machine politics

machine politics

“Machines politics” is a phenomenon in urban politics, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Political machines are characterized by tight organization and a strong centralized leadership, typically in the form of a “boss.” They operate by dominating the political landscape. The “machine” gets its name from its ability to reliably, even mechanically, turn out the votes needed to get its members elected and its measures passed.

One of the most famous examples of political machines was Tammany Hall, which operated in New York City from 1789 until some time in the 1950s. Tammany Hall opened its doors as a benevolent institution, and in theory the group was concerned with helping out immigrants and the needy; in fact, it acted as a vote-collecting arm of the local Democratic party, playing on ethnic divisions in the city to help get out the vote for the right candidates. 

Like other political machines, Tammany Hall was rife with corruption. It is known for leaders like William Plunkitt, who famously held forth about the difference between honest and dishonest graft (Plunkitt was all for honest graft). Tammany Hall’s best-known leader was probably William Magear Tweed, usually referred to as Boss Tweed. 

Tweed, born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, began his political career as an alderman and quickly worked his way up. He served a term in Congress but was more interested in local, New York politics. By 1860, he had established control over the nomination process for every significant elected office in the city, and commanded the loyalty of Democratic leaders. Tweed used his connections to exact payments from businesses and ordinary citizens; he had countless schemes involving faked leases, padded bills, and trumped-up fees.

Tweed’s corruption was both notorious, and fairly standard; machine politics and corruption often go hand in hand. At the same time, Tammany Hall did act as a safety net for many New Yorkers, providing social services that the government wasn’t equipped for. Tammany Hall’s leaders sent baskets of food to the poor; they also helped out any of their supporters who ran into legal troubles. Tammany Hall also helped get white men who did not own property the right to vote. The result was a loyal base of voters who could be relied on to support any of Tammany Hall’s favored politicians.

In a book titled “Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics,” the historian Terry Golway takes a more positive view of Tammany Hall than is usually seen. Golway argued that Tammany Hall’s critics were often motivated by anti-Irish sentiment. He also argued that Tammany Hall did a lot of good, smoothing the way for the city’s poor and especially for newly arrived immigrants.

Golway told NPR:

Every history of Tammany Hall is told as a true-crime novel, and what I’m trying to suggest is that there’s this other side. I’m arguing, yes, the benefits that Tammany Hall brought to New York and to the United States [do] outweigh the corruption with which it is associated. I’m simply trying to complicate that story… Tammany Hall was there for the poor immigrant who was otherwise friendless in New York.

madman theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mission Accomplished moment

mission accomplished moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

movers and shakers

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

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

muckety muck

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

The term is interchangeable with mucky-muck or muckamuck.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning in America

morning in america

“Morning in America” is a phrase from a 1984 TV ad for President Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign to evoke a renewed American economic and social landscape.

The Reagan campaign sought to build on perceptions of economic progress during the 1984 presidential campaign. In 1980, Reagan won the presidency by highlighting high unemployment, inflation, and international unrest in four years of President Jimmy Carter. His re-election campaign used TV ads to show progress under Reagan and contrast perceived lack of preparedness by the campaign of Democratic nominee Walter Mondale.

Hal Riney of Ogilvy & Mater was tasked in June 1984 with writing positive ads for the Reagan/Bush ticket. Riney wrote the ad that would be referred to as “Morning in America” but was properly titled “Prouder, Stronger, Better.” The 60-second ad shows imagery from an average American community starting their day culminating in a wedding. Riney’s narration included the following text:

It’s morning again in America. Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country’s history. With interest rates at about half the record highs of 1980, nearly two thousand families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years. This afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future. It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?

Riney followed “Morning in America” with the similarly toned “America’s Back.” A 30-second ad titled “Bear” struck a different tone, comparing a wild grizzly bear to international foes and imploring voters to opt for the more prepared candidate.

These ads helped cast Reagan in a positive light following the 1982 recession and midterm Democratic gains in the House. The Harris Survey gave Reagan a five-point lead over Mondale in June 1983, though 48% of respondents say Reagan shouldn’t run again in 1984.

Campaign ads like “Morning in America” countered these numbers, making voters remember the Reagan who won 489 electoral votes in 1980. On November 6, 1984, Reagan nearly swept the Electoral College by winning every state except Minnesota. Reagan also received 58.8% of the popular vote, which has not been equaled by any presidential campaign in subsequent elections.


Business Insider (July 28, 2016): “‘He wants to divide us – from the rest of the world and from each other,’ Clinton said. “He’s betting that the perils of today’s world will blind us to its unlimited promise. He’s taken the Republican Party a long way, from ‘Morning in America’ to ‘Midnight in America.’”

The New York Times (May 8, 2016): “What’s missing from ‘Morning in America’ is Mr. Reagan. His face appears in the commercial for only two or three seconds, at the end – a still color photo on a campaign button, next to an American flag.”


“Misunderestimate” is a malapropism invented by President George W. Bush that has come to mean “to underestimate by mistake.”

