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boondoggle

boondoggle

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.””

boodle

boodle

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 hearts

bleeding heart

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.”

backgrounder

backgrounder

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.

bellwether

bellwether

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.”

Bircher

bircher

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.

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.

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.

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.

Borking

borking

“Borking” is attacking a person’s reputation and views.

The term was popularized by the Wall Street Journal editorial page after the Senate rejected the nomination of Robert Bork the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987.

Bork himself later discussed the origination of the term in a 2005 interview with Frank Sesno on CNN:

BORK: Well, I knew what was happening. The core of the issue was, they were afraid I would vote to overrule Roe against Wade. And they were quite right.

SESNO: And your name became a verb.

BORK: My name became a verb. And I regard that as one form of immortality.

SESNO: To Bork means what?

BORK: I think to attack with — to attack a person’s reputation and views unfairly.

backbencher

backbencher

A “backbencher” is a junior member in the British House of Commons who occupies the back benches of Parliament, sitting behind party leaders and top government officials.

This term is most commonly used to describe legislators in parliamentary systems from England to New Zealand. There is some dispute about the first use of backbencher, though it generally attributed to English parliamentarians in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. Merriam-Webster places the term’s first use in 1799, while the Oxford English Dictionary places the evolution of backbench into backbencher in 1910. The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (DCHP) places its origins in Canadian politics in 1897.

Backbencher is used not only to confer spatial locations in parliamentary locations but places in party hierarchies. The backbenches of Parliament are held by rank-and-file members who are low in the political pecking order. First-term legislators, independents, and party rebels are often found in the ranks of backbenchers. These figures are relegated to the back rows while party leaders and ministers occupy the front benches.

The DCHP places the first uses of backbenchers in American politics to the 1920s. Google’s Ngram Viewer confirms this chronology with a steady ascent in usage from 1936 to 1970. This trend may have occurred due to the closeness of relations between England and the United States.

U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) was a frequent user of the term during his tenure in Congress. His backbench days in the House including an effort to investigate the finances of Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D). In 1988, he told The New York Times, “If Jim Wright were a backbench member, I probably wouldn’t have done anything. But he’s the Speaker, and everything he could have done all his life as a backbencher becomes self-destructive when he becomes third in line to be President of the United States.”

Backbencher doesn’t work as well in American politics due to differences in legislative seating rules. The House of Representatives held a desk lottery each session from 1845 to 1913. This lottery was necessary because floor desks acted as legislator offices before the construction of dedicated office space. The House lottery system shifted from desks to offices and the floor desks were replaced by benches open to any member. The Senate’s standing rules require the assignment of seats after allocation following the most recent election.

Examples

The Australian Financial Review (February 25, 2020): “The bitter debate over climate change has led backbenchers from the right and left of the Coalition to express interest in exploring nuclear power.”

The Guardian (January 9, 2019): “At the heart of it all is a group of Labour backbenchers – and a growing number of Conservatives – who have been campaigning for a second referendum for over a year, and who are described by one MP involved as ‘an executive in exile’.”

The Globe and Mail (February 11, 2013): “Since 1947, only 26 percent of backbenchers who sat on the government side for seven years without ever being given a greater role were subsequently promoted.”

BBC: “Backbenchers are also sometimes known as private members and thus a backbencher can introduce an original idea for legislation in the form of a Private Member’s Bill. Backbenchers have more freedom to speak as they are not as constrained by loyalty to the government. This can also pose problems for the party whips who try to impose party discipline.”

The term has also come to refer to the rank-and-file members of the U.S. Congress who are not part of their party’s leadership.

bed-wetting

“Bed-wetting” refers to someone who expresses doubt or excessive worry about a political outcome.

ABC News reports that David Plouffe, President Obama’s former campaign manager and top political adviser, first coined the term in 2008 when Democrats began openly fretting about their political challenges.

