From a 2017 Politico article:

This is what the 21st-century John Birch Society looks like. Gone is the organization’s past obsession with ending the supposed communist plot to achieve mind-control through water fluoridation. What remains is a hodgepodge of isolationist, religious and right-wing goals that vary from concrete to abstract, from legitimate to conspiracy minded-goals that don’t look so different from the ideology coming out of the White House.

Political scientists today draw a straight line from the Birchers of the 1960s and 1970s to political heavyweights such as the Koch Brothers and the emergence of the Tea Party Patriots in Republican politics.

Chatham House Rule

The Chatham House Rule is a system for holding discussions on potentially controversial topics, particularly in politics and public affairs.

At a meeting held under the Chatham House Rule, you are free to use information from the discussion, but you are not allowed to reveal who specifically provided it. The rule is intended to increase openness of debate. It also allows individuals to speak for themselves and not necessarily for affiliated organizations.

Specifically, the rule states:

When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

The rule is invoked by the host of the meeting stating up front that the meeting is operating under the Chatham House Rule. Of course, the effectiveness of the rule relies on trust and sometimes requires disciplinary action, such as exclusion of the violating participant from future meetings.

The rule is essentially a compromise between private meetings, where revealing what was said is forbidden, and on the record events where the discussion is usually attributed to the speakers.

As a result, it is typically not used in an official setting where public meetings of lawmakers and government officials must be open to the public.

The rule is named after the headquarters of the U.K. Royal Institute of International Affairs, based in Chatham House, London, where the rule originated in June 1927. The rule was refined in 1992 and 2002. The Chatham House building was once the home to three British Prime Ministers.

The rule has also been translated into several languages.

ballot box stuffing

ballot box stuffing

In politics, “ballot box stuffing” is a term that refers to the practice of illegally submitting more than one vote in a ballot in which just one vote is actually permitted. The goal is ballot box stuffing is to rig the outcome of an election in favor of one candidate over another.

The term is often synonymous with “electoral fraud” or “voting irregularities.” One form of the tactic is leveraging the “cemetery vote.

While not widespread in the United States, the practice of stuffing the ballot box is considered common in corrupt countries such as Russia. As described by a 2018 AP article:

CCTV footage of a voting station in the Moscow suburb of Lyubertsy shows a woman taking a ballot from a table, looking around to see if anyone is watching, then putting it in the box. She repeats the action, again and again.

And from a 2012 Foreign Policy magazine article:

Sometimes election fraud can be laughingly obvious. When Vladimir Putin took 99.8 percent of the vote in Chechnya in this year’s Russian presidential election, it probably wasn’t because the republic where he had violently crushed an armed insurgency a little more than a decade ago had developed an overwhelming affection for him.

However, ballot box stuffing is not limited to Russia. A 2019 New York Times article reported on alleged ballot box stuffing in the election in Afghanistan:

Abdul Wahed Nasery, another elder from the district, said local strongmen had stuffed the boxes. ‘They sat together, and each filled for their guy. They were saying, ‘We can’t leave these boxes empty,’ Mr. Nasery said. ‘We said, ‘But what about the biometric verification?’ ‘They said, ‘Who is going to look?’

In the U.S., some of the most notable examples of ballot box stuffing aren’t from political elections, but from sports. In 1957 and again in 1999, All-Star ballots for Major League Baseball were tainted by teams stuffing the ballot box with their players, and in 2015 the Kansas City Royals were accused of trying to tip the votes in favor of their roster. The league was forced to throw out 65 million votes.

During the era of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, a push was made to start using mail-in ballots for elections to replace in-person voting. Many people, mostly on the conservative side of the aisle, including President Trump, suggested that mail-in ballots were more susceptible to “ballot box stuffing” than traditional voting methods, though no evidence exists to corroborate that claim.

amiable dunce

amiable dunce

Ronald Reagan’s critics often referred to the president as an “amiable dunce.” The phrase was meant to suggest that Reagan was friendly and likeable, but fundamentally not very bright.

Clark Clifford, the former Defense secretary and presidential adviser, was the first to coin the term. He made the remark at a private dinner party, and probably never intended for it to be repeated. However, his hostess was secretly recording the conversation at dinner. A copy of the recording was leaked to the Wall Street Journal, which published Clifford’s remarks.

Explaining himself afterwards, Clifford said:

In the fall of 1982, President Reagan said he would cut taxes by $750 billion, substantially increase defense expenditures and balance the budget in the 1984 fiscal year. Those were public promises. I made a comment that if he would accomplish that feat, he’d be a national hero. If, on the other hand, it did not work out after such a specific and encouraging promise and commitment, I thought the American people would regard him as an amiable dunce.

Clifford wasn’t the only one to disparage Reagan’s intelligence. Peggy Noonan, a former Regan speechwriter, said that the president’s mind was a “barren terrain.” Noonan also implied that Reagan was easily influenced by his advisors. ”The battle for the mind of Ronald Reagan was like the trench warfare of World War I: Never have so many fought so hard for such barren terrain,” Noonan declared.

Of course, Reagan’s friends and supporters rejected the “amiable dunce” label. The former president of Canada, Brian Mulroney, told the press, “The Reagan supporters will tell you that Ronald Reagan never made a mistake in his life. And his denigrators would tell you he is an ‘amiable dunce,’ as I’ve said. Well, neither of course is in any way true.”

amen corner

In politics, the “amen corner” refers to the most fervent supporters of a politician or an ideology.

The term originally was used in a religious context. Inside a church, the “amen corner” referred to the section where the most devout (and vocal) worshippers sat. Over time, the phrase expanded to mean a group of people with strong, fixed political beliefs.

A politician’s “amen corner” supports him unquestioningly, in much the same way as church’s amen corner supports the preacher.

William Safire said that amen corner was first used back in 1860, in a religious context. By 1884, the expression was used to refer to political support. It had a negative connotation right away. In 1894, for example, the Congressional Record sneered at “those saintly Republican monopolists who sit in the ‘amen corner’ of protected privilege.”

In 1990, Pat Buchanan used the term “amen corner” to criticize supporters of the first Gulf War. Buchanan was a former presidential candidate and a staunch isolationist. In a TV appearance, he said, ”There are only two groups that are beating the drums for war in the Middle East – the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States.”

In 2009, Barack Obama gave a speech to the NAACP. He received a warm welcome. The crowd hung on his words, sometimes repeating his words right back to him. The president got such a positive reaction that at one point he laughed and said, “I’ve got an amen corner back there.”

More recently, Bloomberg News revisited the term. In 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the US and gave a speech to Congress. Bloomberg reported that a select group of Netanyahu supporters was thrilled with the speech (Pat Boone, Joe Lieberman, Newt Gingrich, and Sheldon Adelson). The article was titled “At Netanyahu’s Speech, Scenes from the Amen Corner.”

Pundits often use the term as a way to jab at politicians, implying a kind of guilt by association. In 2016, the progressive Right Wing Watch published an article titled “Donald Trump’s Amen Corner: Prosperity Preachers and Dominionists.” The article charged that Trump was supported by “preachers who tout wealth as a sign of God’s favor” and by “a leading advocate of Seven Mountains dominionism, which teaches that government and other spheres of influence…are meant to be run by the right kind of Christians.”

In Pittsburgh, there is a real club which calls itself the Amen Corner. That club – one of the most exclusive organizations in Pennsylvania – caters to politicians and lawyers. It’s often described as an “old boy’s club” and has been around since 1870. In 1965, Gerald Ford was invited to be a member of the club. In a speech to his fellow members, Ford gushed with gratitude and said that becoming an “Amener” was a much bigger deal than being elected House minority leader earlier that year.

“There is absolutely no parallel between acceptance as a member of Amen Corner and an obscure political happening in Washington not so long ago,” Ford said.

all things to all men

“All things to all men” is a phrase applied to politicians who seem to be making contradictory promises and statements so that they can appeal to the broadest possible group of voters. The expression is usually derogatory; it carries roughly the same meaning as “two faced.”

The phrase dates back as far as the Bible, or at least as far back as the 1611 King James translation. In I Corinthians (9:19-23) St Paul describes his strategy of converting people to Christianity. In order to reach as many ears as possible, he amends his approach to suit the needs of each listener.

“To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some,” he wrote.

Paul, of course, was moved by his own faith: “I do for the gospel’s sake,” he said. In modern times, however, the phrase “all things to all men” usually connotes pandering and insincerity.

In recent memory, the phrase was used by Bill Clinton’s critics. The president was seen by many as being too slick and too eager to be liked; he was perceived as caring too much about people’s opinions. Writing in the Observer, Alexandra Jacobs said,

“Is he polymorphous? Is he perverse? He is the man about whom Toni Morrison wrote, “He’s our first black President.” And yet he’s not a black man. He’s just trained, as his generation was, to be all things to all men, and women. And not too much of anything to anyone.”

Barack Obama faced similar criticism when he came into office. Some political analysts argued that, in order to build up a coalition, candidate Obama had made a series of contradictory promises which he had no means of keeping. As a result, they said, the president found himself in a tight spot during his first hundred days in office. His supporters were all looking to see whether he’d comply with his promises, and it wasn’t clear what he’d start with.

