More Shutdown Metaphors: Time Magazine, Part 1.

Due to the high level of interest in my last posting on the government shutdown, I have looked further into the discussions in the national media.  This week I discovered an excellent article on the shutdown in the latest Time magazine –  Scherer, Michael and Altman, Alex, “Loss Leaders: The Fever Never Broke.  Cooler Heads Have Not Prevailed.  And the Next Self-Inflicted Crisis May be Worse than the Last.”  Time, October 14, 2013, pp. 20-26.  This article proved to be a treasure trove of political metaphors related to the shutdown.  I will describe these metaphors in two separate posts.  Today I will analyze a few metaphors from the categories of nature, games, machines and medicine.


Descriptions of politics often include metaphors of animals or nature.

lemmings with suicide vests

Lemmings are small arctic rodents that are noted for jumping off cliffs to their deaths.  This claim, however, is only a myth (due in part to a staged Disney documentary in the 1950s!  And yet, people who are thought to deliberately fail to achieve their goals are metaphorically referred to as lemmings.

Example:  “Representative Devin Nunes, a California Republican, compared members of his own party to ‘lemmings with suicide vests’” (p. 22).

blog - animals - lemming

a gaggle of presidential appointees

A group of geese is commonly known as a gaggle.  The term gaggle is also used metaphorically to describe a group of people who are similar in appearance or opinions.

Example:  “… Senate Majority leader Harry Reid threatened to blow up Senate rules if Republicans did not allow the confirmation of a gaggle of presidential appointees” (p. 25).

sapping Obamacare

Some trees ooze a liquid from their trunk called sap which can be used to make special products such as maple syrup or even rubber. In the belief that this leaking of sap weakens the tree, the verb sap carries the meaning of weakening something or someone of their stores of energy.

Example:  “The House passed a series of budget resolutions, each one aimed at sapping Obamacare” (p. 25).


The word brink originally referred to a type of cliff or edge of a riverbank.  Metaphorically, being on the brink of something means that a person is about to make an important decision or is facing an impending disaster.  The metaphorical usage originated with discussions of avoiding nuclear war.   The action of negotiating a settlement on an important issue is also known as brinkmanship.

Example:  “At the White House, Obama’s aides studied the polls and saw in Boehner’s brinkmanship an exercise in self-harm” (p. 23).

blog - animals - salamandergerrymander

Technically, the term gerrymander is not a metaphor, but is actually a neologism (newly created word).  However, I thought I would include it here because of its fanciful history.   As the story goes, Elbridge Gerry, the governor of Massachusetts in 1812, redrew district boundaries in his state to benefit his own party. One new district was so contorted it looked like a salamander.  A local newspaper editor named this process gerrymandering.

Example:  “…after multiple rounds of ornate gerrymandering, of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, fewer than 1 in 5 is truly competitive on Election Day” (p. 22).


            As mentioned in the previous post, political actions are often compared to children’s games, board games or sports.

a bystander to the game

In some cases, metaphors are so common that we use them in speech and writing as if they are literal words and phrases.  Note the example below:

Example:  “…the President – who is elected by the entire country – seemed content to be a bystander to the game” (p. 23).

the endgame

When a game of chess is completed, this is simply called the end of the game or the endgame.  In common terms, an endgame has come to mean the objective or primary goal of a policy or approach to solving a problem.

Example:  “’No one I have talked to on either side of the aisle knows what the endgame is,’ explains Representative Dan Lipinski” (p. 25).


            The inner workings of government policies are sometimes compared to machines.


A mechanism is a part of a machine that controls a certain function, as in a spring that keeps the time in a watch.  Metaphorically, a mechanism is something that controls the function of something in a process.

Example:  “Congress created the debt ceiling in 1917 as a mechanism to restrain borrowing and must authorize any increase in its limit.”

blog - machines - hot buttonhot button issues

Most machines have buttons that must be pushed on and off to control various functions.  Some emergency or shut off buttons are painted red and may be known as hot buttons.  Metaphorically emotionally charged topics such as immigration or abortion may be referred to as hot button issues. In the following example, Scherer and Altman describe the power of some conservative political groups.

Example:  “[Heritage Action] pushed hot button issues, published rankings to praise the orthodox, and used their clout to punish signs of squishiness” (p. 24).

machinery engaged/no reverse gear

Some machines such as internal combustion engines must have gears that are engaged to work and propel a vehicle.  Engines often work with transmissions that are built with gears to control the speed.  In a complex metaphorical passage, Scherer and Altman compare the Republican plan for the shutdown as a machine.

Example:  “But the machinery was engaged and it seemed to have no reverse gear” (p. 24).


            In some cases, government policies, processes or negotiations are compared to people who are ill and need medical attention.  This is a form of personification or anthropomorphism.

feverish stalemate

The Time magazine authors compare the shutdown to a person with a high fever as they state that “the fever never broke ” (p. 21).  In an unusual mixture of medical and game metaphors, they also describe the shutdown as a stalemate but also as a person who has a fever.

Example:  “A decisive re-election would break the feverish stalemate in Washington…” (p. 23).

soothe financial markets

People who are suffering from illnesses may need to be soothed by family members or medical staff before they can heal.  Metaphorically, political or economic problems can also be soothed by politicians. In their discussion of conservative groups, Scherer and Altman use this metaphor as well.

Example:  “Conservative outfits like the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and Heritage Action for America weren’t interested in cutting deals to soothe financial markets” (p. 24).

blog - medicine - soothe


Paralysis is a severe injury resulting in a person losing function of muscles in his or her body.  In common terms, any system, program or government operation which no longer functions properly may be described as suffering from paralysis or is paralyzed.

Example:  “… the power of minority rule, refined by the politics of safe seats, paralyzes the body politic indefinitely” (p. 25).

dead on arrival

When a person has a heart attack or is in a serious accident, in some cases the person dies before he or she can get medical attention at a hospital.  In these instances, the person is described as being dead on arrival.  In politics, government programs or policies that are not approved by Congress may also be described as being dead on arrival.

Example:  “And while immigration reform would clear the Senate, it was already dead on arrival in the House” (p. 24).

Next time:  Shutdown Metaphors of Journeys and Wars