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Political Phrases, Catchphrases, and Clichés in the News

Updated on May 18, 2015

Political clichés dominate the news.

In the United States these days no sooner has one election ended than the next one begins. Sometimes the upcoming election has not even occurred yet, but pundits and commentators—these are actual job titles—are discussing the next election.

The television news is full of clichés and catchphrases.
The television news is full of clichés and catchphrases. | Source

This is partly due to the “24-hour news cycle” which is driven by cable news and the internet. There is a lot of time and column inches to be filled, so commentators indulge in endless speculation about politics and political figures. Very little of this is actual news, if by news you mean a factual reporting of something that has actually happened.

Political “news” is constantly available and moves so rapidly that the expression “one-day story” has become common. A news story may only be reported on for a day before it is pushed from the news by the next story. Some of these stories deserve to sink into oblivion, but often important news stories also get short shrift.

The news is reported in “sound bites.” Politicians and commentators alike strive for the pithy statement that will capture the public’s interest without challenging even the shortest attention spans.

The same phrases are repeated over and over. If I hear “thrown under the bus,” "war on (fill in the blank)”, or “the most important election of our lifetime” one more time, I may have to throw something at my TV.

I’ve provided a list of some phrases that are often used as a kind of “shorthand” in political news.I’ve explained the origin of each phrase, its meaning, and its implications.

Is politics like a game of chess where only certain moves are possible?
Is politics like a game of chess where only certain moves are possible? | Source

Politics is the art of the possible.

Prince Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck(1815 -1898), Duke of Lautenberg, was a German aristocrat and statesman. He was Prime Minister of Prussia (1862–1890) and First Chancellor of Germany (1871–1890). He was well-known for his pithy statements about politics. He once said, "Politics is not a science—it is an art."

In 1867, he was quoted as saying “Politics is the art of the possible.” This phrase is still used today to mean that a politician must be practical and not waste time trying to achieve some lofty policy that is impossible to attain because others will not support it. Instead a politician should pursue a goal in small incremental steps.

Politicians have to be practical, but is this type of thinking a cop-out? If the desired policy is deemed impossible at the start, and consequently no attempt is made to achieve it, is it not a self-fulfilling prophecy? Is it not an excuse for failure? Is it not the job of a politician to find a way to make the impossible possible by the skillful use of the art of politics? Isn't this what is know as "leadership"?

If all politics is local, is politics about nothing more than "What's in it for me?"
If all politics is local, is politics about nothing more than "What's in it for me?" | Source

All politics is local.

The phrase, "All politics is local" is a common phrase in U.S. politics. “It was first used by 1932 by Washington AP bureau chief Byron Price. However it is most closely associated with former Speaker of the U.S. House, Tip O'Neill, who served as Speaker from 1977 to 1987.

It means that a politician's success is dependent upon satisfying his constituents by appealing to the everyday concerns of the people who elect him (or her) to office. It means voters care more about their personal issues, the issues that most affect their lives than grandiose principle. If a politician wants to get a certain policy enacted, he must show how it will help individual citizens—for instance he should say “It will create jobs”” rather than making a more general appeal using larger themes, such as “It will strengthen the economy.”

It is a cynical view because it implies that citizens are not interested in anything other than their personal well-being and cannot be swayed by the indirect benefits of policy. If something is good for the country, it is good for everyone, even if I everyone does not get a direct benefit.

Do political scoundrels cloak themselves in the flag to hide their lack of rational argument?
Do political scoundrels cloak themselves in the flag to hide their lack of rational argument? | Source

Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

The phrase, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” goes way back to 1775. It was spoken by Samuel Johnson, an Englishman. The barb was most likely directed at Edmond Burke, who served as a member of the Whig party in the House of Commons. It was an indictment, not of patriotism, but false patriotism.

Johnson was railing against the use of a call to patriotism to win converts to one’s political position. Patriotism is a noble virtue—it means love of one’s country and a willingness to serve that country. Patriotism is a very strong emotion for most people. (A rendition of The Star Spangled Banner" can bring tears to my eyes.)

A politician who cloaks his argument in patriotism simply to win an argument is a scoundrel and a demagogue. He misuses patriotism to manipulate the public by making it seem unpatriotic to oppose a particular position. The scoundrel is using emotion rather than reason to sway public opinion. He also implies that to oppose his position is to be unpatriotic.

Be wary of politicians who misuse appeals to patriotism. The “last refuge” part of the quote means that he cannot support his position with rational arguments.

Is a dog the only true friend a politician has?
Is a dog the only true friend a politician has? | Source

If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.

President Harry S. Truman (served from 1945 to 1953) is reputed to have said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” However, it may actually have been taken from a line in a 1975 play about Harry Truman, Give ‘em Hell, Harry by Samuel Gallu.

Basically it means that you can’t trust a politician. When you are in a position of power, you don’t have friends; only people who either want to use you or to take you down to advance themselves. It’s a witty statement, but I’m hoping not entirely true.

I guess politics can make a person cynical. Truman is also quoted as saying “Always be sincere, even if you don’t mean it."

A few more, in brief:

Optics: This refers to how something looks, but ignores the substance of the issue. This may go back to 1978 when President Carter wanted to invite business leaders who supported his anti-inflation program to the White House for a photo-op. The Wall Street Journal wrote “Optics will not cure inflation."

Misspeak: Politicians don’t lie or make mistakes. They “misspeak.”