“He’s under extraordinary pressure to be all things to all people, and he’s going to find that very difficult to manage during his first 100 days,” New York University political science professor Paul Light told USA Today. “There are a lot of people coming to him with checklists of issues they care about, but Congress is not capable of handling a mass rush of legislation.”

Sometimes, though, the phrase “all things to all men” is used to describe an unknown quantity rather than a two-faced con man. Jonathan Daniels, who served under Franklin Roosevelt, used the expression to refer to Harry Truman. Daniels’ phrasing suggested the high hopes that Americans placed in their new president:

“He seemed all things to all men, and all men including New Dealers and anti-New Dealers, Roosevelt friends and Roosevelt enemies, old friends and new ones, members of the 129th field artillery, old time Pendergast politicians, Truman Committee members, the eager and the ambitious, seemed to expect that he would be all things to them.”

five o’clock follies

“Five o’clock follies” is a familiar and derogatory nickname for the daily press briefings that the U.S. military held for American reporters during the Vietnam War. In modern times, the phrase has been used to refer to any establishment effort to control the news about a given topic.

The original five o’clock follies took place over the course of eight years in a bar on the roof of Saigon’s Rex Hotel; they were conducted by a string of US military officials.

American journalists were widely critical of the briefings, which were seen as a way for the US military to use half-truths and carefully selected facts to make it look like America was winning the war when it was obviously becoming a quagmire. Richard Pyle, who served as Saigon bureau chief for the Associated Press, famously called the press conferences “the longest-playing tragicomedy in Southeast Asia’s theater of the absurd.”

Even members of the military accepted that the briefings were the frequent butt of jokes. In an acknowledgement of the briefing’s reputation, Army Major Jere Forbus, the last man to run the briefings before they ended, said, “well, we may not have been perfect, but we outlasted Fiddler on the Roof.”

During the first Gulf war, in 1991, journalists dubbed the regular press briefings the “four o’clock follies.” Reporters claimed that the briefings were full of pointless facts but that they failed to answer real questions about the war itself. Later, in 2019, some members of the media compared the press briefings in Hong Kong to the five o’clock follies.

The expression “five o’clock follies” is sometimes stretched to mean any effort at all to control the news cycle. In 2016, the Daily Kos ran a piece arguing that the New York Times and the Washington Post were effectively running their own five o’clock follies. The piece claimed that the “elite media” was trying to control popular perception of the Democratic primaries, in particular that they were trying to play down the popularity of Bernie Sanders.

More recently, the New Yorker has claimed that President Trump was running his very own five o’clock follies. Like the original five o’clock follies in Saigon, Trump’s briefings on the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic took place at 5:00 every day. The Trump administration was widely criticized for its failure to stop the disease from spreading; his critics claimed that he had failed to take the pandemic seriously. Trump claimed early on that he had the epidemic “very much under control” – later, he pledged that the US would reopen in time for Easter, so that the church pews could be “packed.”

The New Yorker argued that  “just as the Vietnam briefings became a standard by which the erosion of government credibility could be measured then, historians of the future will consult the record of Trump’s mendacious, misleading press conferences as an example of a tragic failure of leadership at such a critical moment.”

rally round the flag

The “rally round the flag” effect is when there’s a short-term surge in voter approval as the nation unites behind its leader during a crisis or emergency situation.

Political scientist John Mueller described the phenomenon in a 1970 landmark paper called “Presidential Popularity from Truman to Johnson.” Mueller defined it as arising from an event with three qualities: it’s international, it involved the country as a whole and it’s specific and dramatic.

One of the most prominent examples of the effect is when President George W. Bush saw a 39% increase in his approval rating — from 51% to 90 — following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Other examples include President Jimmy Carter’s approval jumping 26 percentage points following the initial seizure of the U.S. embassy in Iran in 1979 and President George H.W. Bush receiving a 30 percentage point bounce following the success of Operation Dessert Storm in 1991.

More recently, the effect has been less pronounced. President Barack Obama received a six-point bounce following the mission to kill Osama bin Laden and President Donald Trump saw a slight bump in approval after the global outbreak of the coronavirus in 2020.


Sandbagging is deceptive behavior intended to lower someone’s expectations so that they can be taken by surprise later.

Typically, sandbagging involves lulling someone into a false sense of security and then taking advantage of them. It’s an act of psychological manipulation. Imagine a pool shark, for example, who lets their target win a few rounds of pool before they up the ante and suddenly start winning.

Originally, of course, “sandbagging” simply meant to furnish with sandbags. The word took on its modern meaning of pretending weakness in the 1970s. Etymologists believe that the modern meaning comes from poker, where a “sandbagger” is someone who holds back from raising because they want to keep their opponents in the game for longer. There is also an older meaning of the word “sandbagger,” to mean a bully who uses a sandbag as a weapon.

After the 2020 Iowa caucus, some people on the left claimed that the Democratic party leadership had “sandbagged” Bernie Sanders. Exit polls appeared to put Sanders neck and neck with Pete Buttigieg, and both candidates declared victory in the state. Sanders supporters, including Michael Moore, for example, argued that DNC chair Tom Perez called for a recount in the state precisely to avoid a Sanders victory.

Michael Moore told reporters, “Bernie was going to have that press conference explaining why he won Iowa, and they [Perez and the DNC leadership] did that [call for recanvassing] to sandbag him.”

Sanders supporters made similar accusations against the DNC in 2016. So did members of the media. In 2016, the New York Post reported that “Democratic party bigwigs enlisted prominent media outlets to slant coverage to boost Hillary Clinton and sandbag Bernie Sanders, according to some of the 19,000 emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee’s servers and posted to Wikileaks.”

Journalists are sometimes accused of sandbagging too. In 2016, Rolling Stone magazine charged that the New York Times had sandbagged Bernie Sanders. The Rolling Stone claimed that the New York Times had initially planned an article explaining Bernie Sanders’ legislative approach but had revamped the article to criticize Sanders’ campaign.

“Sandbag” can be sometimes thrown around without a lot of precision. In some cases, the word is used interchangeably with the term “ambush.” Reporters are sometimes accused of sandbagging politicians when they confront them with unwelcome questions, for example. In other cases, “sandbag” is used simply to mean “harm.” Prospect magazine, for example, accused President Trump of trying to “sandbag” the American economy by launching a trade war with Europe.

However, sandbagging is different than obstructionism.

And sometimes, a sandbag is just a sandbag. In 2016, a group of activists wanted to protest against the planned wall between the US and Mexico. The group, mostly designers, launched a campaign called “Wall in Trump.” The idea was to collect sandbags and build a 200-foot wall in front of one of Donald Trump’s skyscrapers. (Trump, a presidential candidate at the time, had angered the group with his plans to build a border wall.) The designers said they wanted their sandbag wall to be “just big enough to retain this guy’s ego.”

death panels

“Death panels” was a political term which falsely referred to the supposed dangers posed by the Affordable Care Act. Some opponents of the law, better known as Obamacare, argued that government-run healthcare could lead to a kind of de-facto euthanasia, if preferential treatment was given to certain tiers of society.

The term “death panels” was coined by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. In a Facebook post on August 7, 2009, Palin wrote.

“The Democrats promise that a government health care system will reduce the cost of health care, but as the economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out, government health care will not reduce the cost; it will simply refuse to pay the cost. And who will suffer the most when they ration care? The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course. The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”

Conservative newspapers and commentators quickly agreed with Palin’s claims. Rush Limbaugh said that Palin was “dead right,” and others followed suit. Members of the Tea Party were also quick to get on board with claims about the death panels. And more centrist Republicans also agreed. Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa told a crowd of his supporters, “We should not have a government program that determines you’re gonna pull the plug on Grandma.”

Politifact later named Palin’s “death panels” statement the “lie of the year” for 2009. Politifact also pointed out the Palin was not the first conservative to make dramatic claims about Obamacare and vulnerable members of society.

Earlier in 2009, a conservative commentator and former lieutenant governor of New York named Betsy McCaughey issued some dire warnings about Obamacare. McCaughey said that “Congress would make it mandatory — absolutely require — that every five years people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner.” she said on a radio show.

McCaughey was wrong – Obamacare did not require seniors to attend counseling. She may have been referring to a provision in which Medicare would pay for doctors’ appointments for patients who wanted to set up their living wills and other end-of-life issues. However, the rumor continued to spread, and it took years for it to die down. As late as 2016, the Washington Post reported that 29 percent of Americans believed that death panels would ration healthcare resources.

Nearly a decade later, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) also took to social media to talk about death panels. Ocasio Cortez wrote on Twitter that private insurance companies effectively had their own death panels:

Actually, we have for-profit “death panels” now: they are companies and boards saying you’re on your own because they won’t cover a critical procedure or medicine. Maybe if the GOP stopped hiding behind this “socialist” rock they love to throw, they’d actually engage on-issue for once.

smoking gun

In politics, the term “smoking gun” refers to a piece of evidence that definitively proves a crime or wrongdoing by an official.

The term originated from the idea that finding a gun that’s still smoldering on a murder suspect would almost certainly prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, being just one step away from catching the suspect doing the action itself.

The most famous example of a piece of “smoking gun” evidence in the history of politics is the Nixon “Smoking Gun” tape, which was a recording of Nixon speaking with Chief of Staff H.R. Halderman in the Oval Office on June 23, 1972. The existence of this “smoking gun” recording directly led to the resignation of Nixon.

