To be “thrown under the bus” is to be sacrificed by someone hoping to avoid blame themselves, often in order to make political gain.
It connotes a cynical and hardball strategy whereby an ally or subordinate is scapegoated or abandoned to protect oneself or one’s interests.
As Newsweek notes:
In general, ‘thrown under the bus’ is a metaphor for what happens when someone takes a hit for someone else’s actions.
But unlike its etymological cousins, ‘scapegoat’ and ‘fall guy,’ the phrase suggests a degree of intimacy between the blamer and the blamed.
For instance, a politician may “throw a staff member under the bus” by blaming them for a policy failure or scandal that arises, rather than accepting responsibility for their own actions or decisions.
Similarly, a political party may “throw a candidate under the bus” by withdrawing support or distancing themselves from them after a controversy, to protect the party’s image or electoral chances.
The term reflects the harsh realities of political power dynamics, where loyalty and trust can often be secondary to self-interest, and alliances may be readily sacrificed in the face of adversity or threat.
“Throwing someone under the bus” is therefore often seen as a sign of political opportunism or a lack of integrity.
Moreover, it’s essential to note that the phrase isn’t exclusive to the realm of politics. It’s widely used in other settings such as the workplace or interpersonal relationships, where similar dynamics of power, blame, and self-protection can play out.
More on “Thrown Under the Bus”
The opposite of loyalty; an all-too-frequent occurrence in which someone ditches or trashes a friend, employee, or associate.
Examples of throwing someone under the bus in politics date back to the 1990s and are legion. The Washington Post’s David Segal branded it “the cliché of the 2008 campaign” and observed it doesn’t make logical sense: It ostensibly refers to a campaign bus, and by extension a politician and his or her cause.
Because the person being cut loose presumably is aboard the bus, how can they be tossed beneath a vehicle in which they’re riding?
It was often used in the run-up to and during the October 2013 government shutdown. Congressional Republicans decided one way to frustrate Senate Democrats—and, by extension, President Barack Obama—was to make lawmakers vote to keep their subsidies for health insurance, as provided by the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare).
But a Republican bill to kill the subsidies also affected congressional staff. “I understand it politically, and as a talking point,” one Republican staffer told Mother Jones. “But Congress literally threw staff under the bus on this. . . . You’re hurting staff assistants who are sorting your mail.”
From Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes © 2014 Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark.
USe of “Thrown Under the Bus” in a sentence
- When the scandal broke, the mayor quickly “threw his deputy under the bus,” blaming him entirely for the misconduct to protect his own political future.
- The party leadership decided to “throw the controversial candidate under the bus,” withdrawing their support to avoid alienating moderate voters in the upcoming election.
- Faced with public outcry over the failed policy, the minister chose to “throw the policy advisor under the bus,” suggesting it was their advice that led to the debacle, rather than admitting to her own poor judgment.
Taegan Goddard is the creator of the Political Dictionary.
Goddard spent more than a decade on Wall Street as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he also served as a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You Won – Now What?: How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House, a political management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from both parties.
His essays on politics and public policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University.
He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.