gutter flyer

gutter flyer

A “gutter flyer” is a political attack ad, traditionally distributed in paper form. It is also typically anonymous, so that nobody can be held accountable for it or asked to verify the information contained in it.

Gutter flyers are a prime example of mudslinging and negative campaigning. 

In 1963, opponents of President John F Kennedy distributed around 5,000 copies of a flyer to people in Dallas, Texas. (The distribution came just ahead of a presidential visit to Dallas.) The flyer read “Wanted for Treason” and accused JFK of a long list of crimes, including “betraying the Constitution,” being lax on communism, and appointing “anti-Christians” to federal jobs.

Attack ads and gutter flyers are almost as old as the United States itself. In 1828, Andrew Jackson ran for president in what historians have called the first modern American campaign. Jackson’s opponents circulated a flyer decorated with coffins and depicting the former general as a killer responsible for the deaths of his own men, in addition to those of Native Americans and lawbreakers. In response, Jackson’s supporters depicted John Quincy Adams as a political insider who had served as the Czar’s pimp while he was a diplomat in Russia.

Because gutter flyers are usually anonymous, they can be an effective way to spread dirt about a candidate without getting anyone’s hands dirty. Politicians normally distance themselves from political mudslinging, wanting to give the impression that they are above the fray. Gutter flyers are a fixture in American elections at every level, from the city council to the presidency. However, they’re also routinely denounced. Virtually every election cycle includes a good deal of hand-wringing about how politicians are slinging mud at one another at a greater frequency than ever before.

All of this explains why it’s relatively rare for a politician to take responsibility for a gutter flyer. It does sometimes happen, of course. In 2000, Bill Bradley was running for the Democratic presidential nomination against Al Gore. Bradley told CNN that he was angry at the way Gore’s supporters had been behaving; Bradley claimed that they had literally thrown mud at Bob Kerrey, who was campaigning on Bradley’s behalf. Bradley was especially indignant because, he said, he had taken responsibility for his own campaign’s good manners. “When my campaign in New Hampshire put out a flyer that I didn’t like, I took responsibility for it and apologized,” he said. “When this kind of incident occurs, you have to take responsibility for it and apologize.” 

In the United States, libel laws tend to favor the defendant, making it difficult to sue anyone for the content of a political flyer. In many other countries, however, libel laws tend to favor the plaintiff. In Canada, for example, the mayor of Dieppe, New Brunswick was able to sue two of his constituents after he found that they were behind a brochure that criticized him. Mayor Yvon Lapierre sued the two men for defamation and eventually settled; the pamphlet they circulated claimed that he had broken the Municipalities act and that he was mismanaging money and contracts.

guns before butter

guns before butter

“Guns before butter” refers to the debate over how governments should use their revenue: should resources be used to build up the military, or should they be spent on domestic programs?

The concept of “guns before butter” was probably first laid out by William Jennings Bryan, the Progressive politician who ran unsuccessfully for the presidency time and again. Bryan served as Secretary of State in the cabinet of Woodrow Wilson but resigned in protest after Wilson decided to emphasize the production of weapons instead of the production of dairy. (Wilson was responding to the sinking of the Lusitania and the build-up to World War I.)

Decades later, the Nazi party had its own twist on the question of guns and butter. “Guns will make us powerful; butter will only make us fat,” declared Hermann Goring, Hitler’s economics minister. Goring was Hitler’s second economics minister; Hitler had installed him after firing Hjalmar Schacht. Schacht had implemented large-scale public works and had overseen a dramatic improvement in Germany’s economy, but he had run afoul of Hitler because he was critical of the country’s ever-increasing military spending.

The phrase was further popularized by the economist Paul Samuelson, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in economics. Samuelson was the author of a widely-used textbook in which he explained, among other things, that resources are finite and that budgets are a series of decisions about priorities. What you spend on guns, you won’t be able to spend on butter, in other words.

Over the years, “guns before butter” has become a shorthand to express the federal government’s dilemma over how to allocate funds. In 2014, Reuters ran a blog titled “Obama learns LBJ’s tough lesson: You can have guns or butter, not both.” The piece argued that Obama had run into the same problem as President Johnson had, decades earlier: his ambitious social programs had come into conflict with military reality. A few years later, Slate complained that the Trump administration’s budget was “all guns, no butter.” Slate grumbled that the spending far exceeded the actual needs of the military, and that the money would be better spent funding the State Department so that aims could be achieved through diplomacy, rather than through war.

Of course, similar conflicts exist throughout the economy. In 2018, the Economist pointed out that California’s wine growers were being hurt by the legalization of marijuana; as a result, local governments were moving to restrict cannabis production. The magazine wrote,

“Booze and drugs usually belong together like Fred and Ginger. But not, it seems, in California’s wine region. Wine-makers are fretting that recreational marijuana use, which became legal in the state in January, could challenge their dominance of what is delightfully known as people’s “intoxication budgets”. They also complain that they can no longer afford seasonal labour to harvest their grapes because workers have better-paid, year-round jobs on cannabis farms. Sonoma County, one of the state’s main wine-producing regions, recently imposed restrictions on who may grow weed, and where.”

gunboat diplomacy

gunboat diplomacy

The practice of backing up diplomatic efforts with a visible show of military might. A nation using gunboat diplomacy is making use of implicit military threats to achieve its policy objectives. 

A gunboat was a relatively small ship which could navigate through shallow waters; easy to maneuver, the boats were fitted with heavy weapons.