Nixon released the tape several weeks after it was recorded. On the tape you can hear three conversations Nixon had with Halderman soon after the infamous Watergate break-in. On the tape, Nixon admits to ordering a cover-up and encouraging the FBI to abandon its investigation.

The Nixon “smoking gun tape” had enormous consequences for the country and the presidency, as described in a Washington Post article commemorating the 40th anniversary of its release:

Yet the smoking-gun tape is still important because of what it tells us about the presidency in general. Because the bottom line of the White House order to ‘turn off’ the FBI’s investigation was that, for the most part, it didn’t work.

Since the Nixon tape and resignation, the term “smoking gun” has been used in the context of other political scandals.

Today, the term is used often to describe evidence in a scandal that could potentially provide irrefutable proof. The New Republic talks about why it is not always necessary:

That said, there may not turn out to be a “smoking gun”… If this or the next Congress follows precedent and reads history correctly, that won’t matter. In the case of Richard Nixon, the House Judiciary Committee had already voted to impeach him on three Articles of Impeachment before a recording emerged of Nixon telling an aide to order Pentagon officials to call the FBI to urge it to call off their investigation of Watergate.

During the investigation of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails and her server, Republicans searching for definitive proof of wrongdoing, or a “smoking gun,” either found it or didn’t find it, depending on what side of the aisle you were on.

More recently, during the impeachment of Donald Trump, many referred to the transcript of Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president as a “smoking gun,” as outlined in the fall of 2019 by publications like Mother Jones or in this Roll Call article: “We now have the smoking-gun summary, the most incriminating White House document since Watergate. Even with ellipses and maybe redactions for national security reasons, the reconstruction of Donald Trump’s July 25 conversation with newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is chilling in its specificity.”

Others would disagree, and of course in the case of Trump, the “smoking gun” outlined in the Roll Call article would not lead to his removal from office.

In 1997, a website called The Smoking Gun was launched to expose wrongdoing by officials and people in the public eye. They authenticate their reporting by “using material obtained from government and law enforcement sources, via Freedom of Information requests, and from court files nationwide.” One of the most famous cases of wrongdoing uncovered by The Smoking Gun was the fabrication of author James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces.

mission accomplished moment

Mission Accomplished moment

A “Mission Accomplished moment” has come to mean any grandiose declaration of success which later rings false.

On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush delivered a speech announcing the end of major combat operations in Iraq. “In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed,” the president told a crowd of cheering service members. Bush delivered the televised speech aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln with a “Mission Accomplished” banner hanging above his head.

Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech was widely praised at the time, with journalists comparing the president to Tom Cruise in Top Gun. Later, as the war dragged on and casualties mounted, the speech was sharply criticized and came to symbolize a premature announcement of victory.

Years later, President Barack Obama had his own “mission accomplished” moment. In a speech on October 21, 2011, Obama told Americans that the “long war” in Iraq was finally over and that he was bringing US troops back home. Obama said the troop drawdown in Iraq was part of a wider trend towards peace:

“The end of war in Iraq reflects a larger transition,” the president said. “The tide of war is receding. Now, even as we remove our last troops from Iraq, we’re beginning to bring our troops home from Afghanistan. The long war in Iraq will come to an end by the end of this year. The transition in Afghanistan is moving forward, and our troops are finally coming home.”

As it happened, Obama’s declaration of victory was premature and he, too, was widely criticized when the rise of ISIS led to a dramatic upsurge of violence in Iraq.

During his first years in office, President Trump had several “mission accomplished” moments. In October 2019, Trump announced that his administration had helped broker a ceasefire that would bring peace to Syria and the broader region. He tweeted,

“This is a great day for civilization. I am proud of the United States for sticking by me in following a necessary, but unconventional path. People have been trying to make this “Deal” for many years. Millions of lives will be saved. Congratulations to ALL!”

Fact checkers found that the president had dramatically exaggerated his accomplishments. “The agreement he is hailing is not nearly as consequential to the prospects for peace as he claims,” the AP wrote at the time, noting that the five-day ceasefire was unlikely to lead to a lasting peace in the region.

In 2020, Trump appeared to have a separate “mission accomplished” moment involving the coronavirus. On February 2, the president told Fox News that his administration had “shut down” the deadly virus:

“We pretty much shut it down coming in from China,” Trump told Sean Hannity. “But we can’t have thousands of people coming in who may have this problem, the coronavirus. So, we’re going to see what happens, but we did shut it down, yes.”

As it happened, the coronavirus continued to spread quickly both in the United States and around the world, in spite of repeated assurances from the president that the disease was “under control.”

battleground state

The terms “battleground state” and “swing state” refer to states that have closely divided support for Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. They are also sometimes called “purple states.”

Presidential campaigns are waged mainly in these battleground states as the outcomes in most other states on the electoral map are mostly known well ahead of the election.

Using Google’s Ngram Viewer, there was an uptick in the term’s use in 1980 before a significant jump in the very tight 2000 presidential election. Swing state was a more popular term for closely contested states in presidential politics beginning in the 1960s.

By 2004, “battleground state” overtook swing state in popularity but both phrases are still used by most journalists.

University of Minnesota Professor Eric Ostermeier analyzed the frequency of use for both phrases during the 2012 presidential election and found a spectrum of usage from ABC News’ 2.5-to-1 ratio of battleground state to swing state to MSNBC’s 1.8-to-1 ratio of swing state to battleground state.

In contrast, the similar phrase “toss up state” was used only 29 times in the six months of reviewed reports.

A related term in politics is bellwether.

dirty tricks

dirty tricks

“Dirty tricks” are actions taken by a political campaign or candidate to damage their opponents that may involve unethical, distasteful, or illegal behaviors.

Political candidates and parties have used dirty tricks dating back to the early years of the American Republic. In the 1828 election, President Andrew Jackson was accused of executing his own men in war, adultery, and cannibalism by supporters of John Quincy Adams. Jackson’s supporters responded by accusing Adams of procuring sex workers for the Russian czar and using public funds for his billiards habit.

This term’s use in the political world, however, is not found until 1963 according to Merriam-Webster. Dirty tricks gained traction thanks to the machinations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. During the 1964 election, CIA operatives infiltrated the campaign of Republican candidate Barry Goldwater to disrupt his efforts against Johnson. The Johnson campaign also briefly ran the infamous Daisy ad, a television spot that implied Goldwater would lead the U.S. into nuclear annihilation.

Dirty tricks went from an insider term to a publicly known concept due to the Watergate scandal. Nixon and his administration orchestrated a break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices in June 1972. The Nixon campaign also employed operatives to damage the reputations of Democratic leaders prior to the general election. These acts along with the subsequent cover-up led to a potential impeachment and Nixon’s 1974 resignation.

Google’s Ngram Viewer shows sustained use of dirty tricks in English language publications following Watergate. The 1988 presidential election highlighted modern uses of dirty tricks with the race between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis.

The Bush campaign employed advisor Lee Atwater, who created the template for future methods of dirty attacks. Atwater was the mind behind the “Revolving Doors” TV ad that tied Dukakis to a murder committed by furloughed convict Willie Horton.  This ad and rumors spread by Republicans about Kitty Dukakis burning an American flag during a protest flipped a Dukakis polling advantage into a Bush victory.

In the 21st century, technological advances and the prevalence of independent political groups have enhanced the power of dirty tricks. In 2004, ads by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attempted to discredit Democratic nominee John Kerry’s campaign against President George W. Bush. Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for president deployed dirty tricks ranging from asking Russia to hack opponent Hillary Clinton’s emails to the use of social media to spread rumors of Clinton’s health.


Roll Call (July 2, 2019): “With a single tweet Tuesday morning, President Donald Trump again harked back to his 2016 election victory and suggested Democrats are poised to use dirty tricks to prevent him from winning again.”

The Washington Post (March 9, 2018): “As his orders to Colson show, Nixon was at the center of this dirty tricks campaign. He devised specific plots to attack his enemies, creating a climate of corruption that led to Watergate.”

The Guardian (February 25, 2008): “Barack Obama’s campaign team today accused Hillary Clinton’s beleaguered staff of mounting a desperate dirty tricks operation by circulating a picture of him in African dress, feeding into false claims on US websites that he is a Muslim.”

Earth Day

Earth Day

Earth Day is an annual event celebrated on April 22 to demonstrate support for environmental protection. First celebrated in 1970, it now includes events coordinated globally in more than 193 countries.

The event emerged against the backdrop of an anti-war student activist movement. While it’s tempting to assume that Earth Day was the result of a youthful grassroots campaign, it was actually spearheaded through a rare bipartisan partnership between Democratic and Republican lawmakers:

Gaylord Nelson, a Democratic Senator from Wisconsin, horrified by a series of environmental catastrophes that seemingly escaped public outrage and action, was inspired by the success of the youth anti-war movement to replicate a similar movement for environmental protection. The idea was a national “teach-in on the environment” to raise public awareness about air and water pollution. To achieve this goal, Nelson reached across the aisle to Republican Congressman, Pete McCloskey.

The first Earth Day celebrations took place across two thousand colleges and universities and hundreds of communities across the United States. More importantly, it “brought 20 million Americans out into the spring sunshine for peaceful demonstrations in favor of environmental reform.”