Plouffe used the term again before the 2010 midterm elections in a Washington Post op-ed when he urged “no bed-wetting” among Democrats: “This will be a tough election for our party and for many Republican incumbents as well. Instead of fearing what may happen, let’s prove that we have more than just the brains to govern — that we have the guts to govern.”

barnstormer

A barnstormer travels around the country or state making political appearances during a political campaign. The phrase was first used when pilots would travel around the country to entertain with their flying skills.

The appearances are typically set up by an advance man to make each stop as seamless as possible.

All-Things-Aviation: “A typical barnstormer (or a group of barnstormers) would travel across to a village, borrow a field from a farmer for the day and advertise their presence in the town by flying several low passes over it – roaring over the main street at full throttle. The appearance of the barnstormers was akin to a national holiday. Entire towns were shut down and people would flock to the fields purchasing tickets for the show and plane rides. Locals, most of them never having seen planes before, would be thrilled by the experience. In several towns parties would be organized on such occasions in the honor of the barnstormers.” Now the word has come to mean a political speech given on the road.”

bundlers

Political fundraisers who can collect contributions from their networks of friends, family members and business associates and then deliver the checks to the candidate in one big “bundle.” Campaigns often recognize these bundlers with honorary titles.

Bundling has always existed in various forms, but has become more important with the enactment of limits on campaign contributions at the federal level and in most states during the 1970s.

brokered convention

brokered convention

A brokered convention takes place when no one candidate wins a majority delegates during the presidential primary to earn their party’s nomination in the first vote at the nominating conference. When that happens, the nomination is “brokered,” or determined through horse trading and backroom deals.

Brokered conventions, also called deliberative or contested conventions, were the norm in the United States until the second half of the 20th century. At that time, party “bosses” wielded enormous power, and candidates were often chosen after hours of deal-making in smoke-filled rooms. Warren G. Harding, for example, was famously selected to be the Republican presidential candidate after a series of conclaves by party leaders. And in 1924, Democratic delegates took 103 ballots to select the little-known candidate John Davis.

The most recent brokered convention was the Democratic convention of 1952, from which Adlai Stevenson emerged as the winner. In 1948, the Republican party held a brokered convention and selected Thomas Dewey as the party’s candidate.

By 1972, almost every state in the union had established either a primary election or a caucus system, making it possible for voters to choose the candidate they wanted to run for their party. The brokered convention became irrelevant, since primary votes and caucuses meant that there was always a clear frontrunner by the time a party held its political convention. Both of the major political parties also allow candidates to win the nomination with a simple majority, rather than a two thirds majority; this makes it easier to determine a frontrunner as well.

Analysts have also pointed out that the cost of modern elections, and the 24-hour news cycle, also means that all but the most popular candidates will drop out before they get to the convention. As a result, the winner is always clear by the time a party holds its political convention. As a result, modern political conventions are  often viewed as spectacles, rather than as formative political events.

At the same time, pundits and political junkies still love to talk about the possibility of a brokered convention. In 2016, there was a lot of speculation that Republicans might have a brokered convention. The speculation largely grew out of the idea that Republican leaders wanted to “stop” Donald Trump from winning the party’s nomination to the presidency and were troubled by signs that “favorite sons” like Jeb Bush were losing out to Trump. In the event, the Republican convention was not brokered.

In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, many wondered whether the Democrats would have a “contested,” or brokered convention. Analysts have pointed out that Democrats are under heightened pressure to find a candidate who can defeat President Trump. It’s also possible that “superdelegates,” who are automatically made delegates because of their positions, could sway the outcome of the Democratic convention. Senator Bernie Sanders has said that it would be a “very divisive moment” if the candidate with a plurality of votes does not win the party’s presidential nomination.

But often a brokered convention is mostly just a political junkie’s fantasy. The modern party primary system almost always determines an overwhelming winner of delegates. And as David Frum notes, it’s hard to imagine a “brokered convention” when there is no such thing as political “brokers” any more. Elected delegates to a convention aren’t going to be swayed by political leaders deciding the nominee in a backroom.

