“Earmarks,” “Benedict Arnolds,” & the Effect of Synecdoche in Politics


If you’ve ever heard a politician use the word “earmarks” to describe a bill, you’ve heard a synecdoche in action.

Synecdoche’s are quite common in our political language.

But like most figures of speech, its name isn’t well known.

However, before you click away back into the vast reaches of the internet, hear me out.

If you want to stay on top of all the political trips and tricks, you’re gonna want to know what synecdoche’s are. Politicians use them a lot.

What’s a Synecdoche?

A synecdoche is when you use a specific part of something to describe the whole of it (or vis versa).

Instead of describing the whole thing you’re talking about, you mention a part of it. Using that part to describe the whole thing.

Think of it like calling businessmen “suits.” The suit isn’t the whole of what you’re describing, it’s only a facet of it (& possibly a stereotype).

Other common examples are “bread and butter” for livelihood, “boots” for soldiers, and “wheels” for cars.

A synecdoche is also when you apply a human element to a non-human thing. “Having a footing” and “in the wrong hands” are two popular examples.

Examples of Synecdoche in Politics

You can see synecdoches everywhere, from describing Russia as “The Kremlin,” to calling a bill’s added spending, “earmarks” (or “pork”).

Some political examples include…

  • Trump’s referral to Hispanics and illegal immigrants as “rapists”
  • Using the word “terrorists” as an overly broad description of a specific terrorist group (this is an example of a macro synecdoche; describing a part by its whole)
  • Describing a specific branch of government as “the Feds” (a macro synecdoche)
  • Saying “the White House said [blank]” when in reality it was a White House spokesperson from a section of the executive branch (another example of describing the part by its whole)
  • The phrase “Recycle and save the planet” is a synecdoche (obviously recycling alone won’t save the planet)
  • In 2004, John Kerry called companies who moved their headquarters out of the US, “Benedict Arnolds”
  • The repeal of the estate tax was labeled “the Paris Hilton tax cut”

I could keep going, but hopefully you get the point.

How it Can Be Used by Politicians to Attack & Garner Support

Politicians are always on the lookout for ways to create identification between themselves and others.

It’s a form of communication, as Ivan Wolfe points out

“A lot of argumentation, especially in the political and cultural arenas, comes from attempting to convince people to identify with certain people.  That’s one reason political parties trot out celebrities – people want to identify with famous people, and so they will adopt parts of those celebrities beliefs in order to identify with them, regardless of what the merit of those beliefs may be.”

Synecdoche’s are no different.bill gates synecdoche

They can be used to create positive or negative connections between different things.

Point out that your opponent’s bill has “earmarks” in it and people will automatically view the bill as negative. Or even corrupt.

Call a company who moves their headquarters to avoid the corporate income tax a “Benedict Arnold” and you’ve slapped a negative image on that company.

No one wants to be called a traitor. And no one wants to be on the side of a traitor.

It’s all word games for the benefit of political agendas.


This is why you’ve got to be careful with synecdoches. You can easily miscommunicate or misunderstand an issue if a synecdoche is used.

Whenever you’re discussing political issues, you need to be as clear as possible.

Whenever you’re reading up on the issues, you definitely want to make sure you’re not being misguided.

Synecdoche’s can be effective in communicating an issue to someone, but for the most part you’ll want to avoid them.

It all boils down to manipulation.

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About John-Pierre Maeli

Keeping it simple and crystal clear, because anything else is useless. I'm here to not only inform you, but to also connect with you. That's what The Political Informer is all about. Feel free to follow me on either Twitter or Google+ Let's talk!

  • Richard Speights

    Young man. It is a good idea to actually know the meaning of a word before attempting to define it, especially to a worldwide audience. The majority of your examples in the above article are examples of metonymy and not synecdoche whatsoever. Although closely related, they are different.

    This article is obviously slanted to the liberal side. So, riddle me this, Batman: If I were to write, “Prisons house rapists,” do I mean every last individual in prison is a rapist, or do I mean a portion of people in prison are rapists?

    Writing’s not just banging words down on your computer, spewing undigested ideas and ideals out onto the world. It helps to actually know the subject at hand. (Here’s a related question for you: My word phrase, “subject at hand”; is it an example of synecdoche, metonymy, idiom, metaphor, or symbolism?)

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