Today, Earth Day celebrations have grown to be a major global event and is celebrated in many different ways.

contested convention

contested convention

A “contested convention,” sometimes also referred to as a “brokered convention,” occurs when no single candidate for president secures the majority of delegates needed to win a political party’s nomination in advance of that party’s convention.

When that happens, a candidate might still get enough delegates by the time that the convention’s first ballot starts, but if that fails to occur, then the delegates become free to vote for whichever candidate they want, leading to a situation in which the convention becomes ‘contested’ or ‘brokered.’

In a contested convention, depending on the rules of the party, all regular delegates who were pledged to support a certain candidate during the primary voting process are “released” and can be convinced to support someone else.

For most people who follow politics, a contested convention conjures up images of “multiple ballots, horse-trading, smoke-filled rooms, favorite sons, dark horses and other colorful elements that have enlivened American political journalism…,” as described by Pew Research.

Parties try to avoid contested conventions because they typically signal that a party is fractured, split and not unified going into a presidential election.

But that doesn’t stop the speculation that precedes almost every convention. From the Washington Post: “Speculation about a brokered, deadlocked or contested political convention surfaces every four years with the regularity of Brigadoon rising from the mist…. Such predictions show up in virtually every cycle when there’s even a hint of the possibility — usually early on, when a platoon of still-viable candidates suggests that a divided primary contest will fail to produce a winner.”

But as frequently as they’re predicted, contested conventions have almost never come to pass in the modern electoral system.

From The Week: “Since the GOP’s first convention in 1856, there have been 10 presidential elections in which no Republican candidate came into the convention with a majority of delegates. In seven of those elections, the eventual nominee was not the person who had the most delegates at the start of the convention. Of those 10 brokered conventions, six of them produced a Republican nominee who went on to win the general election Since 1952, no convention — Republican or Democratic — has gone beyond the first ballot.”

That year, in a hot and stuffy Chicago, Adlai Stevenson blew the Democratic convention wide open, and was eventually nominated for president on the third ballot.

In 1984, there was a close call when Democrat Walter Mondale arrived at the Democratic convention 40 delegates short of outright victory. But when the superdelegates supported him, it pushed him over the top to the nomination.

The modern primary system still awaits its first truly contested convention.

alternative facts

alternative facts

Alternative facts was a phrase coined by White House adviser Kellyanne Conway to defend a false statement by press secretary Sean Spicer about the attendance of President Trump’s inauguration.

When pressed during an interview to explain why Spicer would “utter a provable falsehood”, Conway stated that Spicer was simply giving “alternative facts.”

As the Washington Post noted, this “wasn’t the first time the Trump team and its supporters have responded to journalists calling out their falsehoods by claiming the truth isn’t so black and white or that it’s not a big deal.”

Indeed, many said it’s part of a broader “gaslighting” strategy used by Trump and his allies to control public discussion.

In discussing the origins of the phrase, Psychology Today notes that George Orwell wrote the novel 1984 “which portrays a totalitarian state that limited freedom of thought by creating its own language called ‘Newspeak.’ The political purpose of of Newspeak was to reduce the English language to simple concepts that reinforced the totalitarian dominance of the State. Moreover, words with negative meanings were removed, such that ‘bad’ became ‘ungood.'”

Many news reports also described Conway’s use of the phrase as “Orwellian.” Within four days of the interview, sales of George Owell’s book 1984 had risen by 9,500%.



Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group. It makes them question their own memory, perception and sanity.

The tactic relies on persistent denial, contradiction and lying in an attempt to delegitimize the victim’s belief.

gaslightingThe term “gaslighting” comes from a 1938 play, and subsequent 1944 film adaptation, in which a murdering husband manipulates and confuses his wife by dimming the gas lights in their home and then denying it’s happening.

Psychology Today: “It works much better than you may think. Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting, and it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize how much they’ve been brainwashed.”

Psychologist Bryant Welch, who wrote a 2008 book entitled State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind, told NBC News that President Donald Trump uses the tactic regularly with the American people.

Said Welch: “The very state of confusion they are creating is a political weapon in and of itself. If you make people confused, they are vulnerable. By definition they don’t know what to do.”

He added: “You come in and undercut their trust in the established sources of information. It tells them to go ahead and hate this person who is delivering bad news. Then you begin to substitute your own news, your own version of reality. If Donald Trump can undercut America’s trust in all media, he then starts to own them and can start to literally implant his own version of reality.”

A related term is “alternative facts.”


A form of underground press commonly available in eastern European countries with state-owned media sources. Samizdat typically is a grassroots way to distribute censored content to citizens who otherwise would not have access to this material.  It can take many forms; books, magazines, newspapers, or other types of censored media such as film and photography are commonly reproduced.

Consumers of samizdat historically have been educated citizens, and sometimes those with great political or social influence.  Samizdat has been disguised with book covers or alternative, accepted literary disguises.

Other forms can include banned religious texts or artwork that are not seen acceptable for a nation’s society.

one-house bill

A one-house bill is introduced by a legislator for the purpose of grandstanding or to demonstrate their effort to fulfill political promises without the ability to actually pass the bill into law.

One-house bills are often introduced to congress by members of the minority party, even when they do not have the support to pass these bills in the other legislative chamber.

running between the raindrops

“Running between the raindrops” is to dodge or deflect repeated political attacks.

The phrase is used to describe actions taken by politicians to avoid political aggression from other candidates or the media.

In other circumstances, “running between the raindrops” may be used to describe politicians who are able to deflect scandals or pass blame onto others while still in office.

In a military context, the phrase means to maneuver under heavy fire without being hit.

ranked choice voting

ranked-choice voting

Ranked-choice voting is an alternative to plurality elections —  which are when whoever receives the most votes wins, even if they don’t earn a majority of all votes.

Bangor Daily News: “Voters can rank as many of the candidates as they wish as their first, second and third choices, and so on. If no candidate receives a majority of all votes cast, the last-place candidate is eliminated from contention. The ballots from voters who ranked that candidate first are re-examined and all of their second-choice votes are added to the first-round totals. This continues until a candidate receives a majority of all votes cast and is declared the winner.”

Maine adopted ranked-choice voting in 2016 and the state released a cartoon explaining how it worked:

FairVote has a list of jurisdictions that currently use ranked-choice voting.


A form of peaceful protest that involves sitting down and occupying space, often preventing access to a business or public space.

Sit-ins are a common form of protest in the US, and have been around since the late 1930s. During the Civil Rights Movement, sit-ins were one of the main ways to protest segregation in restaurants, parks, universities, and other places.

Sit-ins are still considered an effective form of peaceful protest for their visibility and peaceful tactics.

History: “The Greensboro sit-in was a civil rights protest that started in 1960, when young African-American students staged a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and refused to leave after being denied service. The sit-in movement soon spread to college towns throughout the South. Though many of the protesters were arrested for trespassing, disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace, their actions made an immediate and lasting impact, forcing Woolworth’s and other establishments to change their segregationist policies.”


A “scalawag” is a pejorative term for a white southerner who supported Reconstruction efforts in the south in the late 1800s. They are often associated with carpetbaggers, who were their northern counterparts.

The term was used by southern Democrats who were not in favor of Reconstruction policies. The term originally was used to refer to a useless farm animal, so being called a scalawag was equal to being called a useless person. They were viewed as even lower than carpetbaggers, because they were seen as traitors to the culture they grew up in.

A scalawag could have supported Reconstruction for many reasons. Some believed in giving rights to Black people. Others were poor and saw the advantages of added labor to revitalize the economy. Others were just Republicans who supported the sought to fix the reputation of the South. However, the connotation of the word implies that scalawags only supported the policy for personal gain.

History: “Scalawags had diverse backgrounds and motives, but all of them shared the belief that they could achieve greater advancement in a Republican South than they could by opposing Reconstruction. Taken together, scalawags made up roughly 20 percent of the white electorate and wielded a considerable influence. Many also had political experience from before the war, either as members of Congress or as judges or local officials.”

send them a message

To “send them a message” is a call to action from a politician telling supporters to use their political capital to voice their opinion.

This can be performed in many ways. A protest can be sending a message, because it shows large support for or against an issue. The same goes for political donations. The most typical call for a message to be sent is through voting. A politician may call on the people to “send them a message” to America by voting for them, and showing that a majority of people support a certain policy.


In politics, the term “sharp-elbowed” refers to being aggressive and assertive when it comes to pursuing a legislative agenda or pushing one’s point of view.

The phrase is traditionally intended to describe a positive attribute in a politician, suggesting that having “sharp elbows” is the opposite of being a legislative pushover or being too quick to compromise. In 1984, renowned linguist William Safire noted in the New York Times: “a change of connotation is taking place in the political use of the word. Not long ago, to have sharp elbows was not considered a compliment, as was apparent in the calumniation of Mr. Strauss. Today, a politician without elbows is as lost as a politician without principles. The display of elbows is evidence of necessary macho.”

In the same article, Safire noted an early use of the metaphor: ‘”’No man lives without jostling and being jostled,’’ wrote Thomas Carlyle in 1838. ‘’In all ways he has to elbow himself through the world, giving and receiving offense.’”

As described by famed political operative James Carville: “You have to have sharp elbows if you want to change something.”

