Metaphors of Pushing and Pulling

Happy Superbowl Sunday!  Sorry I don’t have any whiz-bang metaphors about football today.  I covered those in a previous post.  However, there will be a lot of pushing and pulling today in the big game.  With that in mind, today I will share some examples of how metaphors based on strong physical forces are used in American politics.

Metaphors based on physical forces are some of the most common metaphors used in English. Phrases such as cut the budget or a swing voter are understood by native speakers without any sense of a metaphor being used. In fact, some experts may even consider these to be so-called dead metaphors, meaning the metaphorical comparison is so old it is no longer considered a metaphor.  Rather it is considered common English usage.  A survey of the most common physical forces will demonstrate that these forces are one of the most powerful sources of political metaphors.


The motion of pushing an object away from a person’s body is the source of many metaphors in politics, war and economics.

Example:   Critics of the War in Iraq accused President Bush of pushing America into war without valid reasons for national security.

push back

                  When someone pushes against another person, the second person may push back to avoid being knocked down.  Metaphorically, pushing back means to resist being pushed over by an outside force.

Example:  To his credit, when Iraqi forces challenged American troops, President Bush pushed back and helped win the war.

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push the issue

Focusing on a particular issue in government may be referred to as pushing it.

Example:  President Obama pushed for health care reform in the first few years of his presidency.

push polls

A specific use of the push motion is in the phrase push poll.  Normally in election years polling is done with neutral questions to determine opinions about issues or candidates.  If the questions are misleading or designed to favor one candidate over another, we call these push polls, since the pollsters are pushing their opinions on to those they are interviewing.

Example:  Although no one approves of push polls, sometimes they can be used to persuade voters to change their minds about a candidate in a presidential election.


Something that is not strong or balanced can be pushed over its center of balance until it falls down.  People who can be persuaded to change their minds or are weak in certain areas of government may be called pushovers.

Example:  When Barack Obama was elected president, critics thought he would be a pushover when it came to foreign policy due to his lack of military experience.  However, he actually increased military operations in Afghanistan and was able to track down and kill Osama bin Laden.


Another word for push is propel.  People or machines can propel objects or individuals with physical force.  In politics, scandals, economic problems, military events or voters groups can propel a politician to win an election.  Usually there is a positive upward connotation to the meaning of propel.

Example:  Latino voters helped propel Barack Obama to victory in both 2008 and 2012.


drive up

Yet another term meaning to push is to drive, meaning to push something with great force.  We commonly speak of economic forces driving up prices or costs of something.

Example:  Short supplies of crude oil often drive up the price of gasoline at the pump.

drive out

When someone pushes a group of people from a certain geographical area or larger group, this may be referred to driving out.

Example:  In the war on terror, American forces struggled for years to drive out Al Qaida terrorists from strongholds in Iraq and Afghanistan.

drive someone crazy

In a common parlance, to drive someone crazy means that an annoying practice can force someone to become very frustrated or upset.

Example:  Corruption in American politics tends to drive voters crazy.


The opposite of push is to pull, to move an object closer to the person instead of farther away.  In metaphors, the pulling motion is used to describe many abstract activities.

pull out

One of the most common pull metaphors is the phrase to pull out, used to describe when people remove something or someone from a certain geographical area or situation.

Example:  Barack Obama successfully pulled American troops out of Iraq by 2012.

pull back

Similar to pull out, pull back indicates retreating from a situation or lessening focus on a certain issue.

Example:  Many American voters wanted the U.S. government to pull back their troops from Afghanistan instead of adding more troops.

pull off

Another expression using pull is to pull off, meaning to succeed in doing something despite many obstacles.

Example:  Wall Street bankers pulled off one of the greatest crimes in history, causing the economic crisis of 2008.

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yank their support

The word yank means to pull with great force or speed.  In politics, donors or voters may yank their support for a candidate if he or she disappoints them with words or actions.

Example:  Some conservative voters yanked their support for Rick Perry after disappointing debate performances in the 2011 Republican primaries.


Another word with a similar meaning of pull is to draw.  A politician can draw support or draw crowds because of his or her speaking abilities.

Example:  Martin Luther King, Jr. was always able to draw huge crowds because of his amazing rhetorical skills.

draw down

One can also draw down something, meaning to reduce its quantity or quality.

Example:  Many Americans supported Barack Obama to draw down the troop levels in Iraq as soon as the fighting began to subside there.


The notion of pulling is combined with the idea of backing up to create the compound word drawback, meaning a disadvantage or problem with a certain situation or strategy.

Example:  One drawback of President Obama’s health care reform was that it still left many American uninsured if they could not afford the insurance premiums.


Another word meaning to pull is to wrest, indicating pulling something with a great deal of difficulty or resistance from another group of people.

Example:  Every election year, Democrats and Republicans try to wrest control of Congress from the other party.

Next time:  President Obama’s State of the Union Address