A “scorched earth” approach is a ruthless attempt to win at all costs.
A “take no prisoners” approach is a rough synonym; both terms imply a total focus on victory without regard to consequences.
The phrase is originally a military term, referring to a wartime strategy of pursuing the utter destruction of the enemy’s land, possessions, and even livestock. This strategy dates back to ancient times. When Julius Caesar was trying to conquer Gaul (modern day France), Gaul’s leaders literally scorched the earth, setting fire to their own crops and buildings, to prevent Roman soldiers from getting their hands on food and shelter.
In America, the military scorched earth approach is associated with General William T. Sherman. During his so-called march to the sea, Sherman and his men burned homes, barns, and fields belonging to Georgians who tried to fight back. The tactic was designed to sow terror and discourage resistance.
In politics, a scorched earth policy usually means a total disregard for the people who are hurt by one’s campaign or one’s policies. The goal is victory, not peace and prosperity. That’s probably why “scorched earth” is usually a criticism flung around by pundits who disapprove of a particular politician. In 2016, the Idaho State Journal ran a piece asking, “Will Obama’s Legacy Be More Scorched Earth Politics?”
The article argued that:
President Obama’s legacy might very well be that future presidents are going to go for broke in terms of pushing their plans, spend zero effort in terms of trying to bring opponents on board, and not hold anyone in their administration accountable, because owning up to blunders would make the commander-in-chief look bad.
In this context, “scorched earth” means burning bridges as well as burning land.
Later in the same year, Hillary Clinton, running for president against Donald Trump, claimed that her opponents were mounting their own scorched earth campaign against her. Clinton charged that Trump was running a “dark and divisive” campaign against her and insisted that she was against “meanness” herself. The comments came about after her opponents accused her husband, former president Bill Clinton, of committing rape. Clinton’s scorched earth comments can be compared to allegations of “mudslinging” – it’s just another way of accusing one’s political enemies of fighting dirty.
In 2021, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put a neat, post-apocalyptic twist on the scorched earth phrase. McConnell warned that the Democrats’ plans to end the filibuster would result in a “scorched earth senate” in which all productive work would grind to a halt.
Said McConnell: “Let me say this very clearly for all 99 of my colleagues: Nobody serving in this chamber can even begin — can even begin to imagine — what a completely scorched earth Senate would look like.”
The majority leader suggested that his party would dig in their heels and stop all cooperation, implying that this Mad Max situation would be their retaliation for the end to the filibuster.