The most obvious examples of gunboat diplomacy come from the 19th and early 20th century. In 1854, Japan and the United States signed the Treaty of Kanagawa, opening up trade between the two nations for the first time in 200 years. The agreement came about after Commodore Matthew Perry led a naval squadron to Tokyo Bay. As the US State Department has put it,

“Perry arrived in Japanese waters with a small squadron of U.S. Navy ships, because he and others believed the only way to convince the Japanese to accept western trade was to display a willingness to use its advanced firepower.”

President Theodore Roosevelt is often credited with expanding America’s use of gunboat diplomacy. Roosevelt famously said that his diplomatic motto was to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” which, he said, meant that the nation had to be ready to back up words with force. Roosevelt built up the US military might and routinely made a practice of showing off the nation’s might as a way to pre-empt potential challenges. 

In order to show off America’s naval power, Roosevelt sent a naval fleet around the world, on a tour which lasted 14 months. The fleet was known as the Great White Fleet (its ships were painted white, instead of the usual gray), and consisted of 16 battleships manned by 14,000 sailors. The fleet set out on December 16, 190y and concluded its journey on February 22, 1909. The Great White Fleet called in Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and Egypt, before continuing on to Italy and Gibralter. (Along the  way, the sailors provided assistance to victims of an earthquake in Sicily.)

In theory, the era of gunboat diplomacy ended with Franklin Roosevelt’s first term. FDR announced his “good neighbor” policy in his first inaugural address, vowing that “in the field of world policy I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor—the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others.”

In reality, of course, the US has never completely abandoned the show of force. In 2011, the New York Times summed up the Obama administration’s activities in Asia:

“the Obama administration has been an active practitioner of gunboat diplomacy, a term that refers to achieving foreign-policy objectives through vivid displays of naval might. Last fall, Mr. Obama sent the aircraft carrier George Washington to the Yellow Sea for joint exercises with South Korea, sending a message to both North Korea and its key backer, China. The move echoed the Clinton administration’s decision in 1996 to send the Seventh Fleet to warn China against attacking Taiwan.”

More recently, the Heritage Foundation noted approvingly that the Trump Administration was using gunboat diplomacy in Iran:

“The U.S. is not the world’s policeman or its babysitter, but it doesn’t want to be blindsided by bad actors who think Washington is so preoccupied elsewhere that they can take advantage of the situation. Thus, the U.S. has to demonstrate it is present and capable of acting where it needs to.

The deployment to the Gulf will be a deterrent to conflict because it shows the world that the U.S. will act wherever necessary to protect its vital interests. Testing the U.S. is the last step any adversary should want to take, Tehran included.”


In politics, gridlock is a situation in which the government is unable to pass new legislation, often because the presidency and the Congress are controlled by different political parties.

As the Brookings Institution has pointed out, gridlock has been around for as long as the United States, if not longer. Alexander Hamilton complained bitterly about the trouble the Continental Congress had in coming to an agreement; the debates between the Federalists and the Republicans were as fierce as any debates today.

The late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia argued that gridlock has gotten a bad rap; in fact, Scalia said, gridlock is just one more necessary part of the founding fathers’ plan. “Gridlock is what our system is designed for,” he told the president of the Newseum. At the same time, Scalia did point out that the Supreme Court operates more smoothly than the rest of the federal government. “We have to act. We can’t just say, ‘We haven’t decided about this case, so go away.’ Sooner or later you gotta vote, so there it is. Congress doesn’t have to do that…That’s the principle reason people don’t accuse us of gridlock. They accuse us of a lot of other stuff.”

Few people seem to share Scalia’s sunny view of gridlock. Journalists and politicians periodically complain that gridlock is making it impossible to solve the most serious problems of our day. In 2017, the Daily Beast went so far as to argue that political gridlock is “killing us, literally.” The blog argued that gridlock and lack of political will were allowing politicians to dodge dealing with issues like gun control and the soaring national debt: “our political system is grinding to a halt and producing more demagoguery than governance. Political gridlock is killing us. Literally.”

Similarly, in 2019, the Brookings Institution issued a report warning that gridlock was likely to destroy the US economy, or at least to put a major dent in it. When parties can’t reach political compromises, the report said, it means hold-ups on issues like tariffs, infrastructure projects, and budget balancing: “Put bluntly, when political discord leads to infrastructure failure, it doesn’t just deepen our distrust of government—it also takes our economy down with it.”

Gridlock, unsurprisingly, increases with the rise of partisanship. As America grows more politically divided, so does the federal government, making it tougher to reach compromises. Business Insider has reported, for example, that the Trump administration has been unable to pass any legislation that requires bipartisan support. Without the support of any Congressional Democrats, the administration relied heavily on executive orders and on other actions that didn’t require Congress.

The American public is apparently deeply pessimistic about the future of gridlock in the country. A Pew Center poll carried out in 2018 (just after the midterm elections) found that a majority of Americans believe that the president and Congress will fail to get legislation passed, because of persistent gridlock. Most of the people surveyed believed that partisanship was likely to either stay at the same level or get worse over the coming years. Ironically, the Pew Center also reported that most Americans were happy with the results of the midterm elections.

Great Society

The Great Society was a sweeping set of proposals for social reform, put forward by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and aimed at improving access to education, good jobs, and healthcare for ordinary Americans.

Johnson had already proposed a “War on Poverty” during his State of the Union address, warning that “many Americans live on the outskirts of hope — some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.”