A brokered convention was portrayed in the film The Best Man starring Henry Fonda.

by-election

A “by-election” is an election held to fill a political office that has become vacant between regularly scheduled elections.

It’s also frequently referred to as a special election.

Typically, a by-election occurs when the incumbent has resigned or died, but it may also occur in the case of a recall or as a result of election results being invalidated by voting irregularities.

blue-slipping

If the Senate initiates appropriations legislation, the House practice is to return it to the Senate with a blue piece of paper attached citing a constitutional infringement since all measures are supposed to originate in the House. The practice of returning such bills and amendments to the Senate without action is known as “blue-slipping.”

C-SPAN: “Without House action, Senate-initiated spending legislation cannot make it into law. So in practice, the Senate rarely attempts to initiate such bills anymore, and if it does, the House is diligent about returning them. Regardless of one’s opinion of the correct interpretation of the Constitutional provision, the House refusal to consider such Senate legislation settles the matter in practice.”

bundling

“Bundling” is the practice of rounding up contributions from friends and associates to bypass campaign finance limits.

San Antonio News-Express: “Welcome to the world of bundlers: a semi-secretive though perfectly legal practice in which super-duper fundraisers deliver bundles of campaign contributions to their favorite candidates that they induce, entice or, some would say, strong-arm others to make. Bundling allows candidates of both parties to finesse the federal caps on individual political contributions and allows the bundlers to gain more-than-ordinary access to presidents and presidential hopefuls.”

bunk

“Bunk” is empty or nonsense talk.

In 1820, Rep. Felix Walker from Ashville, North Carolina justified his long-winded and somewhat irrelevant remarks about the Missouri Compromise by arguing that his constituents had elected him “to make a speech for Buncombe.” One member said that his pointless speech “was buncombe” and soon “buncombe” became synonymous with vacuous speech.

As the new meaning of buncombe grew in use, it was eventually shortened to the now familiar word “bunk.”

Bradley effect

Bradley effect

The “Bradley effect” is a polling phenomenon involving high support for non-white and non-female candidates in opinion polls not reflected by election results.

Origins and History

This phenomenon was coined following Tom Bradley’s (D) run for California governor in 1982. Bradley, an African American and the mayor of Los Angeles, was ahead of opponent George Deukmejian (R) entering the final days of the election. On Election Night, Deukmejian defeated Bradley by less than 2% of the vote. Political observers posited that some white voters voiced their support for Bradley in phone polling to avoid appearing politically incorrect or racist.

Additional examples of the Bradley effect followed the namesake’s narrow loss. Chicago mayoral candidate Harold Washington won a more narrow victory over a white opponent than polling indicated. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 Democratic presidential campaign received a smaller vote share from white voters than their expectations from polls. Colin Powell considered a Republican presidential run in 1996 but was advised that the Bradley effect would be prominent in an increasingly white party.

The Bradley effect has weakened over time thanks to polling precision and changing cultural values. U.S. Senate candidate Harold Ford (D) received roughly the same amount of white support in polling as he received on Election Night. Barack Obama (D) flipped the Bradley effect on its head in the 2008 presidential election by winning white voters in previously Republican states like Indiana and North Carolina.

FiveThirtyEight’s study of the 2008 Democratic primary between Obama and Hillary Clinton showed the signs of a reverse Bradley effect. Obama received 3.3% more of the vote across all primaries than was indicated by polling including a higher proportion of the white vote. The publication acknowledged that hidden racial motivates may have existed but did not impact Obama’s chances in the aggregate.

The concept of the Bradley effect has been called different names and expanded in scope since 1982. Virginia gubernatorial candidate Douglas Wilder (D) won narrowly in 1989, leading state observers to call it the Wilder effect. David Dinkins (D) won one term as mayor of New York City and lost to Rudy Giuliani in 1993 with some attribution to a Dinkins effect. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss to Donald Trump has been attributed to something similar to the Bradley effect. Pew Research Center noted that polls may have underestimated Trump’s support and overestimated Clinton’s support due to concerns by respondents about their level of support.