Over the years, many politicians have been described as having “sharp elbows”, including Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Andrew Cuomo, and Nancy Pelosi.

While the term is most often use to refer to legislators or politicians running for office, it can be used to describe an event as well, as when the Los Angeles Times called the 2015 GOP debate “sharp-elbowed.”

In 2010, an ABA Journal article reported on a trove of 11,000 emails about Supreme Court justice Elana Kagan, which revealed her to be a “sharp-elbowed and sometimes salty-tongued lawyer.”

And in 2015, the Economist used the term to refer to the wealthy in Britain, saying: “With their sharp elbows, the argument goes, the wealthy jostle others out of the way in the queue for doctors’ appointments, school places and other scarce public services.”

More recently, some have started to decry the sharp-elbowed nature of politics. From a 2020 article in the Wall Street Journal: “…in today’s highly polarized political environment, replete with the sharp-elbowed tactics of Washington infighting, much of [Martin Luther] King’s work has apparently been forgotten.”


A short and catchy phrase used to promote a candidate or idea. Slogans attempt to be memorable so that people remember the person behind them more easily.

Examples of slogans used for candidates are: I Like Ike (Eisenhower); Make America Great Again (Reagan and Trump); and Yes We Can (Obama). Slogans used for ideas include: Better Dead than Red (anti-Communist); Free Labor, Free Land, Free Men (19th century GOP); and Me Too/Time’s Up (sexual assault awareness)


The act of deliberately stalling, delaying, or preventing legislation from being passed. It has a negative connotation, as politicians do not want to be seen as preventing progress.

Obstructionist politicians are typically either a a party with control of one branch or house of a legislature, or part of a minority party with enough of a plurality to prevent legislation (like through a filibuster)

Obstructionism is often a useful tool for an opposition party.

Politico: “Still, for the most part, obstructionism worked. Americans always tell pollsters they want politicians to work together, but as Washington Democrats decide how to approach the Trump era from the minority, they will be keenly aware that the Republican Party’s decision to throw sand in the gears of government throughout the Obama era helped the Republican Party wrest unified control of that government.”


To use false information and accusations to harm the reputation of another person.

A smear campaign is repeated uses of this to try to destroy another person’s reputation, typically to make them lose an election.

Psychology Today says that smear tactics work: “Assuming that acceptance of these slurs is related to voting choice, this suggests that in some cases, political slandering works. And not only that, it works on the group that is perhaps most important in swinging an election: politically undecided individuals. We may report hating these slanderous statements. But, it appears that they might make up our minds for us when we haven’t already.”

separate but equal

The infamous justification for the decision in Plessy v Ferguson, the case that formally legalized segregation. The justification behind the decision was that segregation was Constitutional as long as both black and white Americans had equal protection under the law.

Of course, the idea of ‘separate but equal’ was not followed at all, and segregation led to a huge disparity in access to nearly every aspect of life for many Black Americans. The 1956 Brown v Board of Education case would overturn the separate but equal doctrine, saying that separate could not possibly be equal.

Time: “The case reached the Supreme Court in 1896, and the court ruled that Louisiana’s law, calling for ‘equal but separate’ facilities on trains, was constitutional. The majority opinion held that Negroes were equal to whites ‘civilly and politically,’ but not ‘socially.’

In 1954, with Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court finally declared what Americans could long have seen with their own eyes: that which was kept separate was inherently unequal. “Even if physical facilities are equal, said the court,there are intangible factors which prevent ‘separate’ from being ‘equal,’””


In politics, “slow walk” is a term used to describe an effort to prevent legislation or a political process from moving forward by intentionally slowing it down to a crawl. Another similar term is “obstructionism.”

The origin of the term “slow walk” itself is believed to be from equestrianism, where horses would drag their feet instead of using their normal gait.

Journalist Ruth walker gives some insight into its political use in a 2017 Christian Science Monitor article, calling slow walking a “new(ish) term of art for resistance that moves at a stately pace, adding: “Winter isn’t always the best time of year to get regular exercise. But I keep seeing references to an activity apparently as well suited to the corridors of power in Washington as to the snow-slushy streets of Boston: the slow walk.”

While the term’s widespread use in politics is fairly recent, the actual act of “slowing down” legislation or other political actions has a long history in the halls of Congress.

In 1988, noted linguist William Safire interpreted the use the term “slow walk” in politics as possibly having Southern origins, more specifically from the early 1970s in Tennessee. In his column, he quotes a famed Tennessee Senator:“’People slow-walk things, you know, especially if you’ve got a cutoff date,’ said Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee, complaining to reporters last summer about the obfuscation he had faced from the White House in his investigation of campaign finance. He repeated the verb more emphatically as his hearings drew to a close: ‘We have been slow-walked and deferred and had objections every step of the way.’’”

Safire adds a quote from Southerner Bill Clinton: ”I had a four-year term; they still only confirmed 35 judges — slow walk and everything. It’s like pulling teeth.”

By 2012, the term was more widely used, as noted in Time Magazine:  “House Speaker John Boehner has accused President Obama of “slow-walking” fiscal cliff negotiations, employing a metaphor used by generations of politicians before him.”

Some examples of more recent usage refer to Hillary Clinton’s announcement of a 2016 presidential run, the delicate negotiations with China over trade, and the passage of gun legislation in state governments.

In 2019, the hold on aid to Ukraine that led to Donald Trump’s eventual impeachment was even referred to as “slow walked” in this Politico article, a prescient reference only about a month before the controversy came to light.

Indeed, the eventual impeachment of Trump itself was even referred to as “slow-walked” in this 2019 Washington Post article.

Saturday Night Massacre

The Saturday Night Massacre refers to October 20, 1973, the Saturday night when then-President Richard Nixon gave the order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, leading to the resignation of his Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General.

Nixon ordered the firing of Cox after Cox subpoenaed the secret White House tapes Nixon kept, which held key information in the case against him. Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox, who would not compromise with Nixon’s attempts to delay the process in any way. Richardson refused and instead resigned. When Deputy AG William Ruckelshaus was told to fire Cox, Ruckelshaus did the same. Finally, Solicitor General Robert Bork fired Cox, leading to outrage.

News coverage of the Massacre was harsh, and protests quickly gathered over what was seen as an abuse of power. Polls showed this was the first time a majority of Americans wanted Nixon impeached. Nixon would resign less than a year later.

The Nation provides a good graphic on the timeline of the event.

red meat

“Red meat” is rhetoric on an issue used to inflame supporters. It is often associated with populist ideas and campaigns.

The phrase was first seen in 1911 in the movie industry, describing movies that were sensationalized. It shifted into a political term in the 1940s.

A quote from the Baltimore Sun shows one of its first uses:

“Most of the audiences… were looking for red meat in Dewey’s carefully reasoned discussions of world affairs. Since he disdained mudslinging they seized upon his withering treatment of bureaucracy and governmental incompetence as a satisfactory substitute.”

Today, red meat is almost always associated with right-wing populist speech. Things that get crowds riled up and angry — such as the “Lock Her Up” chants during the 2016 presidential election — are good examples of red meat.

purple state

A purple state features roughly even numbers of Democratic and Republican supporters in a presidential election.

It’s also a term used for a swing state on an electoral map. It is purple because it could either go blue or red. They are sometimes shown as gray on a map instead of purple.

The purple state concept emerged from media usage of red to represent Republicans and blue to represent Democrats in electoral maps. The 2000 presidential election was the first occasion for the common use of the red and blue colors to indicate candidate support. From 2004 to present, closely divided states have been called purple states due to the mixture of red and blue.

Purple states are often called battleground states or swing states because of their importance to presidential candidates. In national elections, a majority of states are likely to go Democratic or Republican from the outset. This baked-in status leads to a rush by national campaigns to win purple state voters every four years.

Google Trends shows that “purple state” has been more consistently searched since 2004 than “battleground state” or “swing state.” There is a regular spike in “swing state” every presidential election but both terms took a back seat to “purple state” around the 2016 election.

The roster of swing states has expanded and contracted based on developments between elections. Southern Methodist University’s Center for Presidential History identified 11 purple states in the 2004 presidential election: Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The Washington Post named 10 battleground states in 2008 including Colorado, Indiana, Missouri, and Virginia. FiveThirtyEight identified up to 16 potential swing states in 2016 with new additions like Arizona, Georgia, and Maine.

As the concept of purple states emerged, there was a segment of political observers who disagreed with red and blue states. Professor Robert Vanderbei of Princeton University published maps starting with the 2000 election that used red and blue shades to indicate relative partisan support. Vanderbei argued that even his maps are misleading because they apply the same shades for metro areas and small towns without indicating population.

Proponents of the Purple America idea say that most voters across the country already live in purple states. This argument suggests that the average voter lives in a state with blue urban areas and red rural areas in conflict each election. Supporters of standard electoral mapping argue that red and blue states reflect the realities of presidential elections under the Electoral College.


London School of Economics (February 18, 2020): “Nevada became a US state in 1864, during the Civil War, giving it the motto ‘Battle Born.’ It is a battleground state politically, a ‘purple’ state.”