Bush accidentally used the term in a 2000 interview, saying, “They misunderestimated me.” He likely meant to say “underestimated” but the term became linked with Bush, often as evidence for his lack of intelligence.

missile gap

“Missile gap” is a Cold War-era phrase that was used to describe the difference in number and power of missiles between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

The term was first used by Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1958 to accuse then-President Eisenhower of being weak on defense. The idea of a missile gap was debunked, but the perception of one persisted. The missile gap actually favored the U.S., but false claims of Soviet superiority led to a surge in military expansion.


“McConnelling” is the practice of setting music to awkward, B-roll footage of a politician.

The term was coined after Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) re-election campaign in 2014 posted a two-and-a-half minute video of the senator campaigning set simply to music. As Time points out, the footage “was most likely placed there for outside PACs supportive of McConnell to use, a practice circumventing campaign finance rules barring coordination used by both Republicans and Democrats.”

The Daily Show coined the term “McConnelling” and provided a few hilarious examples, putting the footage of McConnell to Salt-n-Pepa’s “Whatta Man,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” and Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”

Said host Jon Stewart: “Here’s the secret. It works with every song that has the word ‘eyes’ in it.”

Mae West hold

A Mae West hold type of Senate hold nicknamed because of the senator’s implied desire to make a deal, rather than block a legislative action entirely.

The reference to movie star Mae West alludes to her frequently misquoted line from the 1933 film She Done Him Wrong, “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?”  The senator implies that those who wish to clear the hold are welcome to visit his office and negotiate.

money blurt

A money blurt is the strategy of using a politician’s controversial statements to attract a large number of campaign donors.

Washington Post: “Here’s how it works: An up-and-coming politician blurts out something incendiary, provocative or otherwise controversial. The remark bounces around the blogs and talk shows and becomes a sensation. And in the midst of it all, the politician’s fundraisers are manning the phones and raking in the donations.”

“The phenomenon marks another phase in the quest for money in politics, fueled by the eternal hum of the Internet, social media and 24-hour cable news… The money blurt — spontaneous or not — is a close cousin to a technique called the ‘money bomb,’ in which a campaign or its supporters designate a specific day or time period to raise a vast amount of cash and generate publicity.”

money bomb

A “money bomb” is an intense grassroots online fundraising effort over a brief fixed time period to support a candidate for election.

The term was first applied to a fundraising effort on behalf of the 2008 presidential campaign of Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) which the San Jose Mercury News described at the time as “a one-day fundraising frenzy”.

Political consultant Ed Rollins described the effectiveness of Paul’s money bomb to the Washington Post: “I’ll tell you, I’ve been in politics for 40 years, and these days everything I’ve learned about politics is totally irrelevant because there’s this uncontrollable thing like the Internet. Washington insiders don’t know what to make of it.”

military industrial complex

military industrial complex

The “military industrial complex” refers to the comfortable relationship between the military, the federal government and the defense contractors that produce weapons and equipment for war.

The term was immortalized by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell address to the nation on January 17, 1961. In the speech, Eisenhower cites the military-industrial complex as a warning to the American people not to let this dictate America’s actions at home or abroad.

Said Eisenhower: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”


In American politics, the term “mugwumps” was first used to describe those who left the Republican party in favor of the Democrats in 1884 to vote for Glover Cleveland instead of the GOP nominee James Blaine.

At a contentious 1884 Republican convention, Blaine beat out Chester Arthur for the nomination on the 4th ballot. But Blaine had his detractors and was perceived as financially corrupt by a significant number of Republicans, who would ultimately flee the Republican party and vote for his Democratic opponent, Grover Cleveland. There were enough defectors (estimated to be 60,000), particularly in New York State, to swing the election to Cleveland, who became the 22nd president.

In a sense, Mugwumps were the original independents, eschewing their party for the things they believed in strongly.

Mugwumps earned their colorful nickname when New York Sun’s editor Charles Anderson Dana first referred to them as such, citing their fence sitting posture: “Their mug sat on one side of the fence and their wump on the other.”

The nickname, however, actually had a dual meaning, as the term was originally derived from an Algonquian word that referred to a “war leader” or someone who considered himself “self-important.” Ironically, it was Blaine’s sense of self-importance that the mugwumps were rebelling against.

At the time, the Mugwump nickname was meant to be derogatory. From The Daily Kos: “The bolters were called man milliners, hermaphrodites, turncoats, amateurs, delusional public moralists. By claiming themselves above partisan interests, Mugwumps were seen as sanctimoniously arrogant.”

But the term was actually embraced by these independents who were proud to be “aloof from party politics.” Some of the most notable Mugwumps still have a firm place in American history, such as Carl Schurz , Henry Adams, Charles Eliot Norton and Henry Ward Beecher.  Two of the most notable Mugwumps were Mark Twain and Louis Brandeis.

These days, a general misunderstanding of what a Mugwump really was has led to more questionable uses of the word, including a 2017 Boris Johnson rhetorical attack on Jeremy Corbyn, when the British PM called Corbyn a “mutton-headed old mugwump.”