Examples

Vanity Fair (November 3, 2016): “A more significant Bradley effect was visible among certain demographic groups, however. Morning Consult found that voters with a college degree supported Clinton by a 21-point margin in phone interviews, but only by a 7-point margin online.”

The New Republic (October 12, 2008): “But now Lance Tarrance, the pollster for Bradley in that race, has an article up at RCP suggesting that the Bradley Effect was merely a case of bad polling — and that his campaign’s internals had shown a dead heat.”

Politico (October 9, 2008): “There was, in the primary, clearly a ‘reverse Bradley Effect’ among black voters, whose support for Obama was consistently understated in the polling.”

boll weevil Democrat

A Boll weevil Democrat was a conservative southern Democrat in the mid 1900s, largely known for his opposition to civil rights. They used the term because the boll weevil, a southern pest, could not be eliminated by pesticides – politicians therefore thought of them as a symbol of tenacity.

The term fell out of use in the 1980s, and conservative Democrats are now known as Blue Dogs.

body man

A “body man” is an assistant who follows a political figure around the clock, providing logistical assistance for daily tasks ranging from paperwork to meals. This is different than the advance man who typically prepares solely for campaign events.

The term body man typically refers to the closest personal aide to a president or presidential candidate. This assistant stays with the official at all times save for sensitive meetings and personal moments. Body men work with political advisors, administrative staff, and family members to manage the president’s time. The president typically selects a body man from their campaign or previous office to ensure confidentiality.

Political observers have only used this term in public recently with the earliest published reference dating back to 1988. In The Boston Globe, Susan Trausch described the body man as someone who “makes sure the candidate’s tie is straight for the TV debate, keeps his mood up and makes sure he gets his favorite cereal for breakfast.”

Google Trends found a steady increase in searches related to this term since 2004. The trend line has grown from relative interest ratings of 35 in January 2004 to 85 in February 2020. Increased media coverage of presidential inner circles over time has boosted body man into the forefront of political terminology.

Duties for the president’s body man have evolved over time. Reggie Love, a body man for President Barack Obama, said that he was hired without a job description. Blake Gottesman helped President George W. Bush handle his dog, pay for meals during campaign stops, and manage autographs on rope lines. Love played basketball with Obama in addition to handling gifts, documents, and scheduling.

The post-presidential careers of past body men show why the position is so valuable to young politicos. Stephen Bull went from a role as President Richard Nixon’s body man to roles with the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Salvation Army. Tim McBride served as a body man for President George H.W. Bush before moving up the corporate ladder to a vice presidency with United Technologies Corp. Kris Engskov went from President Bill Clinton’s body man to a vice president of operations for Starbucks within a decade of service.

Public familiarity with the body man has been solidified by portrayals in popular TV shows. Characters like Gary Walsh in the HBO political comedy Veep and Charlie Young in the NBC drama The West Wing added dimensions to real-life descriptions of the role.

William Safire: “The informal job title is not be confused with the man with the briefcase, the ever-present carrier of the codes needed by the president to respond to a hostile missile launch. It is more specific and intimate than gofer, a term applied to any aide ready to ”go fer” coffee or do other menial tasks.”

Examples

CNBC (October 27, 2016): “Band had begun his career as Bill Clinton’s ‘body man’ – the young staffer who carried bags, took notes and navigated Clinton through the day.”

Politico (February 9, 2015): “Love was that oddity in politics: the ‘body man’ – part valet, part buddy, part whatever.”

The New York Times (July 19, 2008): “Mr. Engskov says the body man’s job was a study in diplomacy, politics and world affairs rolled into one: ‘It allowed you to see everything the president sees, without the responsibility.’”

blanket primary

A blanket primary is a primary election whereby each voter can select one candidate per office regardless of party. This primary is different from open or closed primaries, which require each ballot to only feature votes for candidates from one party.