Vox (October 9, 2019): “But even if Texas isn’t a purple state, it is a gigantic state and therefore an important one. And the switch from R+20 to R+11 matters.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts (March 6, 2008): “Despite Obama’s strength in red-state caucuses and McCain’s appeal as a moderate, this analysis keeps the number of “purple” states – those neither safely red nor blue but still up for grabs – at its original 19, at least this stage of the most wide-open presidential contest in at least a half century.”

salami tactics

“Salami tactics” refers to a divide and conquer approach, which aims to split up the opposition. The expression evokes the idea of slicing up one’s opposition in the same way as one might slice up a salami.

The phrase was coined by the Hungarian communist leader Matyos Rakosi as a way to describe his technique of dividing and isolating opposition parties during the 1940s. The phrase was also used a few decades later, in Czechoslovakia, to describe the gradual process of chipping away at the reforms that had been introduced by Alexander Dubcek before the Russian invasion in 1968.

The phrase is strongly associated with Josef Stalin, who used salami tactics to divide the anti-communist opposition groups in order to realize his goal of creating more and more communist states near Russia. Some analysts believe that Stalin’s salami tactics were simply a re-purposing of Hitler’s “piecemeal” strategy of decimating his opposition so that he and his cohorts were left as the only viable option.

During World War II, Hitler used salami tactics to slowly but surely annex other countries. The German leader eliminated his opponents piece by piece (or slice by slice), working strategically and timing his operations with the utmost care. The slow, precise approach meant that nobody ever felt alarmed enough to take decisive action in response.

Salami tactics can be compared to the idea of a “frog in hot water,” which similarly imagines an attack that comes on very slowly and by degrees. The image is of a frog immersed in water – the water’s temperature is slowly, and almost imperceptibly increased until finally the frog is boiled to death. Because the attack came on so gradually, the frog never had the opportunity to defend itself or to flee.

Salami tactics can also be compared to the old saying, “if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.” The Nobel-prize winning economist Thomas Schelling argued, in his book Arms and Influence, that salami tactics are typical childish behavior:

“Salami tactics, we can be sure, were invented by a child […] Tell a child not to go in the water and he’ll sit on the bank and submerge his bare feet; he is not yet ‘in’ the water. Acquiesce, and he’ll stand up; no more of him is in the water than before. Think it over, and he’ll start wading, not going any deeper; take a moment to decide whether this is different and he’ll go a little deeper, arguing that since he goes back and forth it all averages out. Pretty soon we are calling to him not to swim put of sight, wondering whatever happened to all our discipline.”

In modern times, pundits on the left and right have accused various governments of using “salami tactics” against the opposition. On the left, some have accused the US government of using police power, facial recognition technology, and surveillance tactics to weaken and intimidate opposition groups. Taiwanese writers have sometimes accused the Chinese government of using salami tactics against Taiwan. Western writers have also criticized what they say are “salami tactics” being carried out by Beijing in the East China Sea.

Rumseld's Rules

Rumsfeld’s rules

“Rumsfeld’s Rules” are a series of aphorisms, sayings, and observations about life in leadership, business, and politics by Donald Rumsfeld, who was a Congressman, Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defense during his long, storied career.

These rules were collected over a period of time on 3×5 index cards, and were eventually compiled, typed up, and circulated throughout Washington and beyond.

The Wall Street Journal once referred to these rules as “required reading,” and they were touted in a New York Times review in 1988: “Rumsfeld’s Rules can be profitably read in any organization…The best reading, though, are his sprightly tips on inoculating oneself against that dread White House disease, the inflated ego.”

Over the years, Rumsfeld’s observations have been a staple of Washington, and in 2013 were published into a book: Rumsfeld’s Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life.

From the book: “These eminently nonpartisan rules have amused and enlightened presidents, business executives, chiefs of staff, foreign officials, diplomats, and members of Congress.”

While the lion’s share of Rumsfeld’s rules are apolitical, they are not without controversy, as some that criticize Rumsfeld’s leadership style have wondered why his leadership rules have caught on. As it was diplomatically put by Forbes Magazine in an article called Rumsfeld’s Rules: Seriously?: “The question that students of leadership may raise when reading Rumsfeld’s Rules is this: is it okay to listen to some who writes well but does not hold himself to the same standards? My response is yes. When it comes to leadership you can learn as much from rascals, maybe even more so, than from saints. The challenge for readers is to read what he writes through the lens of history.”

From the Washington Post: “Dick Cheney, George P. Schultz, and Henry Kissinger – all very bright men with long establishment resumes – endorse the book on the back cover. Chenery reveals that he was ‘an early practitioner of Rumsfeld’s Rules….I came to regret it on the few occasions I violated them.’”

In 2004, 9 years before the Harper Collins book was published, The Atlantic put together a short list of the rules that they call “worth revisiting,” essentially creating a “best of”:

  • “Establish good relations between the departments of Defense and State, the National Security Council, CIA and the Office of Management and Budget.”
  • “Don’t divide the world into ‘them’ and ‘us.’ Avoid infatuation with or resentment of the press, the Congress, rivals, or opponents. Accept them as facts. They have their jobs and you have yours.”
  • “Don’t do or say things you would not like to see on the front page of the Washington Post.”
  • “If you foul up, tell the president and correct it fast. Delay only compounds mistakes.”
  • “Be able to resign. It will improve your value to the president and do wonders for your performance.”
  • “Your performance depends on your people. Select the best, train them, and back them. When errors occur, give sharper guidance. If errors persist or if the fit feels wrong, help them move on.”
  • “It is easier to get into something than to get out of it.”

As has been noted by many, that last rule resonates in light of Rumsfeld’s involvement in orchestrating the United States’ involvement in the Iraq War.

blue state

A blue state is one whose voters elect primarily Democratic candidates. It is the opposite of a red state.

There are different levels of how ‘blue’ a state can be. If a Democratic candidate wins the vote in that state, that state has ‘turned blue.’ If a state votes for a Democrat in nearly every statewide race, it could be considered a ‘deep blue’ or ‘dark blue’ state (New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, etc.). If a state typically votes Democrat but will occasionally vote for a Republican, they are known as a ‘light blue’ state (Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, etc.).

There is no hard and fast rule as to what makes a state dark or light blue. Some people may consider Colorado or New Mexico light blue states, and others may consider them swing states. Conversely, some people may consider Maine or Minnesota dark blue states, but others may consider them light blue due to their potential to switch in an upcoming election.

Related: The origins of red states and blue states.


A “robocall” is an automated telephone call that delivers a prerecorded message to multiple phone numbers. Typically, robocalls are used for mass messaging.

In politics, robocall are used in campaigning. Robocalls are sent out to potential voters, and the fact that they are simply recorded messages makes them easier to send out than in-person phone calls.

An advantage of robocalls is that the candidate can be heard by many constituents without the effort of that candidate making hundreds of calls. They can also take one message from an influential person and distribute it to many people. A disadvantage of robocalls is that they are less genuine and may be ignored by some.

Local Victory gives tips on what makes an effective robocall: “The real place where they shine is as a quick, cheap way to get out breaking news (like an endorsement right before Election Day) or to respond to last minute attacks from your opponent. Watch out though, some voters get turned off by too many robocalls.  Even if your campaign only does one or two rounds of calls, if your opponents have been bombarding the phone lines with calls, the voters may penalize you when they hear your call”

red state

A “red state” is one whose voters elect primarily Republican candidates. It is the opposite of a blue state.

There are different levels of how ‘red’ a state can be. If a Republican candidate wins the vote in that state, that state has ‘turned red.’ If a state votes for a Republican in nearly every statewide race, it could be considered a ‘deep red’ or ‘dark red’ state (Alabama, Texas, Idaho, etc.). If a state typically votes Republican but will occasionally vote for a Democrat, they are known as a ‘light red’ state (Indiana).

There is no hard and fast rule as to what makes a state dark or light red. Some people may consider North Carolina or Iowa a light red state, and others may consider them swing states. Conversely, some people may consider Georgia and Arizona dark red states, but others may consider them light red due to their potential to switch in an upcoming election.

Related: The origins of red states and blue states.

read my lips

read my lips

“Read my lips” ia a phrase used by George H.W. Bush in his speech for the 1988 Republican nomination for president. The full quote is “Read my lips: no new taxes.”

The line is credited with both helping him both win the presidency in 1988 and lose his bid for reelection in 1992.

The phrase became the main soundbite of Bush’s campaign in 1988, and it electrified the GOP base. His assertive promise to not raise taxes became what the American people expected from him. When he was forced to raise taxes in 1990, that promise was broken, and he was attacked from both sides of the aisle.

Time ranks it as the 3rd most unfortunate one-liner ever given in politics (behind Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon’s famous denials).

rattle the cage

To “rattle the cage” is an attempt to get attention, often through annoying, angering, or protesting.

In politics, rattling the cage of a politician or party typically happens when a large group of people get together to protest and demand whatever they are asking for.

In a more personal sense, it can be used for personal interactions if one person has been caught off guard by another.

political football

To take an issue that is non-partisan and turn it into a partisan one is to create a “political football.”

Political parties do this to gain an advantage over the other party, tossing an issue back-and-forth as a “football.”

The term can refer to the game of political football, where parties do this, or the issue itself. In the former case, parties are playing political football; in the latter, the issue is a political football.

The first known use of the term dates back to 1857, where it was used in a Maine newspaper.