A few months after declaring war on poverty, Johnson set out his vision for a “great Society” in a 1964 speech in two speeches, at the University of Ohio and the University of Michigan. He argued that the nation needed to establish a level playing field so that all Americans had an equal chance at success. 

In a speech to the graduating class at the University of Michigan, Johnson described the “Great Society” he wanted to see America transform into. The picture he painted was every bit as utopian as John Winthrop’s “city on a hill.” Johnson said:

The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning.

The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talent. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community. It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what it adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.”

As part of the Great Society initiative, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, banning all discrimination based on race and gender in the workplace. The Act also banned segregation in any public facility. Congress also passed the ambitious Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. That law created vocational training and jobs programs aimed at getting more Americans good jobs. The Johnson administration also dedicated funds to improve schools and set up preschool programs, and made it easier for working and middle class Americans to attend college.

Historians continue to debate whether the “Great Society” ever achieved its goal. Johnson’s administration was also bogged down in the Vietnam War, which took funds and attention away from the president’s domestic goals. 

One of the Great Society’s staunchest enemies was Ronald Reagan. In 1966, when Reagan was preparing to run for governor of California, he delivered a speech denouncing the Great Society and warning against “an unprecedented federalization of American life” and a “welfare society.” In 1983, after becoming president, Reagan called the Great Society “the central political error of our time,” warning that the governments believed that “government and bureaucracy” was “the primary vehicle for social change.”

great debates

great debates

The “great debates” were a series of public debates between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas. In 1858 Douglas, an Illinois Democrat, was running for re-election to the US Senate. Lincoln, a Republican, challenged him. The two held a series of seven debates which focused on the issue of slavery.

In the 1850s, Americans were at loggerheads over the idea of slavery and, especially, over the question of whether slavery would be permitted in the newly added territories. The recent Mexican War had added new territories to the country, which had brought the issue to the forefront. Frederick Douglas came down squarely on the side of expanding slavery into the new territories. His Kansas-Nebraska Act, introduced in 1854, had ended the ban on slavery in the northern territories of the United States. Douglas proposed local rule, or “popular sovereignty,” which would allow the settlers in each territory to decide whether they wanted to allow slavery.

Lincoln, for his part, was a newly minted abolitionist who was looking to burnish his anti-slavery credentials. His debates with Douglas were a chance to get nation-wide attention and position himself as a rising star in the Republican party. By all accounts, people at the time realized that the Lincoln-Douglas debates would be watched and remembered for a long time. As Lincoln said, the issues would be discussed long after “these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent.” A newspaper at the time wrote, “The battle of the Union is to be fought in Illinois.”

During the fifth of the seven debates, Douglas defended the institution of slavery by arguing that the founding fathers never intended the Declaration of Independence apply to everyone. In Douglas’ view, the founding fathers were very intentional about setting up two tracks. When they talked about rights, Douglas argued,

“They referred to white men, to men of European birth and European descent, when they declared the equality of all men. I see a gentleman there in the crowd shaking his head. Let me remind him that when Thomas Jefferson wrote that document, he was the owner, and so continued until his death, of a large number of slaves.” Douglas went on to reason that by arguing for equal rights for slaves, the abolitionists were calling out the founding fathers as hypocrites: “It must be borne in mind that when that Declaration was put forth, every one of the thirteen Colonies were slaveholding Colonies, and every man who signed that instrument represented a slave-holding constituency. Recollect, also, that no one of them emancipated his slaves, much less put them on an equality with himself, after he signed the Declaration.”

Lincoln responded by framing slavery as a moral issue, rather than a question of logic. He argued that once slavery was acknowledged as a moral wrong, it would be impossible to look the other way. He went on:

Now, I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil, having due regard for its actual existence amongst us and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way, and to all the Constitutional obligations which have been thrown about it; but, nevertheless, desire a policy that looks to the prevention of it as a wrong, and looks hopefully to the time when as a wrong it may come to an end.

grass will grow in the streets

grass will grow in the streets

“Grass will grow in the streets” is a gloom-and-doom phrase sometimes used by politicians to imply that the country will go to economic ruin if they don’t win election, or if their own plan doesn’t prevail.

The phrase is sometimes credited to Herbert Hoover. However, the populist William Jennings Bryan used the expression decades before Hoover. In his famous “cross of gold” speech, delivered at the 1896 Democratic convention, Bryan argued that America’s farms were more crucial to the country’s economy than the coastal cities were. He also warned that if America didn’t switch to a silver standard (making it easier for poor farmers to repay their debts), the country’s farms would be destroyed, leaving the whole country economically crippled. Bryan thundered,

“You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms, and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.“

In 1932, Herbert Hoover was facing the Great Depression and a tough reelection challenge from Franklin Roosevelt. Hoover echoed Bryan’s words, warning that the country would be destroyed if his policies weren’t followed. (Ironically, Hoover was a staunch defender of the gold standard.) With the election coming up, Hoover took to the radio and declared that if Roosevelt were elected, then

“the grass will grow in the streets of a hundred cities, a thousand towns; the weeds will overrun the fields of a thousand farms….” 

Since then, politicians have used variations on the phrase to predict doom and gloom if they didn’t get their way. In 1992, an op-ed in the Washington Post compared then-incumbent President George HW Bush to Herbert Hoover. Like Hoover, Bush was facing a tough challenge from a challenger amid a troubled economy. And, the Post argued, Bush was similarly lashing out at his opponent by warning that the country would be ruined if people voted for Clinton. Bush talked about “Main Street” suffering in much the same way as Hoover talked about grass growing in the streets.