And the term has crossed over from politics to pop culture, finding a place in Harry Potter’s universe.

In 2016, the controversial candidacy of Donald Trump caused some, like political consultant and writer David Frum, to long for the days of the Mugwumps, where principles trumped party.

Indeed, a direct analog to the Mugwumps of 1884 can be found in the “Never Trumpers,” who all but left the Republican party under the 45th president in favor of any possible alternative. Such contemporary “mugwumps” include Jeff Flake, Bill Kristol and Rick Wilson.

Mama Grizzlies

“Mama Grizzlies” is a metaphor used by 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin for conservative women.

In speeches during the 2010 midterm election campaign, Palin challenged these “mama grizzlies” to rise up and “take this country back” and invoked her 2008 acceptance speech where she compared herself to a pit bull.

Said Palin: “You don’t want to mess with moms who are rising up. If you thought pit bulls were tough, you don’t want to mess with mama grizzlies.”

As Salon noted, “These mama bears are the same hockey moms Palin targeted in her vice presidential bid, only now they’re angry.”

maiden speech

The “maiden speech” is the first speech a legislator gives.

A maiden speech is often a non-controversial tribute to the politician’s state or district, and often pays tribute to his or her predecessor. Especially in the Senate, which prides itself on being the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” senators are expected to wait to deliver their maiden speech until they are familiar with the rules of the body.

While most maiden speeches are relatively uncontroversial, that’s not always the case. One of the most famous was Richard Nixon’s first speech to the House of Representatives, where he praised the communist-hunting efforts of the House Un-American Activities Committee.


In politics, “mudslinging” is a tactic used by candidates or other politicians in order to damage the reputation of a rival politician by using epithets, rumors or mean-spirited innuendos or insults. The term is often used interchangeably with the more descriptive phrase “negative campaigning.”

The term is most often used in the context of a political campaign in which one candidate “mudslings” in order to damage an opponent’s political prospects and gain an advantage with the electorate. Mudslinging is typically not geared towards exposing a difference in policy position, but is usually associated with insulting an opponent’s character or deriding them as a person.

Decried in this 2016 Chicago Tribune article, mudslinging has a long tradition in American politics, first witnessed in the heated election of 1800, in which Adams and Jefferson hurled mean-spirited epithets at each other.

While the tactic of attacking opponents with character assassinations and epithets goes back hundreds of years, the term “mudslinging” itself wasn’t coined until the late 1800s. It was derived from the Latin phrase “Fortiter calumniari, aliquia adhaerebit,” which means “to throw a lot of dirt and some of it will stick.” As a political term, “mudslinging” picked up steam after the Civil War.

Variations of the term included “dirt throwing,” “mud throwing” and “mud-gunning.”

The presidential campaign of 2016 is often cited as one of the dirtiest of all-time, with mudslinging used by both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to gain advantage. A Time magazine article published just before that election ranked it in the top 5 dirtiest campaigns of all-time, but was also quick to note that mudslinging is a time-honored tradition in politics. The article singles out the elections of 1800, 1828, 1876, 1928 and 1988 as some of the most notable when it comes to mudslinging.

Described in detail in this Wall Street Journal article, the election of 1828 was particularly vicious and dirty, and is often cited as having set a standard for mudslinging that might never be matched. In that election, supporters of John Quincy Adams, running against Andrew Jackson, accused Jackson of being a cannibal and eating American Indians that were slaughtered in battle. By comparison, the mudslinging of today can seem a bit tame.

Mudslinging is related to the more modern term swiftboating, which was derived from attacks directed towards 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry by swift boat captains he served with in Vietnam, and orchestrated by supporters of his opponent, president George W. Bush.

The efficacy of mudslinging is the subject of much debate, with some believing that negative campaigning turns off voters, while others arguing that it’s a necessary component of a successful political campaign.



morning business

Morning business is routine business that is supposed to occur during the first two hours of a new legislative day in the U.S. Senate.

This business includes receiving messages from the President and from the other legislative chamber, reports from executive branch officials, petitions from citizens, committee reports and the introduction of bills and submission of resolutions.

In practice, this sometime occurs at other convenient points in the day.


The mark-up is the committee meeting held to review the text of a bill before reporting it to the floor.

Committee members do not make changes to the text but can vote on proposed amendments.  In conclusion, members vote on a motion to send the bill with accompanying amendments, to the House.

There is room for political maneuvering during the mark-up meeting, as quoted by one lobbyist familiar with the process: “Committee’s often abruptly cancel congressional mark ups, such as in this case and instead schedule hearings in an attempt to regain support for a bill.”


A journalist who investigates the scandalous activities of public officials and businesses.

The term “muckraker” was first used in a speech on April 14, 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt: “In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look no way but downward with the muck-rake in his hands; Who was offered a celestial crown for his muck-rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor.”

The most famous muckrakers in American history are probably Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for their work in exposing the corruption in the Nixon administration.