In a blanket partisan primary, one candidate from each ballot-qualified party is guaranteed a spot in the general election. The terms blanket primary and jungle primary are often conflated; however, a jungle primary guarantees general election spots to the top two candidates of any party.

Supporters of the blanket primary suggest that it reduces partisanship by allowing voters to avoid party registration. Voters in a blanket primary can stay independent, nonpartisan, or unaffiliated without sacrificing their say in elections. Blanket primaries also allow voters from one party to select candidates from opposing parties as protests or out of concern about candidate qualifications.

Opponents of the blanket primary argue that primaries are selection processes dictated by parties rather than state governments. Parties are also concerned that protest voters warp the selection process, undermining voter options in the general election.

As of February 2020, no states used the blanket primary system. Three states – Alaska, California, and Washington – used this system In the 20th century. Alaska voters approved the blanket primary in 1947. In 1996, Californians approved a switch from a closed primary to a blanket primary through Proposition 198. The Washington State Legislature approved a legislatively-referred initiative authorizing the blanket primary in 1935.

The California Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, and Peace and Freedom Parties sued the state to overturn Proposition 198. In 2000, a 7-2 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the blanket primary was unconstitutional in California Democratic Primary v. Jones. The majority opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia argued that state government should not influence the intraparty selection of candidates.

Alaska abided by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, converting its 2000 primary election into a primary determined by each party. The Alaska Supreme Court previously ruled in 1996 that the blanket primary was constitutional, which was not heard by the highest court in the country. This system was briefly replaced by open primaries from 1960 to 1967 and 1992 to 1996.

The Washington State Democratic Party sued to overturn its state’s blanket primary after the California decision. A federal appeals court ruled in 2003 that the primary system was unconstitutional in compliance with California Democratic Primary v. Jones. California and Washington later moved to top-two jungle primaries for state and federal elections.

Examples

Las Vegas Review-Journal (February 4, 2020): “The proposal, which was submitted to the Nevada secretary of state’s office Friday by state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, would create a blanket primary system for partisan races in which all candidates, regardless of their party affiliation, would appear on the ballot.”

The Brookings Institution (October 10, 2014): “A central argument in favor of the blanket primary system is that it gives third-party candidates more of a chance to make it to Congress.”

The Spokesman-Review (October 22, 2004): “The majority of voters seemed peeved that the old blanket primary had been dumped, but predictions of a low turnout were overblown.”

bandwagon

bandwagon

To be on the “bandwagon” is to follow a group that has a large and growing number of followers.

A bandwagon is literally a wagon which carries the band in a parade. The phrase “jump on the bandwagon” first appeared in American politics in 1848 when Dan Rice, a famous and popular circus clown of the time, used his bandwagon and its music to gain attention for campaign appearances. As campaigns became more successful, more politicians strove for a seat on the bandwagon, hoping to be associated with the success.

The term itself is derived from the era of P.T. Barnum, when it referred to a literal wagon that carried a marching band on it, as part of a larger circus show.

Its first use in a political sense was in 1848 when Dan Rice, described here as “The Clown Who Ran For President,” “invited future-president Zachary Taylor to campaign on his circus wagon, using its music to attract attention for the candidate. Taylor later made Rice an honorary Colonel.”

This raucous method of getting attention became increasingly popular, as more and more politicians began to angle for a seat on the bandwagon, hoping to be associated with its success. By the turn of the 20th century, candidates such as William Jennings Bryan in 1900 were using bandwagons and loud musicians to garner enthusiasm for their campaigns. That’s when the term started being used in a derogatory way, implying that people were associating themselves with the success without considering what they associated themselves with.

Eventually the term lost its literal meaning and took on a more figurative one, and soon the idea of a “bandwagon effect” became a staple of political science.

