The political spectrum has been alive with candidates spewing mottos since the dawn of time. They range from the utterly bland (“Grant Us Another Term”, Ulysses S. Grant, 1872), to the patently absurd (“I’m tanned, rested, and ready for this fight.” Bobby Jindal, 2015). While few of them possess any real creativity or integrity, the longer the American democratic process goes on, the worse they undoubtedly get. The modern array of campaign slogans (be them presidential or platform specific) can now be rattled off by anyone with the same ease and gumption that they use to approach the McDonald’s jingle.
Make America Great Again, Yes We Can, Change You Can Believe In, Drain the Swamp, Black Lives Matter, We Are the 99%, I’m With Her–the list is somewhat endless. There are also the lyrical chants that few of us can remove from our heads without strong drink–”All day, all week, Occupy Wall Street”, “…go away. Racist, sexist, anti-gay”, “Hey hey, ho ho, [name] has got to go”. Rodgers and Hammerstein have few peers in the modern age.
The difference between the classic and modern examples of these catchphrases is the amount of, if not capacity for, any kind of substance to back them up. In the same way that fast food chains mass produce their fare with little to no nutritional value, politicians have begun to manufacture their campaigns in a way that strips them down to their bare essentials. It is unclear whether this turn in discourse is intentional or not, but what is wholly apparent is its effect on the state of intellectual discourse inside both the political spectrum and its constituency.
Inspiration can now be drawn from either the positive example, or negative example. But the inspiration is phony–manufactured in a way that reduces constituents to mindless beasts reacting to stimuli. What’s even more is that when we look deep enough, we begin to see another issue–namely, the fact that these slogans are being lifted from people more noteworthy than those who chose to plagiarize them.
As early as April of 2016, Donald Trump began to use the phrase ‘America First” in his campaign rhetoric. While giving a speech from the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. the soon to be Commander in Chief said the following:
“My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people, and American security, above all else. That will be the foundation of every decision that I will make. America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.”
It didn’t take long for many in the media and academia to see a startling connection that they could make. The earliest example of the America First ideology arose during World War II, at Yale University. Douglas Stuart Jr. began The America First Committee with his fellow students, who included soon to be Justice Potter Stewart and President Gerald Ford. Predisposed to the idea that a strict non-interventionist policy towards the Nazi machine in Europe was best, the AFC has been called everything from anti-semitic for its refusal to get involved with the atrocities being committed in Germany, to strategically pivotal for its isolationist cheerleading until certain foreign superpowers were sufficiently diminished.
There is also the recent example of Barack Obama’s constant reminder that “Yes We Can”. While far less controversial than “America First”, “Yes We Can” was lifted from the 1972 motto of the United Farm Workers. Sí, se puede (“Yes, one can”) was first created by Dolores Huerta during the 25-day by Cesar Chavez in Phoenix, AZ. Then in 2006, the slogan crept up again during US immigration reform protests.
Using this as the basis for his campaign successfully allowed Obama to conflate his campaign with the plight of the hispanic community, thereby gaining their support. But this association was deeply criticized by many, including Robert Lovato, who wrote in a Huffington post article:
“While it is true that the mainstreaming of „Si Se Puede‟ provides us with another signal of how the larger body politic is successfully adjusting to the death of the black-white electorate, this mainstreaming comes at a high cost: the cheapening of „Si Se Puede‟.”
Lovato’s words have become something of a universal truth that can be applied to any, if not all, political catchphrases. But it’s here, perhaps, that we begin to see the influence of corporatism and propaganda in modern politics. No longer do candidates strive to be more like the political icons of old–now their gods are Pepsi, McDonalds, Wal-Mart, and Starbucks.
In 1928, Edward Bernays wrote a book entitled Propaganda on the psychological manipulation of the consumer/constituent. As an Austrian-American public relations specialist, he spoke extensively about manipulation as an important commodity to corporations and governments. In the book he writes the following:
“…universal literacy has given him [the citizenry] rubber stamps, rubber stamps inked with advertising slogans, with editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of the tabloids and the platitudes of history, but quite innocent of original thought. Each man’s rubber stamps are the duplicates of millions of others, so that when those millions are exposed to the same stimuli, all receive identical imprints.”
Rarely do subjects get summed up that well so quickly. Bernays’ words force the mind to think about all of the websites, radio shows, television programs, advertisements, classes, and speeches that might have led us down some calculated primrose path. In this, we begin to realize the real problem with the idea of slogans as a means of political discourse is that they do nothing to bring us, as a society, any closer to the solutions we have so long sought–especially when used in the cut-rate fashion that they are currently applied. Where are the erudites? We seem to be sufficiently overrun by demagogues.
This was a guest post by Matthew Oakley. Matthew is a podcaster and writer whose articles have been featured in a number of publications, and can be heard as the weekly co-host of The Gralien Report, as well as an occasional commentator on the Middle Theory podcast. He is fiercely independent, and is outspoken with his writing regarding political topics and happenings both in the United States and abroad.