“President Hoover didn’t know how to cope with the Depression so he attacked his opponent. “Grass would grow in the streets of 100 cities,” he said, if New York Gov. Roosevelt were elected. The other day President Bush was predicting “misery on Main Street” if Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton were elected. The GOP then trotted out ex-President Reagan doing the same for Bush.”

In 2008, Barack Obama used similar language to contrast the needs of ordinary, rural Americans with the demands of coastal elites. Like William Jennings Bryan, Obama warned that what hurts rural America (“Main Street”) will ultimately also hurt the big cities (“Wall Street”):

Too often, over the last quarter century, we have lost this sense of shared prosperity. And this has not happened by accident. It’s because of decisions made in boardrooms, on trading floors and in Washington. We failed to guard against practices that all too often rewarded financial manipulation instead of productivity and sound business practices. We let the special interests put their thumbs on the economic scales. The result has been a distorted market that creates bubbles instead of steady, sustainable growth; a market that favors Wall Street over Main Street, but ends up hurting both.



The grassroots are the ordinary people in a region, or in a political party. The “grassroots” level is the opposite of the leadership level. In politics, having grassroots support means having the backing of the people, rather than of party bigwigs. 

A grassroots movement, or campaign, is one which organizes people at the most local level to take political action. This could mean advocating for a cause, protesting a policy, or rallying around a particular candidate. Often, a grassroots effort mobilizes people to turn out and vote. Grassroots actions can also include contacting members of Congress or signing petitions for change.

Grassroots organizing usually bypasses traditional channels like television and radio. Instead, organizers rely on face to face meetings, telephone, and especially on social media and other internet-based outreach efforts to mobilize people.

Barack Obama may have had the first modern grassroots presidential campaign. Of course, he was far from the first president to seek out the support for “ordinary Americans,” but Obama’s New Media team was innovative in their approach. One former Obama organizer described the energy of the first campaign:

Back then, we called ourselves the New Media team—and valued our artists, filmmakers, writers and online community builders as highly as our Google-trained data analysts. Our team culture was disciplined and yet explosively creative. Densely packed into our cubicles, we finished each other’s sentences and fed off the energy of our supporters as they built a movement that was going to bring change to Washington… We drove across the country, spending hours and sometimes days interviewing people about their lives. We often stayed in “supporter housing” instead of hotels—talking late into the night with our hosts in kitchens from Oregon to Mississippi to New Hampshire.

Years later, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders ran a series of grassroots campaigns for the presidency. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was also generally seen as a grassroots candidate.

What do you call a grassroots campaign which is not, in fact, driven by the grass roots? Pundits have a name for it – astroturf. Sometimes, a political movement masquerades as a community-based initiative when in fact, the movement is directed by a small group of people in power. The term astroturfing may have first been used in 1985, when then-Senator Lloyd Bentsen complained that he was getting piles of letters from constituents who seemed to have been mobilized by the insurance lobby.  In the internet age, of course, it’s easier than ever to create the illusion of broad-based support for a cause, so astroturfing is easier than ever.

grand design

grand design

A “grand design” refers to any kind of deliberate plan of action. In politics, the term is usually used to mean an overarching strategy or a long-term plan.

A grand design implies long-term thinking.

The opposite of a grand design, of course, is a series of disconnected responses to events. That approach – the “muddling through” approach – is not a favorite with political scientists.

“Grand design” can also have religious connotations. The term can refer to the “grand design” supposed to originate with God. A book by the Mormon author E. Douglas Clark, for example, is titled “The Grand Design: America from Columbus to Zion.” Clark argues such people as Christopher Columbus and the Founding Fathers were all led by the hand of God to carry out a key mission towards fulfilling America’s destiny.

In the past, Americans talked about “grand design” more often than they do today. The concept of “manifest destiny,” or the belief that Americans were intended to spread out across the continent of North America, can be described as a particularly fervent example of grand design.

Secular historians also like to talk about the founding fathers and grand design. In the secular sense, grand design means a plan which originated with the founding fathers themselves, rather than a plan handed down from on high. Usually, historians describe the writing of the Constitution and the formation of the US government as an example of grand design. 

Still, historians and think tanks have a tendency to see a grand design in whatever aspect of the government they approve of. Features which they disapprove of aren’t usually described in this way.

The libertarian Hoover Institution, for example, issued a paper titled “Federalism: the Grand Design.” The paper enthuses over state rights and the federalist system at large:

Federalism was part of the constitutional tapestry designed by our Constitution’s framers to create an effective national government while protecting liberty. First, they invested the national government with limited and specifically prescribed powers, only those powers essential for effective governance. They also established specific constraints on government power and recognized specific rights in the Bill of Rights.

Sometimes, the founding fathers had conflicting grand designs. The Federalists clashed with the Republicans over the reach of the national government and the economy. If the Federalists had one grand design, the Republicans had their own, competing grand design.

Jeffrey Estano delved into this in an essay titled Friendship and Conflict: The Relationship of the U.S. Founding Fathers:

Economic differences between Federalists and Republicans were a primary source of conflict. The most drastic point of contention centered on Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s plan for a national economy, and the opposition he faced from the Republicans.  Hamilton’s grand design called for the assumption of state debts by the national government, the formation of a national bank, and the establishment of national credit. A true genius (and a favorite of President George Washington), Secretary Hamilton stood in position to permanently elevate the federal government’s power over that of the state governments.”