Make a gaffe: “A gaffe is when a politician accidentally speaks the truth.” This statement is sometimes referred to as “Kinsley’s Law of Gaffes” or a “Kinsley Gaff" after its author Michael Kinsley. It is used when a politician says something that is unintentionally damaging to himself or his position. It is a kind of Freudian slip because he has revealed his true beliefs without meaning to.

Walk-back: When a politician has made a “gaffe” or “misspoken” he will often try to “walk-back” what he has said. He doesn’t want to flat-out and say he was wrong, so he tries to amend his statement by adding qualifications that serve essentially to revoke his original statement.

Talking points: When a politician is simply parroting the “party line” (the view-point of his political party) rather than giving than taking the trouble to form his own opinions, he is said to be reiterating “talking points.” When a politician goes “off-script,” it is sometimes said that “he didn’t get the memo.” (No one told him what to say.) Sometimes, it is said that "he has gone off the reservation.” (He is expressing his own opinions rather than those of his party.) He might also be said to be “going rogue.” This last phrase is a reference to Sarah Palin who during John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign while running on his ticket for Vice President repeatedly took public positions opposed to those of McCain.

Silly season: Sometimes pre-election politics gets so ridiculous, it is referred to as the “silly season.”

Just for fun.

Do you watch or read political news?

See results

I welcome your comments on my thoughts. You can also use this space to ad your own favorite clichés.

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    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      BarbRad: Thanks for your comment. "All politics is local" is a cynical phrase meaning give y constituents what they want if you want to get elected. People who are sincere, like you, know that you have to be involved in politics on a local level to get things done.

      I try to avoid "breaking news." The news stations don't know anything, but they have to fill airtime. I wait for the next day or the day after when the facts are in.

      But if you are watching the news, it is useful to understand the catchphrases.

    • BarbRad profile image

      Barbara Radisavljevic 2 years ago from Templeton, CA

      Very well written. Instead of thinking all politics is local, I prefer to say politics begins at the local level with local government. That's the training ground and screening opportunity where you can actually watch the elected officials at work and interact with them. Then you can decide which ones you want to send on to higher office.

      As far as the steady diet of news commentary on TV, I'd just as soon unplug it. My husband has it on a lot but it seems to me every day the same issues are rehashed and nothing new is said but lots more opinions are expressed. I'd rather be writing.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks Iris. I spend a lot of time on the photos usually at least 2 hours per hub. Finding the right one and modifying it so that it is original. I also try to make sure that the pictures "go together", similar color palette, or theme, etc.

      Sorry for not replying sooner. I only just discovered this comment.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Perspycacious: Now you have taught me something. I had not heard of paired votes. I'll have to use that one in another hub.

    • Perspycacious profile image

      Demas W Jasper 2 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

      "paired votes" is another good one. It is used when two representatives or senators, who would have cast opposing votes, agree to pair their votes and not vote, even being absent from the voting and elsewhere at the time a vote is taken.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      "Brinkmanship" is a good one. I'm sure I could have come up with at least 100 catchphrases and clichés.

    • Perspycacious profile image

      Demas W Jasper 2 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

      "brinkmanship" is another term, and I have seen it brinksmanship also.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Perspycacious: They like to say "walking back" at least once an hour. Maybe it's because politicians say so many things that they then have to walk back.

    • Perspycacious profile image

      Demas W Jasper 2 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

      I heard "walking back" used just yesterday on the national news.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you for your comment Venkatarchari. Yes, I agree, politicians are a sorry lot. But we, do have a few good ones. For instance, I love Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders--I believe both of them are honest and care about the welfare of the country.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 2 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      A good article; very interesting for reading. Most politicians are local and run behind power and wealth. Very few are there who can think for others and for the welfare of the country.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you Mel for your praise of my hub. And thank you for adding the context of world history to my remarks about current day American politics.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      I am afraid Bismarck may have been right. A lot of the problem with modern politics is that our leaders try to do too much too fast and can never muster up the necessary votes for the plan. Then again they never have the luxury of 28 years in office like Bismarck either. Great hub!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Perspycacious: Very good,--"circumbent." I was mainly taking on the reporting of political news and not the politicians themselves (except a little bit.) I wanted to explain the phrases you might here on TV or read on online or print media. Thank you for reading and commenting.

    • Perspycacious profile image

      Demas W Jasper 2 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

      Good writer's master a lot of lingo. Thanks for the help with doing so.

      Isn't it interesting that politicians generally (only generally?) circumvent (let's coin another political term: "circumbent") giving a yes or no answer, but insist that those testifying before the Congress commit to giving such answers?

      If Congressional committees are entitled to yes or no answers, aren't taxpayers and voters entitled to them too?

    • Iris Draak profile image

      Cristen Iris 2 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      Great article! I weary of the word "patriotism" of late. As if any one ideology has a corner on what it is to love one's country and home.

      This article demonstrates what my father calls "infotainment". You put it perfectly, it's not news per se but it does draw attention to what is possible.

      Your article is informative and thoughtful.

      As an aside, I always notice and admire how you use images. I like that you modify things to suit your topics. It is something I forget to think about. You remind me that it's not just about the written word. It's about crafting an online experience for your readers. I appreciate that.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks so much for your comment, tillsontitan. I agree and I am cutting back on watching/reading the news.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 2 years ago from New York

      I chose occasionally in your poll because you didn't have seldom. Politics are hard to take anymore and the phrases you have outlined are a perfect example of why!

      Welll done Catherine with lots of good back up information. Thanks for the lesson.

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.