A 2015 article in Psychology Today described “the bandwagon effect” this way: “Researchers have long identified the impact of social conformity in shaping how people think and act. Along with explaining new trends in fashion or popular fads, this bandwagon effect can also influence how people would be likely to vote on important issues. Many voters often prefer not to make an informed choice before voting and simply choose to mimic the behavior of other voters instead. If a poll predicts that a certain candidate will win by a landslide, could voters actually be persuaded to vote for this candidate themselves?”

The so-called “bandwagon effect” in politics has been a topic of much debate and study over the years, particularly during presidential campaigns, with papers such The Washington Post and New York Times using the term to analyze candidate momentum and how it can impact election results.

Of course, the term applies to more than just politics, and has been used to describe everything from geopolitical relationships to trends on Wall Street to consumer and business behaviors.

The most common use of the term “bandwagon” is arguably in sports, where it’s used to describe people who become fans of a team only when they become successful. NPR described the bandwagon effect on the popularity of the Washington Nationals during their 2019 World Series run: “We’ve all done it. We’ve jumped on the bandwagon because something became popular. Many people in the region are now jumping on the Nationals’ bandwagon as they head to the World Series this week.”

The article went on to quote a fan: “It’s not about sports, it’s about human nature. People like to have something to get excited about and like to connect with people.”

bill

A bill is a proposed law introduced in either the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate.

A bill originating in the House is designated by the letters “H.R.” followed by a number and bills introduced in the Senate as “S.” followed by a number. The sequential numbering of bills for each session of Congress began in the House in 1817 and in the Senate in 1847.

In 1975, Schoolhouse Rock aired an educational segment, “I’m Just a Bill,” introducing children to the concept of how a bill becomes a law.

bleeding heart

A term that describes people whose hearts “bleed” with sympathy for the poor and downtrodden.

It’s frequently used to criticize liberals who favor government spending for social programs. However, former Republican Vice Presidential nominee Jack Kemp was remembered in a Los Angeles Times obituary as a “bleeding heart conservative” for policies he supported to empower poor people.

Blue Dog Democrats

The Blue Dog Democrats are a coalition of moderate House Democrats. The group is dedicated to fiscally conservative legislation and a strong national defense. They present themselves as the “commonsense” alternative to political extremism.

When the blue dog coalition was first formed, in 1995, their main issue was calling for a balanced budget. The group has also worked on legislation to reduce the national debt and to reform the welfare system.

The founding members of the blue dog Democrats complained that they had been “choked blue” by extremist politicians on both sides of the aisle. They took their name from that expression. The group was also inspired by the famous “blue dog” paintings of the Cajun artist George Rodrigue. Blue dog Democrats also say they based their name on “the long-time tradition of referring to a strong Democratic Party supporter as being a “Yellow Dog Democrat,” who would have ‘sooner voted for a yellow dog than a Republican.’”

In 2009, Blue Dog Democrats held 54 seats in Congress, representing 21 percent of Democratic presence in the House. Support for the Blue Dog coalition fell dramatically in 2010, though, as politics became more polarized. Voters preferred to send more strongly partisan representatives to the House, and it became difficult for centrist politicians to hold their seats in Congress. The spread of the Tea Party also hurt Blue Dog Democrats.

In recent years, the coalition has experienced a resurgence, hiring a communications director and planning a nation-wide strategy. Many pundits say that this resurgence is due to the election of Donald Trump, which, they say, has created much greater interest in moderate and centrist Democratic candidates. In 2017, the Blue Dog coalition systematically endorsed candidates running in districts where President Trump won in 2016. They also stepped up their fundraising activities. At the urging of some members, the group stopped accepting donations from the NRA.

As of 2020, roughly two dozen congressional Democrats claimed membership in the Blue Dog coalition. Members of the coalition say that the Blue Dogs have changed since the group was founded over two decades ago. While the Blue Dogs used to be made up of white men, the group now includes women and is racially diverse. And, while Blue Dogs originally came mainly from southern states, the current coalition includes lawmakers from the Midwest, the northeast, and the western states.