Go fight City Hall

“Go fight City Hall” is a phrase expressing the futility of trying to battle government bureaucracy. The phrase sounds like a call to action but in fact, it is the opposite. An equivalent would be “you can’t fight City Hall.” 

In the past, “go fight City Hall” may have had a more optimistic ring, judging by at least one old newspaper article. In 1928, a short item appeared in the Brooklyn Citizen announcing an upcoming tax cut which, the newspaper said, was a direct result of fighting City Hall: 

“The “Go Fight City Hall” spirit may mean a savings of $8,000,000 to the taxpayers of Queens. With the Board of Assessors in executive session concerning its recommendations for a decrease in the assessment levied on Queens property owners for the construction of the $16,300,000 Jamaica “sewer scandal,” the only question seems to involve the amount of the relief.”

Countless books, movies, and television shows have dealt with the question of whether it’s possible to “go fight City Hall.” The phrase itself may have been popularized by a 1945 book, “Go Fight City Hall” by Ethel Rosenberg. (Note that the author is not the convicted spy of the same name.)

The 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is probably one of the best-known takes on the issue of fighting city hall. Of course, in that case, Mr. Smith is not literally fighting “city hall” but is taking on entrenched interests in Congress. Still the idea — an ordinary citizen trying to prevail against the establishment — is the same. 

It’s also worth noting that the “fight against City Hall” isn’t always portrayed as a noble one. A 1962 episode of the old TV show “Naked City” was titled “Go Fight City Hall.” That episode wasn’t about a heroic struggle against a faceless bureaucracy; rather, it’s about a couple of thieves who try to make fools out of good detectives.

Most of the time, though, the fight against City Hall is seen as a sort of David and Goliath struggle, with the heroes being either the ordinary citizen, or perhaps a stalwart activist. In New York City, for example, Jane Jacobs’ struggles against Robert Moses’ developments is often remembered as a heroic win against “City Hall.”

Among journalists, taking on City Hall is usually a badge of honor. In 1976 the National Freedom of Information Coalition, an organization dedicated to increasing transparency at all levels of government, published a study titled “Go Fight City Hall: Informal Methods of Combatting Secrecy in Local Government.” The study noted that fighting the government can be ruinously expensive and risky:

…court action is not an easy decision for an editor. Only the wealthier papers can sue without weeping at the cost, and cost is just one problem. A lawsuit can turn a difference of opinion between a newspaper and a public official into overt hostility, making a rational solution difficult. And the news media must pick suits with care. If they don’t win, they can be in worse trouble than before. Further, the law is slow. No suit can get a public meeting open in time for the last deadline.

Give ’em hell Harry

“Give ’em hell Harry” is a reference to President Harry Truman’s 1948 re-election campaign. It’s also the name of a very successful play and movie.

In 1948, President Harry Truman was running for re-election. During a campaign stop in Bremerton, Washington, Truman delivered a rousing speech attacking the Republicans. One of Truman’s supporters called out, “give ‘em hell Harry!” Truman replied, “I don’t give them hell. I just tell the truth about them, and they think it’s hell.”

The 1948 campaign was hard-fought – in fact, it was such a close contest that, at the last minute, some newspapers called the outcome the wrong way. A famous photo shows Truman, smiling triumphantly and holding up a two-day old copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune; the headline read, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Truman, of course, had defeated Dewey.

On the campaign trail, Truman faced massive dissent in his own party, with a group of Southern Democrats breaking away to form the Dixiecrat party. On the left, Henry Wallace and his new Progressive Party also threatened to siphon off votes from Truman. 

Faced with all this, Truman decided to embark on a cross-country tour, aboard a train which he named the “Truman Special.” The whole tone of the trip was set as the train pulled out of the station in Washington. Senator Alben Barkley, of Kentucky, was on hand to see Truman off; Barkley called out to Truman, “Goodbye, good luck, and mow ‘em down.” Truman replied, “We’ll mow ‘em down Albers, and we’re going to give ‘em hell.” 

“Give ‘em hell Harry” is also the title of a play by Samuel Gallu, which tells the story of Truman’s life and presidency. The play, a one-man show originally starring James Whitmore, opened in 1975 at Ford’s Theater, in Washington DC. Truman’s daughter Margaret attended the opening, and so did then-president Gerald Ford. Years later, in 2017, Truman’s grandson, Clifton Truman Daniel, took over the role of the former president. The play has also been 

Decades later, Roger Stone used the phrase “give ‘em hell” to shower Donald Trump with praise. According to Stone, there were some very clear parallels between Trump’s 2016 campaign and the campaign that Truman fought in 1948:

Borrowing a chapter from the “Give ’Em Hell Harry” book, Trump took on a work schedule that would kill younger men. He dazzled at five and six stops a day. He slept four hour a night. Truman used a train; Trump used “Hair Force One” — his private plane. I have never seen a better closer.

…Like Hillary Clinton, Dewey was stilted in public — detached, and not natural mingling with people. Truman and Trump thrived on the energy of their crowds as they hit each stop. Truman drove the engineers to break all speed laws to maximize time for speeches at each stop. Trump did the same to his pilots as he hopscotched through Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in a frenzy of action. Both pulled massive crowds.

gag rule

gag rule

A gag rule prevents members of a legislative body from raising a particular issue, usually because that issue is considered too controversial or divisive.

