A “steamroller” is someone who brings something about by means of brute political might. A politician might be said to “steamroller” the opposition, or even to steamroller a faction in their own political party.
Steamroller is a negative term. Nobody wants to be described as a steamroller; politicians prefer to believe that they’ve won votes through charm and reason, not through a show of force. Similarly, most people want to believe that the opposition owes its victory to simple muscle.
Hillary Clinton, who ran for the presidency twice, was often described as a steamroller. FiveThirtyEight wrote a piece in 2016 titled “The Hillary Clinton Steamroller Rumbles to Life,” noting that early in the election cycle, Clinton was dominating both the endorsements and the poll numbers:
Clinton’s primary campaign is by far the most dominant for a non-incumbent president since nominations began to be determined by caucuses and primaries in 1972. The best predictors we have all say Clinton is going to be the Democrats’ 2016 presidential nominee.
Other news outlets called Hillary a steamroller too, even when her campaign floundered. “Sanders’ Surge Stalls the Clinton Steamroller,” wrote the Mining Gazette, after the Vermont senator beat Clinton in a primary vote.
The article, which also grumbled about the power of the “Clinton machine,” said:
Hillary’s campaign comes across as a slick, impersonal steamroller of the same seeming inevitability that was rolled out in 2008. But that one unexpectedly ran into a people’s crusade headed by an unlikely freshman senator from Illinois who also happened to be an African-American.
Politicians don’t have to do their steamrolling solo, of course. Whole parties, or political movements, can steamroll the opposition. That’s what the Wall Street Journal argued in 2021, in an editorial titled “Progressive Steamroller Flattens Everything.”
The Washington Post made a similar case, on a smaller scale, in a piece called “Republican Steamroller.” Published in 2002, the article claimed that the Republican party was “steamrolling” its way to long-term dominance of the country. The Post described the presidency of George W. Bush – and the widespread election of Republicans to local office – as part of a larger push for dominance:
This did not just happen. It was the result of a concerted effort, orchestrated by Bush and Rove, to expand and deepen the Republican base. Part of it involved wooing conservative Democratic officeholders, but mainly it meant converting suburban ticket-splitters and independents into behaving like Republicans.
It’s worth noting that once in a while, steamroller can have positive connotations. The term is usually used to describe the power of an overdog – but sometimes, it’s used as a positive term to describe runaway success.
Back in 2008, NPR described the campaign of Barack Obama as a very positive kind of steamroller:
But having said all that, race has been the hangman’s noose that has killed dreams, stifled potential, murdered progress in this country for hundreds of years. Even if the Obama steamroller ends tomorrow, his success so far has proven that race is no longer the determinant of human potential in this country. A passion for excellence is, or can be.