Putting Slogans First

We don’t like to think so, but yes, slogans do matter. Why hasn’t Hillary come up with a good one?

By Kevin Mattson

Tagged Donald TrumpHillary ClintonPresidential Campaign

Does a slogan really matter to a political campaign? Most of us probably hope not. Slogans are branding, they’re marketing; they dumb down politics into a small stream of words. But at In These Times, Theo Anderson offers a smart and troubling claim to the contrary. Yes, he suggests, slogans do matter, and it’s time progressives in this presidential race start caring about them.

The slogan that drives the Trump campaign is, of course, “Make America Great Again.” Four easy words, but abstract enough to allow for the play of an individual’s imagination. When was America great exactly (Trump has hinted at some time in the 1950s)?  How to define “great”?  The slogan lets a listener’s mind fill that in—although Trump’s recent convention speech filled us in on how he himself perceives those words. His speech was both an apocalyptic assessment of where the country is at, but also a jeremiad, suggesting our better times are behind us—something that we could change only if we allow the Donald to turn the ship around.

Anderson, having just covered the Republican convention, suggests that this slogan is what has managed to hold together a party that is fracturing in so many directions. It’s the slogan he saw constantly on t-shirts and posters on the ground in Cleveland. He concurs with the general consensus that Trump “lacks substance—that he’s a showman and a shallow salesman.” But he also insists that just because “Donald Trump is a salesman whose product is himself” progressives shouldn’t forget that, well, “he’s frighteningly good at” making this pitch. Trump, for Anderson, “understands the power of words, of slogans—of ‘the vision thing,’ as George H.W. Bush once called it.”

Here’s the real kicker, though, for progressive readers: Anderson claims, rightfully, that Hillary Clinton fails on this front. “Maybe the greatest mystery,” Anderson writes about Clinton’s campaign so far, “is that a politician who is famous for calculation, and who has had several elections to calculate and is even married to one of the greatest political calculators of his generation, could do no better than ‘I’m With Her.’”

This reminded me of an earlier slogan that Clinton trotted out, albeit briefly. It was “Make America Whole Again.” Okay, lesson number one: You can’t have a slogan with a word that has two different meanings when it is spoken aloud. Make America Hole Again could easily have been the take-away when it was first heard by those paying attention at the time. And that sounds weird, confusing, and tin-eared. But it also symbolized the fact that, instead of projecting a vision of where she wants to take the country, Clinton tends to react and act back against her opponent (be it first Sanders and now Trump). Which leaves many wondering not what she’s against, but what she’s for.

Campaigns are all about public rhetoric, and slogans are one part of that. Remember Obama in 2008, with his “Yes We Can” and those posters with that one word, “Hope” (which, ironically, was also a term Bill Clinton used in his “A Place Called Hope” campaign)? We now know that Obama was painfully unnerved by these slogans, realizing that at heart he was a realist, a pragmatist rather than a visionary. But they offered a general vision of an aspirational moment, playing off the stay-the-course attitude of John McCain and the nasty and belligerent talk of Sarah Palin. A political campaign doesn’t come down to a slogan, or to just a few words. But slogans offer aspiration and, hopefully, a vision.

And unfortunately, aspiration and vision are what’s still missing so far from Clinton’s campaign. She has always been cautious—she even used this caution as her primary critique of Sanders during the primary (he was over-promising on big ideals, she said). She too often adopts language that hints at her personal merit and entitlement for the position. She may be well-served to remember how so many of Obama’s famous speeches highlighting his own racial identity, in relation to his vision of America—think his speech referencing Minister Wright—were received during his campaign (and how they have been woefully missing from his time governing). No doubt, “vision” and public rhetoric are antithetical to Clinton’s pragmatism and realism. And “I’m With Her” clearly reflects that absence.

Perhaps we need to accept that a cautious realist and pragmatist with a long career in politics just can’t serve up a pithy slogan that resonates. But as Mario Cuomo once warned, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” And that’s why we need worry about this upcoming election. Clinton isn’t governing just yet, and that’s why she needs to delve into some poetry and get to work on asking the big questions, such as: Where do you want to take this country and what words will you use to help evoke that to Americans? It’s a fair question to ask someone who is seeking to be elected to the highest office in the land. And progressives should be worried that, at this stage, it’s one so many of us are still asking.

Read more about Donald TrumpHillary ClintonPresidential Campaign

Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University. He is author, most recently, of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952.

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