In the United States, the most famous example of a gag rule involved slavery. Members of the House of Representatives were barred from putting forward any petition that discussed slavery during the period from 1836 to 1844. The gag rule was imposed by a series of congressional resolutions; the first of those was agreed on in 1836. The last of those resolutions was finally repealed in 1844, as a concerted action taken by John Quincy Adams and a group of his supporters in the House.

The gag order was a clear response to the abolitionist movement, which was increasing in strength. In 1834, an organization called the American Anti-Slavery Society urged its members to sign petitions and send them to Congress; over the course of the next few years, this initiative grew exponentially. In the year after the first gag order, abolitionists sent at least 130,000 petitions to Congress. Pro-slavery members of Congress stepped up their defense of slavery as more and more petitions circulated in Congress.

The initiative behind the gag rule came from Southern politicians. Representative James Hammond, of South Carolina, proposed the first gag rule in December of 1835. James Polk, of Tennessee – the man who later became the 11th president of the United States – was Speaker of the House at that time. He referred the matter to a committee chaired by Henry Pinckney, of South Carolina. Pinckney’s committee decided that any mention at all of slavery should be blocked from the House floor. This meant that no petitions, resolutions, or memorials which discussed slavery were to be discussed.

John Quincy Adams immediately voiced his objections. During the roll call vote, Adams shouted, “I hold this resolution to be a direct violation of the Constitution of the United States.”

Nevertheless, the gag rule stayed in place until December 3, 1844, when Adams pulled together enough support to repeal it.

Meanwhile in the Senate, John Calhoun’s proposal to impose a gag order was voted down. In 1836, Calhoun – a senator from South Carolina – was a vocal opponent of the abolitionist movement. He argued that Congress had no place regulating slavery and the status quo should be preserved. “The relation which now exists between the two races,” he said, “has existed for two centuries. It has grown with our growth and strengthened with our strength. It has entered into and modified all our institutions, civil and political. We will not, cannot permit it to be destroyed.”

In 1836, Calhoun proposed a gag order but was voted down. It’s worth noting that historians don’t believe that most Senators had noble motives for voting against the gag order. They weren’t ardent defenders of the people’s right to petition the government for redress of grievances. Rather, they were concerned that a gag order would elevate the abolitionist cause. They also felt confident that they could just bury abolitionist petitions in committee for long enough to keep them from stirring up any trouble.



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 grifter is a con artist, someone who obtains money by swindling or tricking others. In politics, the word refers to people who use the political process as a way to enrich themselves.

Merriam Webster notes that the word first appeared in print in 1915, in George Bronson-Howard’s novel, God’s Man. At that time, a grifter referred to any kind of criminal who used his wits, rather than brute force, to carry out crimes. Pickpockets, con artists, and card-sharps could all be classed as grifters.

In recent years, pundits have begun talking about “political grifters,” which is quite similar to what was once called “honest graft” in the Tammany Hall era.

In 2014 former Rep. Steve LaTourette, of Ohio, wrote a piece in Politico describing what he called the rise of the political grifter. LaTourette was describing people who get into politics, and stay in politics, because they want to line their own pockets. He singled out the Republican party for censure, warning that the party was being divided into two wings – the governing wing, and the grifting ring.

LaTourette claimed that right-wing groups like the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Tea Party Patriots were “run by men and women who have made millions by playing on the fears and anger about the dysfunction in Washington.” In LaTourette’s view, modern-day grifters don’t care about ideals, or even about political power. They have no interest in governing or passing laws. They’re only in it for the money that they can collect in the form of political donations.

A 2014 investigation by Politico looked at 33 political action committees, or PACs, that courted donations from Tea Party voters. Politico discovered that the groups “raised $43 million — 74 percent of which came from small donors.” But almost none of the money raised can be accounted for, Politico found: “The PACs spent only $3 million on ads and contributions to boost the long-shot candidates often touted in the appeals, compared to $39.5 million on operating expenses, including $6 million to firms owned or managed by the operatives who run the PACs.”

In late 2018, the New York Times noted that both President Trump and his administration were “constantly” being accused of grifting. Earlier that year, Forbes said that Wilbur Ross, the US secretary of commerce, “could rank among the biggest grifters in American history.” One-time EPA head Scott Pruitt was repeatedly accused of being a grifter because of his close ties to the oil and gas industries. Michael Cohen, the president’s one-time personal lawyer, was widely seen as a grifter himself; later, Cohen testified against Trump and described his former boss as a “conman” and a “cheat.”

Of course, Democrats have also been accused of grifting. Bill and Hillary Clinton have both been accused of grifting, in part because of allegations that they did favors for wealthy donors to the Clinton Foundation. The New York Post ran an op-ed calling Hillary Clinton a “world class grifter who sold access to the Lincoln Bedroom and to her State Department office. The Wall Street Journal has also repeatedly accused both Bill and Hillary Clinton of “grifting.”

goo goo

“Goo goo is short for “good government guys,” referring to people who would fight for government reform.

This was used during the 1970s as a derisive term for those who were fighting to clean up city municipalities.

James Merriner writes that the phrase was “attributed to Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York Sun in the late nineteenth century. Goo goo might have originally been applied to members of the Good Government Association of Boston, energized by Harvard reformers in suburban Cambridge.”

The Great Mentioner

“The Great Mentioner” describes the phenomenon whereby certain people are “mentioned” to journalists as possible candidates for higher office.

