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Poke the Bear

“Poke the bear” refers to the act of deliberately challenging or provoking a powerful individual, group, or nation, often with the risk of eliciting an aggressive response.

The “bear” in this context could represent a range of formidable entities—from a political opponent or an influential lobby group to a nation-state with considerable military or economic might.

The term is often used to describe actions that are seen as risky or daring, but are undertaken with the belief that they might bring about change, gain leverage, or draw attention to a particular issue, even though they could also lead to negative repercussions.

More on “Poke the Bear”

To antagonize someone or something to provoke a reaction.

Given how often politics now devolves into confrontation, it’s no surprise that this phrase is becoming more popular among the punditry. The expression poke the bear didn’t take off until the Cold War, when it often was used as a warning not to rile the nuclear-armed Soviet Union. (The bear has been a longtime Russian symbol.) With Russian president Vladimir Putin drawing international condemnation for his ultra-hawkish moves, “poke the bear” is once again being used in that context quite often.

But Putin has company for ursine comparisons—including famously combative New Jersey governor Chris Christie. After Christie got into one of his widely publicized shouting matches with a protestor last fall, CBS News’s Gayle King noted Christie’s wife’s anger toward the protestor: “She sort of looks at the guy like, ‘You should stop talking, sir. Don’t poke the bear.’”

Democrats aren’t immune from the tag. USA Today’s Paul Singer, discussing a February 2015 Republican Party initiative called “Hillary’s Hiding” to goad Hillary Clinton into becoming an actual presidential candidate, headlined the item “Poking the Bear.” Singer wrote: “Of course, given Clinton’s ability to draw media coverage, it is possible Republicans may someday pine for the days when she was so hard to find.”

From Doubletalk © 2016 Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark.

Use of “Poke the Bear” in a sentence

  • The junior senator decided to poke the bear by introducing legislation aimed at curtailing the influence of powerful pharmaceutical lobbies, fully aware of the potential backlash.
  • Some foreign policy experts warned that imposing stringent sanctions on the already-isolated nation would merely serve to poke the bear, potentially escalating tensions further.
  • The activist group knew that occupying the public square would poke the bear of local authorities, but they believed the resulting media coverage would bring much-needed attention to their cause.