At the same time, the Blue Dog coalition faces competition from the New Democrat Coalition, another group of centrist Democrats. The New Democrat Coalition currently has 61 members and holds a third of the Democrats in the House of Representatives.

The Blue Dog Democrats continue to push for fiscally conservative policies. In a response to President Trump’s proposed 2020 budget, the group lamented that the country faces a $1 trillion annual deficit and that, as they put it, “a lack of fiscal discipline is forcing us to pay more on interest incurred on the national debt than we spend on our kids.”

bully pulpit

bully pulpit

A bully pulpit is a public office or position of authority that provides the holder with an opportunity to speak out and be listened to on any matter.  In theory, the expression could refer to any position of authority. In practice, it is usually used to describe the presidency.

The phrase bully pulpit is attributed to President Theodore Roosevelt, who exclaimed the words in response to critics of his leadership style. Roosevelt said, “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit” as he wrote an address to Congress.

Roosevelt often used the adjective “bully” to describe an event or action that was good or entertaining. The noun pulpit refers to a raised stand used for readings during religious ceremonies.

The bully pulpit in Roosevelt’s mind wasn’t about pummeling legislators with presidential authority; rather, he believed the president could encourage the public to push their legislators on behalf of his agenda. Roosevelt, an avid reader and a prolific writer, coined an enduring phrase that would act as a litmus test for future presidents.

The Republican president was a more activist president than fallen successor William McKinley. Roosevelt won a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War. He intervened in a Pennsylvania coal strike and used executive orders to protect natural resources. Roosevelt remained a popular American figure beyond the end of his time as president with his name invoked during the 1916 and 1920 Republican nominating conventions.

Of course, Theodore Roosevelt was not the first president to use his position as a means of lecturing the American people. Abraham Lincoln was using a bully pulpit when he addressed the nation after the Civil War, urging the American people to move forward “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”

Public evaluations of the presidency include how officeholders have used the bully pulpit to promote their values and policies. Dwight Eisenhower was noted for staying clear of the bully pulpit, which contributed to his broad popularity over two terms in office. Jimmy Carter has been celebrated for using the fame of a former president to help domestic and international humanitarian organizations. Donald Trump’s use of Twitter and rallies show modern applications of the bully pulpit concept.

As Robert Schlesinger has noted, the bully pulpit has magnified as communications methods reach deeper into American life. The first presidential radio address was given by Warren Harding but Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt showed how the radio could engage the public. Harry Truman gave the first presidential speech on television but Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy showed the medium’s potential. Trump’s frequent use of social media follows earlier efforts by George W. Bush and Barack Obama to harness the Internet for bully pulpit purposes.

Social media has made it easier than ever for presidents to directly address the American people. Analysts have pointed out that President Donald Trump often uses his Twitter account as a kind of digital bully pulpit. The president took to Twitter to air his views during the impeachment hearings, to the dismay of many pundits. He also uses Twitter to discuss foreign policy and defense spending, among other issues. The president has also used Twitter to announce new policy initiatives and to express his opinions of other public figures.

Examples

Washington Post (July 2, 2017): “With the Republican push to revamp the Affordable Care Act stalled again, even some allies of President Trump question whether he has effectively used the bully pulpit afforded by his office and are increasingly frustrated by distractions of his own making.”

Forbes (January 19, 2017): “Properly exercised, the bully pulpit should reflect the leader’s personality, strengthening a natural and genuine extension of the leader’s communications relationship with followers.”

The Atlantic (April 2013): “The people agreed with Obama that the rich should pay more in taxes, agreed with Reagan that everybody should get a tax cut, and agreed with Franklin Roosevelt on Social Security. These presidents didn’t need to move the needle on these issues; all they had to do was marshal support. But the same three presidents, using the same bully-pulpit tactics, failed to win over the people – and the lawmakers – on other fronts.”

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