Scott Simon of National Public Radio explained: “The late Art Buchwald used to talk about the Great Mentioner — some unnamed person who told pundits and reporters a lot of people say this, a lot of people say that. Art said that if you trace back exactly who said this and that, it was usually just the reporters and analysts themselves that tried to splash a coat of credibility over sheer speculation by putting it in the mouth of the Great Mentioner.”

Ryan Lizza attributes the term to New York Times columnist Russell Baker who used it “to describe the mysterious source who plucks politicians from obscurity and mentions them to political journalists as contenders for higher office.”


GOTV is an acronym for “get out the vote.”

The process by which a political party or campaign urges its supporters to vote in the immediately approaching election.

Godwin’s Law

Godwin’s Law is a term first promulgated in 1990 by author and lawyer Mike Godwin. Originally intended as a lesson in information “memetics,” or how the evolution of information spreads and evolves on the Internet, the term is used to describe the phenomenon that the longer an online discussion about politics lingers, the more likely it is that someone will make a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis.

Specifically, the law reads: “As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches 1.”

As online chatting, comment boards, and fervent political discussion increased during the 1990s and into the 2000s, Godwin’s Law has become more and more relevant.

Godwin from a 1994 Wired Magazine article: “In discussions about guns and the Second Amendment, for example, gun-control advocates are periodically reminded that Hitler banned personal weapons. And birth-control debates are frequently marked by pro-lifers’ insistence that abortionists are engaging in mass murder, worse than that of Nazi death camps. And in any newsgroup in which censorship is discussed, someone inevitably raises the specter of Nazi book-burning.”

Years later, Godwin elaborated further on his own law: “It’s deliberately pseudo-scientific — meant to evoke the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the inevitable decay of physical systems over time. My goal was to hint that those who escalate a debate into Adolf Hitler or Nazi comparisons may be thinking lazily, not adding clarity or wisdom, and contributing to the decay of an argument over time.”

While Godwin’s law is very well known, it’s not often the subject of mainstream conversation or reported on the news because of the obvious sensitivity of its subject matter.Indeed, in 2017, when Godwin and his law were more openly discussed in the aftermath of the White Supremacist march on Charlottesville and the controversy that followed, Godwin, who rarely speaks out, was vocal: “One of the reasons that people have ever paid attention to Godwin’s Law at all is that I have been very careful to avoid policing how people invoke it, or use it, or apply it, or misapply it, except in fairly rare circumstances. But this was a no-brainer.”

In a Time Magazine article that same year, Godwin was quick to point out that all presidents have been accused of being like Hitler, proving his law true: “As far as I know, every President who has been President from the time I got on the internet has been compared by someone to Hitler. People compared President Obama to Hitler. People have forgotten there were pictures of Obama with a Hitler moustache. That talk was crazy.”

In 2013, Godwin’s Law made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary.

In 2019, the U.K’s Telegraph put Godwin’s Law into its all-time list of top 10 Internet rules and laws.

gotcha question

A “gotcha question” is one posed by a reporter in an effort to trick a politician into looking stupid or saying something damaging.

New York magazine: “When it does happen, they are often quick to blame their boneheaded remarks not on themselves, but on the inherently deceitful nature of the gotcha question itself. ‘If only this question had been posed differently, I would have provided the most accurate, comprehensive, and socially acceptable response man has ever known,’ they seem to contend. It’s a time-honored damage-control strategy employed by Sarah Palin more often than probably anyone else — not only in her own defense, but also in the defense of other Republicans.”

gypsy moth Republican

A “gypsy moth Republican” is a pejorative term used by conservative Republicans to describe a moderate members of their party who represent a Northeastern or Midwestern urban part of the United States — an area that is also the habitat for the invasive Gypsy moth, which damages trees.

The implication is that the gypsy moth Republicans damage the Republican Party by occasionally siding with Democrats.

A gypsy moth Republican is related to a RINO.


“Gobbledygook” is a term coined by Rep. Maury Maverick (D-TX) for obscure and euphemistic bureaucratic language.

World Wide Words: “He used the word in the New York Times Magazine on May 21, 1944, while he was chairman of the US Smaller War Plants Committee in Congress, as part of a complaint against the obscure language used by his colleagues. His inspiration, he said, was the turkey, ‘always gobbledy gobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity’. The word met a clear need and quickly became part of the language. It is sometimes abbreviated slightly to gobbledygoo.”


The term “goo-goos” refers to good government groups that support political reform.

The term was first used by detractors of political reformers in the late 19th century when urban municipal governments were controlled by political machines. It’s still used today as a slightly derisive label for modern day reformers.


A “gaffe” is an unintentional comment that causes a politician embarrassment.

The term often refers to a politician inadvertently saying something publicly that they privately believe is true, but would ordinarily not say because it is politically damaging.

Michael Kinsley: “It used to be, there was truth and there was falsehood. Now there is spin and there are gaffes. Spin is often thought to be synonymous with falsehood or lying, but more accurately it is indifference to the truth. A politician engaged in spin is saying what he or she wishes were true, and sometimes, by coincidence, it is. Meanwhile, a gaffe, it has been said, is when a politician tells the truth — or more precisely, when he or she accidentally reveals something truthful about what is going on in his or her head. A gaffe is what happens when the spin breaks down.”

