How many 'rotten boroughs' are in this election? Quite a few, apparently.

Online interest in an old British phrase spiked as several stories on US politics used it in reference to the current election campaign.

Shannon Stapleton /Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign event at the Pierce Arrow Museum in Buffalo, N.Y. on April 8, 2016.

Rotten borough: An 18th-century British expression, it refers to an election area with an imbalance between its population and its degree of representation.

In British parlance, “rotten boroughs” were those that had lost most if not all of their residents, yet still had the right of representation in the House of Commons. Merriam-Webster found the earliest use dating back to a 1761 pamphlet inveighing against “such corrupting and bribing in poor rotten Borough Towns.” 

The dictionary’s “Trend Watch” reported this week that online searches for “rotten borough” shot up after the phrase appeared in two separate U.S. politics articles. Conrad Black of the conservative National Review brought it up to dismissively describe former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s career as a senator: “She won two elections in what was a large rotten borough in New York, having been the Wronged Lady of America.”

Meanwhile, in New York magazine, Ed Kilgore used it to discuss Donald Trump’s campaign. “The estimated 58 percent of delegates he needs to win the nomination remains feasible if he wins big in the Northeast and remains sufficiently competitive in California to win some rotten-borough congressional districts mainly populated by minority folk who are feared and resented by their few Republican neighbors,” he wrote.

Liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman also invoked the term last month to describe how GOP-driven redistricting has made it likely that the party will retain control of the House. “While Donald Trump could win the White House – or lose so badly that even our rotten-borough system of congressional districts, which heavily favors the GOP, delivers the House to the Democrats – the odds are that come January, Hillary Clinton will be president,” Krugman wrote.

With July’s Republican National Convention increasingly looking like it will be contentious, the Daily Beast noted former President Theodore Roosevelt’s use of the phrase in a letter describing another monumentally testy GOP gathering – the 1912 convention in Chicago in which he battled incumbent President William Howard Taft. Though Roosevelt had endorsed Taft, the latter’s drift to the right angered him, inspiring him to wage an unsuccessful challenge. Roosevelt eventually ran as part of the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party, with both he and Taft losing to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

“In the Convention at Chicago last June,” an angry Roosevelt wrote later, “the breakup of the Republican Party was forced by those rotten-borough delegates from the South … representing nothing but their own greed for money or office” who had “betrayed the will of the mass of the plain people of the party.”

Chuck McCutcheon writes his “Speaking Politics” blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

Interested in decoding what candidates are saying? Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark’s latest book, “Doubletalk: The Language, Code, and Jargon of a Presidential Election,” is now out.

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