To “pussyfoot” is to proceed with caution; to move warily but steadily.; or sidestep an issue as to not take a side. It is almost always used in a pejorative sense and, as such, its synonyms include equivocating, hedging, or even weaseling.

Someone who pussyfoots around an issue does not want to express an opinion about the issue, usually because it could be controversial and could lead to a problem.

The term dates back to at least 1893; that’s when Scribner’s Magazine wrote about “men who were beginning to walk pussy-footed and shy at shadows.” The expression comes from the soft steps of a cat. President Theodore Roosevelt popularized the term around 1905, using it to refer to men he believed were excessively cautious and sneaky.

At the same time, one member of Theodore Roosevelt’s own administration may have done even more to popularize the term “pussyfoot.” William Johnson, who helped to fight against bootlegging and illegal alcohol sales in Indian Territory, was better known as Pussyfoot Johnson. He was charged with ending all liquor sales in the territories, and, predictably, the job won him enemies all over. That’s why Johnson started doing his work at night. He apparently crept around at night much like a cat, with great stealth, earning the nickname “Pussyfoot.”

Johnson was an ardent Prohibitionist, and his fellow prohibitionists came to be known as “pussyfooters” as well. The term “pussyfoot” is almost never used in that sense today.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter pledged his support for Polish workers who were in the midst of organizing. Carter’s administration vowed to help Polish labor unions, but they also worried about upsetting the balance of power between Polish workers and Soviet authorities. Meanwhile, Lane Kirkland, the head of the AFL-CIO, vowed to move forward with a fund to help labor unions in Poland. Kirkland said, “the free trade union movement cannot advance on little cat feet. I will not accept the suggestion that we pussy foot about it at all.”

Decades later, in 2016, Sarah Palin used the term “pussyfooting” when she endorsed Donald Trump for president. Palin, the one-time vice presidential candidate and Alaska governor, said that with Trump there would be “no more pussyfooting around!” Merriam Webster reported that after Palin’s speech there was a sudden spike in searches for the word in their dictionary.

Palin was implying that President Obama had been “pussyfooting around,” and she wasn’t the only person to use that term. Certain pundits later praised President Trump for taking action in Iraq instead of “pussyfooting around,” as they believed Obama had done in Libya following the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi.

At the same time, President Trump’s opponents accused him of pussyfooting around issues that were inconvenient to him. Senator Amy Klobuchar, for one, claimed that Trump had been avoiding dealing with questions about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. “I think it would have been much more powerful to have that sanctions bill in his hand, and have that signed that into law and not pussyfoot around the fact that it was Russia that tried to interfere in our elections, as the president did in his answers to the questions,” Klobuchar told Meet the Press.



In politics, a quagmire refers to a dangerous and usually complex situation which is difficult to get out of. In literal terms, a quagmire is a soft, marshy area of land that gives way underfoot. Making your way through a quagmire is comparable to walking across quicksand.

In the United States, historians often talk about the Vietnam war as a “quagmire.” Quagmire theory holds that the US government got involved in Vietnam little by little, one step at a time. Eventually, the country was mired in the conflict and couldn’t get out.

The so-called “quagmire theory” was developed by the historian Arthur Schlessinger in his book The Bitter Heritage. Schlessinger argued that American presence in Vietnam was the result of “the triumph of the politics of inadvertence” and that the war itself was a “tragedy without villains.”

The concept was further explored in David Halberstam’s The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era.

In more recent times, analysts have borrowed the term “quagmire” to talk about American involvement in other conflicts, notably in Iraq. In March 2003, President George Bush announced the start of military action in Iraq. The war was widely criticized. Pundits, politicians, and protesters alike began referring to Iraq as a “quagmire.” Some went even further, arguing that the Iraq conflict was deeper and more inescapable than any quagmire:

“The further the U.S. and the world move from the fall of Baghdad on April 9th, the more it seems that the administration is correct: Iraq is not a quagmire. It is really a black hole,” said Daniel Smith, a retired colonel, a few months after the invasion. The Institute for Policy Research agreed, writing,

“the administration has plunged the U.S. over the lip–what is called the “event horizon”–of the human and financial black hole that is post-war Iraq. The significance of passing the astronomical event horizon is that whatever crosses it, even light, cannot recover or be recovered. It is a one-way trip down a “tunnel” at whose end there is no light, only crushing gravity.”

Still, the term quagmire stuck. It’s been used to describe the US presence in Afghanistan, as well as the ongoing involvement in Iraq. President Obama, who won his first term on a promise to get US troops out of Iraq, found that he was mired in the conflict. His critics claimed that Obama was carrying out the very type of small-bore, blinkered policies in Iraq which would lead the US deeper into a quagmire. Republican senator John McCain, who spent seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, denounced Obama’s Iraq policy of “half measures,” saying, “this is incrementalism at its best — or worst.”

The term “quagmire” has even been used by writers trying to dissuade the US government from sending its military into Iran. In 2019, Washington Post columnist Max Boot wrote that US involvement in Iran, no matter how carefully planned, would be the “mother of all quagmires: a conflict that would make the Iraq War — which I now deeply regret supporting — seem like a “cakewalk” by comparison.”

Potomac fever

“Potomac fever” is the condition where a politician is gripped by a desire to stay in government, whether to make a change or for power’s sake.

The term describes a politician who never intended to stay in Washington, D.C. (which is adjacent to the Potomac River) but eventually “gets infected” and decides to stay for a long time.

puppet state

A “puppet state” is a country that claims to be independent, but is controlled by an outside state or other power. Puppet states are not recognized by international law.

A puppet state has the appearance of being independent. It typically has things like its own flag, constitution, system of government, etc., but still cedes control to another power.

Examples of puppet states include countries that were under the Soviet bloc, like Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Mongolia. Some puppet governments are implemented through military force, like Vichy France in WWII. Many colonized countries in Africa and Asia would become puppet states controlled by their colonizers. Examples of this are pre-1960s Vietnam, India, and the Congo.


A “pol” is shorthand word for politician.

Occasionally, it is used to describe anyone active in politics, including experts and political junkies.



The “plumbers” were a task force who worked for President Richard Nixon to stop classified information from getting out and gather information on political enemies. They were known as plumbers because of their attempts to plug leaks out of the White House.

The plumbers were involved in many covert and illegal activities, from stealing information to discredit the leak of the Pentagon Papers to the Watergate burglary. The agents worked to protect the Committee for the Re-Election of the President as well.

Time ranks the activities of Nixon’s plumbers as one of the top 10 abuses of power of all time. Although Nixon denied knowledge of the plumbers activities, tapes subpoenaed during the Watergate investigation revealed years of political espionage and illegal surveillance.

play in peoria

play in Peoria

To “play in Peoria” is a phrase meaning how well something will appeal to the heartland or mainstream America. In politics, it is a gauge of how the average American will react to a policy or proposal.

Peoria is an actual city in Illinois. The phrase originated in the late 19th century, when vaudeville performers would say that if a show could be successful in Peoria, it could be successful anywhere (because Peoria was seen as an unremarkable city).

President Richard Nixon popularized the phrase in political circles. He would ask how something would “play in Peoria” to ask how the average voter would respond to whatever he was planning.

old bull

An “old bull” is a powerful and influential Member of Congress.

Old bulls are typically senior members who have worked their way into positions of power through decades in Congress.



“Appeasement” is a diplomatic policy in which nations attempt to make peace by making concessions to an aggressive nation. Appeasement is often linked with the policies of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain during World War II.

The most famous case of appeasement is the Munich Pact, in which Britain and France, under the leadership of Chamberlain, conceded Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany. The hope was that it would stop the aggression of Hitler and the Nazis, but it did not, and was largely seen as giving Germany a free pass.

Due to those failures, the policy today has a very negative connotation, along with a related concept “peace at any price.” Defense hawks regularly accuse opponents of appeasing the enemy.

Der Spiegel outlines how the strategy failed in the 1930s.

peace at any price

A term outlining the philosophy of appeasement, in which supporters argue that peace is worth the cost asked by an enemy. It was once used as a positive term, but became an attack on appeasement after World War II.

Peace at any price is often linked with former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who is famous for attempting to appease Nazi Germany before WWII. He signed the Munich Pact, which gave Czechoslovakia to the Nazis. The failure of Chamberlain’s attempt for peace, combined with the cost of an entire nation in that attempt, turned “peace at any price” into an attack on appeasement.

It is also sometimes referred to as “peace at any cost.”



Realpolitik is a system of politics based on concrete, practical goals, rather than on morality or abstract ideals. According to Merriam Webster, the term was first used in 1895. It derives from German, in which “real” means “actual” and Politik means “politics.”

The Financial Times notes that in realpolitik, “politics is about power, about maneuvering coalitions, about social forces  and their capacity to influence politics, and about the power of ideas in shaping political possibilities.”

Realpolitik is often used interchangeably with “power politics.” It’s generally used in discussions about foreign policy and relationships between nations. The term is closely associated with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Kissinger, who served under both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, supported a number of policies on the grounds that they were practical, if not ethical. Kissinger called for intensive bombing campaigns in North Vietnam; he also allied the US with dictatorial leaders like Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet and the Shah of Iran.

Kissinger himself argued that there must be a balance between realism and idealism. The statesman once said, ruefully, that the United States was “the only country in which “realist” can be used as a pejorative epithet.” He reasoned that without a realist strategy, even the most shining values could never be brought about.