New York Observer: “In a world of YouTube, where everyone’s a video camera, publicized moments of misstatement and accusation presumably will only increase. But why do some public people in these cross hairs self-immolate while others endure and prevail? Maybe it’s because they ignore a few simple rules.”


Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden shakes hands as he arrives for a town hall meeting, Tuesday, June 11, 2019, in Ottumwa, Iowa. (AP Photo/Matthew Putney)

A glad hander is a highly extroverted person, who makes a point of acting friendly in an over-the-top way. In politics, especially, the term glad-hander connotes insincerity and opportunism.

Glad-handers are also referred to as back slappers. To “glad-hand” is also a verb.

Merriam Webster claims that the first known use of “glad-hand” was back in 1903. The phrase grew out of the older expression to “give the glad hand,” which meant to extend a warm welcome to a friend. The phrase has often been used in a cynical sense.

Some political scientists have argued that in fact, most politicians in modern history have been morose and depressive. The cheery, glad-handing exterior is nothing more than a façade, aimed to hide the sadness within. If anything, some analysts say, glad-handing could be one of the ways that narcissistic politicians seek an emotional boost in the form of public affirmation.

In 2020, the reality of COVID-19 and social distancing meant that politicians had to stop glad handing. In some cases, this turned out to be a challenge. In March 2020, Fox News noted that President Trump had glad-handed a whole rope line of his supporters, as they waited to see him speak at an event in Florida.

This wasn’t just a one-time event. The Times of Israel noted that, at least as of March, Trump was continuing to hold meetings with other heads of state:

President Donald Trump is flouting his own government’s advice on how to stay safe. He continues to shake hands with supporters and visitors, hold large events and minimize the threat posed by a coronavirus outbreak that has infected more than 115,000 people and killed over 4,000 worldwide.

The Times of Israel reported that the vice president, Mike Pence, had defended Trump for shaking hands and vowed that the glad-handing would go on.

“In our line of work, you shake hands when someone wants to shake your hand,” Pence said. “And I expect the president will continue to do that. I’ll continue to do it.”

The Washington Post reported that the Democratic presidential hopeful, Joe Biden, was also struggling to adapt to the new norms of social distancing:

Joe Biden is a personal kind of politician. He’s a glad-hander, a back-slapper, a shoulder-squeezer and a hair-nuzzler — sometimes to a fault. Yet with the presidential campaign essentially in suspended animation and all of us practicing social distancing (or at least we should all be), Biden can’t interact with voters the way he’d like. So what should he do?

The Post recommended that Biden should take a break from glad-handing and turn to making video announcements from his home – an appropriate measure in the age of social distancing. The Post suggested that Biden should set out his platform in a series of friendly, accessible video announcement.



In politics, if you want to follow legislation that’s introduced both on the local and national levels, it’s important to understand the meaning of the term “germane.”

“Germane” is typically defined as “in close relationship, appropriate, relative or pertinent to.” In the case of legislation, it commonly refers to whether or not an amendment or rider to a bill needs to be relevant to the original bill or not, and there are a wide range of rules that govern this in federal and state jurisdictions.

The importance of understanding the term is described in Congressional Quarterly: “Why Understanding the Term ‘Germane’ Can Save You From Heartaches and Headaches.”

The article points out that “only 40 state constitutions require a bill to be ‘germane’ – that is, require a bill to address or contain only a single subject.” The lack of uniform rules about “germaneness” in state government means that life can get difficult for people in various industries who spend their time tracking legislation.

The article goes on: “if you’re tracking state legislation about real estate licensing, you can ignore bills about traffic safety, right?” Then, providing its own answer, “You could if lawmakers were always rationale and lawmaking were a rationale process. But that’s not our reality.”

In the U.S. Senate, the rules about germaneness can be described as follows, as taken from the Senate’s own PDF on the subject: “The Senate requires only that amendments be germane when they are offered (1) to general appropriations bills and budget measures, (2) under cloture, or (3) under certain unanimous consent agreements and certain statutes. Otherwise, Senators can offer amendments on any subject to any bill.”

Broadly speaking, the purpose of the germane rule is to prevent legislators from putting irrelevant or immaterial legislation into unrelated bills as an underhanded way of getting legislation passed.The rules in the U.S. House, as described here, are a bit different: “Clause 7 of rule XVI, called the “germaneness rule,” stands for the simple proposition that an amendment must address the same subject as the matter being amended. The germaneness rule was adopted by the House in 1789 and has remained the same since it was last changed in 1822. The purpose of the rule is to provide for the orderly consideration of amendments to bills and resolutions by requiring a relationship between the amendment and the matter being amended. The existence of this rule is one of the key procedural differences between the House and Senate.”

The word “germane” is also applicable not only to legislation, but to debate as well, with something called the “Pastore Rule,” which requires Senate floor debate to be germane during specific periods of a Senate workday.

In 2003, Roll Call described a violation of this rule: “As Byrd continued Friday to pound away at Bush on many fronts during consideration of the omnibus spending bill, McCain interrupted. McCain asserted that Byrd’s attack on the administration’s policy on North Korea was violating the ‘Pastore Rule,’ which stipulates that debate has to be germane to the matter at hand during the first three hours of debate on a bill.”


Redistricting by the party in power to insure maximum votes for their candidates or make it more difficult for an opposition party to defend their seats.

The Library of Congress notes the term originated in 1811, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed a bill that created a new district resembling a salamander, provoking the Boston Gazette editor to say, “Salamander? Call it a Gerrymander!”