Here’s the latest in political rhetoric. I’ll quote The Washington Post online, Wednesday, November 8 at 9:54 p.m., with the byline of Robert Costa and Philip Rucker:
“’Canary in the coal mine’: Republicans fear Democratic wins mean more losses to come”
I’d first heard the expression the day before, on Tuesday, when MSNBC’s Chuck Todd used it twice on his afternoon show MTP Daily. I heard it Wednesday too, on the same show, and politicians themselves are using it. I hadn’t heard it Monday though, either because the canary hadn’t started coughing yet or because MTP Daily had a guest host. (Katy Tur was “in for Chuck Todd.” I love this newsy language.) “The canary in the coal mine” seems to be perfectly normal political discourse these days. So what does it mean?
As it turns out, it makes perfect sense if you know something about the history of mining. (And who doesn’t?) Apparently until just a few years ago – the mid-1980s in England, I read somewhere – when coal miners were worried about noxious gases in the mines, they’d go down into a new seam with a caged canary because canaries are especially sensitive to methane and carbon monoxide. If the bird was happily singing away, the mine was safe. If the bird was gasping for air, or just dead, they had a problem. I don’t really know to what extent they tried CPR on the gassed-out birds, not that it would have mattered; I suppose if they saved their lives, the birds probably just got taken back down into the mines again so they could have more coughing fits. The point is, the birds served as a kind of early warning system for the miners, an alert to a dangerous situation that was just on the horizon. Presumably some animal rights activists pointed out that miners could use electronic equipment just as well as canaries without endangering innocent lives, but that’s beyond the scope of the present research. You’ll have to look that up for yourselves.
It seems that the expression has been around for a few years in politics, but television will help it stick around in the popular vernacular a little better. I found an article in The Wall Street Journal online edition from March 14, 2014 by Ben Zimmer that quotes Fed Governor Frederic Mishkin from 2008, just before the financial collapse, as saying this about inflation: “I tend to look at financial markets as being the canary in the coal mine.” That is to say, the markets were an early indicator of inflation. But nothing that came before will compare with the usage that this expression will get now.
The reason is that we just had elections last Tuesday, and Republicans lost gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and multitudes of other elections all across the country. This is an off-year election, one with very few races, but pundits are theorizing that these losses might be an early indicator of the Democratic “wave” to come in the 2018 midterms next November. Is this a repudiation of Trumpism? Are the Democrats poised to regain control of the House and, against all odds, the Senate? Will the Trump agenda be blocked permanently?
Only the canary knows for sure.