Otto von Bismarck, the German statesman who oversaw the unification of Germany in 1871, was also famous for his use of realpolitik. Bismarck was a master diplomat who was not afraid to antagonize other countries and even start wars if he thought it would help him to accomplish his long-term goals.

More recently, many analysts have argued that President Barack Obama was a realpolitik practitioner. Obama, the argument goes, was responsible for countless deaths by drone strike. He carried out widespread wiretaps of Americans. He also failed to take action in Syria against the regime of Bashar Assad. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson claimed that many liberals had applied a “double standard” when judging Obama. The same people who were critical of Kissinger, Ferguson said, turned a blind eye to Obama’s human rights abuses. He added,

“There is disenchantment with Obama’s foreign policy these days. In recent polls, nearly half of Americans (49.3%) disapprove of it, compared with fewer than 38% who approve. I suspect, however, that many disapprove for the wrong reasons. The president is widely seen, especially on the right, as weak. In my view, his strategy is flawed, but there is no doubting his ruthlessness when it comes to executing it.”

Pundits have also labeled President Donald Trump a realist. Writing in Politico, Jacob Heilbrunn pointed out that Trump had shown a distaste for global governance and interventionism. As a presidential candidate, Trump pledged to rein in free trade and to put an end to humanitarian intervention in other nations.

In fact, candidate Trump’s first major foreign policy address promised to pursue an “America first” policy. He lamented that the US had been “rebuilding other countries” while neglecting its own needs. In sum, Trump pledged that he would “develop a new foreign policy direction for our country, one that replaces randomness with purpose, ideology with strategy, and chaos with peace.”

peace through strength

peace through strength

The accumulation of military power and security assets by a country to encourage an amenable diplomatic atmosphere with other countries.

The phrase peace through strength is attributed to the policies of Roman Emperor Hadrian, who ruled from 117 to 138. Hadrian strengthened the empire’s frontier security with walls in modern-day England, Switzerland, and Germany. The emperor also encouraged the use of non-residents as defense forces to bolster existing troops. Elizabeth Speller’s Following Hadrian included the passage, “His agenda was clear: peace through strength, or failing that, peace through threat.”

Google’s Ngram Viewer shows that peace through strength was non-existent in American texts until 1937. Bernard Baruch’s 1952 book Peace through Strength and Cold War tensions brought the term phrase into the fore. Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater used peace through strength in a September 1964 speech, saying that he promised “an administration that will keep the peace and keep faith with freedom at the same time.”

In American politics, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan cemented the phrase during his 1980 campaign. He argued that President Jimmy Carter’s administration failed to maintain the “margin of safety” between the United States and the Soviet Union. Reagan advocated for negotiation with the declining Soviet Union as well as a significant military buildup to thwart the global spread of communism.

After his election, the Reagan administration demonstrated peace through strength by promoting increased funding for strategic nuclear weapons, new weapon systems, and quick-strike forces. Reagan’s advisors also advocated for the capability to defeat Soviet military assets moving anywhere in the world. The president met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for direct talks on five occasions between 1985 and 1988.

Reagan’s use of peace through strength is often attributed as a cause for the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. The Republican Party platform included this phrase in every election from 1980 to 2016. The 2016 platform mentioned this concept by stating, “As Americans and as Republicans we wish for peace – so we insist on strength.” The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute issues Peace Through Strength Awards each year to public officials who have supported American security and freedom.


The Hill (December 3, 2019): “Thirty years have passed since President Reagan left office, but his vision for ‘peace through strength’ still defines the world view of Americans, who remain steadfast in their support for a strong military that both keeps the peace and advances the values of freedom and democracy abroad.”

Foreign Policy (October 15, 2013): “Peace through strength is not a lonely position. In fact, there are numerous voices in the United States and in Israel calling for more political and diplomatic pressure and engagement.”

The Washington Post (August 19, 1980): “Ronald Reagan accepted the endorsement of the Veterans of Foreign Wars today with a pledge to pursue a policy of ‘peace through strength’ that he said would restore ‘a defense capability that provides a margin of safety for America.’”

party line

A “party line” is the ideology or the agenda of a political party. The party line consists of most core tenets of a party, as well as anything they are attempting to accomplish.

The phrase is most often used in terms of a party-line vote. A party-line vote is when most or all politicians vote with their party on a proposal. For example, if there are 52 Republicans and 48 Democrats in the Senate, a party line vote might be 51-49 Republican.

Forbes: “Party-line voting has become the new normal. As recently as the early 1970s, party unity voting was around 60% but today it is closer to 90% in both the House and Senate.”

party faithful

Those who have been loyal supporters of a party for a long time and make up the party’s base.

Vox points out that the appeasing party faithful can be difficult, as they are sometimes opposed to bipartisanship: “Immigration in particular puts a key slice of the party faithful in conflict with the national agenda — nationally, support for immigration reform tends to be high and bipartisan.”


Patronage is the power of a political official to fill government positions with people of their choosing. In many cases this leads to nepotism and favoritism.

In the U.S., there have been many fights against patronage since the mid-1800s. After the assassination of James Garfield by a man who was overlooked for a patronage-given position, many laws were formed to force officials to be qualified to do their job. Major patronage systems in the U.S. lasted until about the 1970s, when Chicago ended theirs.

Although often associated with corruption, patronage is not always seen as a negative. Many government positions are allocated through the patronage system, including many appointed by the President.

open convention

A party convention in which delegates are able to vote for the candidate of their choice, and are not tied to the results of primaries or caucuses.

Open conventions were the norm until about 1968. The Democratic Party’s delegates were never tied to primary votes before then, and could choose who they wanted (the Republican Party was tied to primaries much earlier). This led to many cases where candidates would forego primaries and focus on delegates instead.

According to Reuters, “the 1968 election, when Hubert Humphrey, who eschewed the primaries in favor of courting officials who controlled the delegates, lost to Republican nominee Richard Nixon, led to reforms that essentially gave control of the nominating process to the popular vote. A number of states decided the easiest way to comply with the new rules would be to hold primaries.”

Today, open conventions only happen when no candidate takes a majority of the delegates. The last open convention was in 1976, when neither Ronald Reagan or Gerald Ford was able to secure a majority of GOP delegates. The delegates were then free to choose a candidate without being tied to a vote.

movers and shakers

Those who have power and influence in business, politics, or other segments of the public sphere. Party leadership, committee leaders, or people with influence among certain demographics can all be considered movers and shakers.

The term was coined by 19th century poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy.

muckety muck

A person with the highest status or most power in an organization. From a political standpoint, this usually refers to someone in the party leadership or with another influential position.

The term is interchangeable with mucky-muck or muckamuck.


In a political context, the term “mollycoddle” means to treat certain constituents or voters in an almost absurdly overprotective way. Typically used in the context of the “welfare state” and those who feel entitled to government assistance, those who have been labeled “mollycoddled” by politicians are usually the most vulnerable, and those seen as unable or unwilling to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

In its broadest sense, those who are “mollycoddled” are differentiated from so-called “people of action” or “go getters,” as they are seemingly too dependent on the government – or others – for help.

One of the most famous uses of the word dates back to a 1907 address by Teddy Roosevelt to Harvard students, when the 26th president famously warned them about becoming “too fastidious, too sensitive to take part in the rough hurly-burly of the actual work of the world.” He went on to decry colleges that “turn out mollycoddles instead of vigorous men,” and reinforced his point: “the weakling and the coward are out of place in a strong and free community.”

Clearly a favorite word of the 26th president, the Washington Post even describes Roosevelt as once referring to the sport of baseball as a “mollycoddle game,” not tough or violent enough for his liking.

The origins of the word “mollycoddle” can be traced back to early 19th century Britain, when it was used as a derogatory term for an overly effeminate man. In more modern times, the term has lost its homophobic overtones and is used more generally to deride the overprotected or overprivileged.

In recent years, the term “mollycoddled” has become synonymous with another political term, “snowflake,” which is also used to describe someone who’s too sensitive, too politically correct, and cloyingly disaffected.

In this 2014 article from Politico, the writer casts the entire population of America’s college kids as “mollycoddled babies,” citing their reliance on “trigger warnings” for any subject that might offend or traumatize their sensibilities.

Further, the term is sometimes used to deride a more pacifist worldview, as noted here in an article about former VP Dick Cheney. The article compares Cheney’s attitude about Obama’s Middle East policies to Teddy Roosevelt’s view of Woodrow Wilson when it came to our participation in world conflict. Roosevelt, about Wilson: “Professor Wilson, that Byzantine logothete, supported by all the flubdubs, mollycoddles, and flapdoodle pacifists.”

Indeed, modern day Republicans are the political party most likely to accuse voters of being “mollycoddled,” and it can be argued that the rise of Donald Trump is in some ways the direct result of this.

New Frontier

“New Frontier” is used to describe the domestic and foreign policies of the Kennedy Administration.

The term was first used in John F. Kennedy’s acceptance speech for the Democratic party’s nomination for president. He referred to “the frontier of the 1960’s–a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils– a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.”

After Kennedy’s election, the term became synonymous with the collection of policies he put forward, similar to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, or LBJ’s Great Society. Everything from the Bay of Pigs Invasion to his tax cuts became part of the New Frontier.