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On The Devolution Of Political Slogans: Mike Will Get WHAT Done?

By: Dr. Alan Perlman
Tel: (603) 899-3043
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Man is a creature who lives not upon bread alone, but primarily by catchwords.

Robert Louis Stevenson

What kind of a political campaign would it be if we didn’t have slogans?

The political slogan is like a brand name, a brief thought that somehow summarizes the campaign and a candidacy.  

A Treasure-Trove of Americana

A brief visit to Wikipedia -- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._presidential_campaign_slogans  -- reveals our country’s rich heritage of slogans, and I urge you to check it out..  (All items from Wikipedia, which includes references and much information.)1

A slogan can just brand the candidate{s}.  "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" was the 1840 U.S. presidential slogan of William Henry Harrison. Tippecanoe was a famous 1811 battle in which Harrison defeated Tecumseh; John Tyler was Harrison's running mate.

Or the slogan can identify specific policy goals." Martin Van Buren ran against Harrison on “Independent Treasury and Liberty."

Some slogans combine the two: “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Speech --- Fremont” – John Fremont’s slogan in 1856.

Some are just ideals, as with Lincoln’s 1864 “Union, Liberty, Peace.”

Sometimes the slogan is what we today call a “dog whistle”: "In Your Heart, You Know He's Right," the 1964 U.S. presidential campaign slogan of Barry Goldwater. I won’t go into the psycho-political implications of that one.  They’re complex.

Many are much more in-your-face than today, as with William Tilden’s 1877 “Tilden or blood.”

Occasionally a slogan rides the coattails of someone else: “Grandfather's hat fits Ben!" – that was Benjamin Harrison’s 1888 slogan, referring to his grandfather, William Henry Harrison.  I’m glad George W. didn’t try that one.

Some have clever rhymes: "It is nothing but fair to leave Taft in the chair" – William Howard Taft, 1912.

We also find something else we don’t have today: slogans that insult the opponent (Trump just does that off the cuff): "Better A Third Termer than a Third Rater", the 1940 slogan of Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

For sheer nastiness, my nominee is "Ma, Ma, Where's my Pa?", used in 1884 by James G. Blaine supporters against Grover Cleveland.  The slogan referred to the allegation that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child. When Cleveland was elected, his supporters added "Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!"

Feel-Good Words

All too many slogans consist of feel-good words that are indefinable.  Lincoln’s is on the borderline: union (i.e., the South loses), peace (we know what that looks like), liberty (for whom?).

"Putting People First" – the 1992 slogan of Bill Clinton – what does that even mean?  Putting people first over what?  Machines?  Ants?

George H.W. Bush campaigned in 1988 on "A Kinder, Gentler Nation."  How does the government make that happen?  Sure, it would be nice if people didn’t give each other the finger when someone cuts them off on the road.  Is he going to pass a road-rage law?  I don’t think he really understood that slogan or its companion, “A Thousand Points of Light,” i.e., widespread, spontaneous outbreaks of charity and good works.

We can thank speech writer Peggy Noonan for these lyrical, aspirational phrases.  Bush didn’t have the verbal skills to do anything but deliver them.

Farther down the credibility scale are all the slogans about “hope” and “change.”  Change to what?  See Hillary’s slogans below.  When politicians say that, they mean ‘things will be the same, except I’ll be President.’

Strong Word, Empty Slogan

Likewise, the “greatness” category.  In 1960, JFK (and/or his speechwriter) announced “A Time for Greatness.”  Ronald Reagan campaigned in 1980 on making America great again.  Sound familiar?  The current “Make America Great Again” stokes national pride and resonates deeply with some people, especially if they have been convinced (by the use of again) that right now, they’re not great.

Great is a powerful word of indeterminate meaning – the most troublesome kind.  It’s pointless to debate whether America is, was or will be “great” because we’ll never agree on what greatness is.  The President thinks a great country is militarily strong enough to rule the world (an idea that goes back far beyond Trump).  We already spend more on our military than everyone else combined, and it’s still not enough. 

I think a great country doesn’t start unprovoked wars, or run an fourteen-figure deficit, or allow its beautiful urban areas to be defiled with human waste and tent cities  But that’s just me.

Detached from Reality

Slogans utterly departed from reality with Reagan’s 1984 “It’s Morning Again in America,” with its completely unspecific whisperings of a new beginning of some sort.

Or how about Clinton’s "Building a Bridge to the Twenty-first Century" (1996)?  What exactly is this bridge, even metaphorically, and why should the 21st century matter any more than any other temporal landmark?

As I perused the Wikipedia list, I couldn’t help wondering where all those early slogans came from.  The candidate and his inner circle, perhaps, with contributions, in more recent years, of his communications people and speechwriters?  In Reagan’s case it was legendary adman Hal Riney, who applied the same soft-focused sense of a vague, happy future to sell Saturn cars.

Descent Into Mush

But we know where they come from today.  Highly-paid consultants conduct expensive focus groups, and the result is verbal cream of wheat. 

Marking the final descent into insipidity is Hillary’s 2016 “Stronger Together.”  Stronger than what?  A bundle of sticks is stronger together.  So is a football team.  What’s your point?  And yet people waved signs proclaiming this very message.

Her other slogans were equally bland and indeterminate: "Ready for Change, Ready to Lead" (Change to what? And what if I don’t want to be led?), "Big Challenges, Real Solutions: Time to Pick a President," "In to Win," "Working for Change, Working for You," and "The strength and experience to make change happen."

You would think you couldn’t get any more vague and mealy-mouthed, but the latest entrant would prove you wrong: “Mike Will Get It Done.”  What exactly will he get done?  Maybe some things that Americans don’t want done.  The it has a creepy indeterminacy to it.

Whatever Bloomberg paid for that bowl of pabulum…it was too much.

ADDENDUM: Since this was originally published, the world has tilted sideways.  “Mini-Mike” is gone.  Biden now seems the front-runner.   We all face a new threat, and there’s no time for slogans.  Or rather, we all have the same slogan: Make America Healthy Again.   

1. This article contains historical information paraphrased from Wikipedia.  Everything else is original.


Dr. Alan Perlman is a forensic expert who offers clients exceptional quality, experience, and expertise. He is an academically trained linguist, one of a small number of linguistics experts who assist the legal professions.

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