Entry from July 16, 2010

A curious article by Frank Mankiewicz and Joel L. Swerdlow in today’s Washington Post laments: “New Deal? New Frontier? The days of presidential slogans may be gone.” Now I will be the first to agree that there are lots of things to regret about today’s political culture and lots of ways in which politics in the days of Roosevelt or Kennedy — if not those presidents themselves — were to be preferred over the politics and politicians of today. But the absence of popularizing slogans for ambitious government programs of intervention in the economic and social lives of Americans is most certainly not one of them.

After briefly considering how “the proliferation of cable television, blogs and all the electronic paraphernalia of our era. . . have made analysis and labeling more difficult, if not impossible” — as if analysis and labeling were complementary rather than antithetical operations — Messrs. Mankiewicz and Swerdlow settle on a different explanation:

While it’s difficult to exaggerate the power of electronic media on U.S. politics and public policy, a better answer probably lies in the most fundamental nature of American politics during the past half century — the difference in ideology between those who would expand and those who want to reduce government’s role. It can hardly be coincidence that the sloganeers — the Square, New and Fair Dealers; and the New Frontiersmen — were the promoters, strategists, candidates and, later, the presidents who thought government should act affirmatively in an attempt to better people”s lives. Today we would call them activists, not stabilizers or traditionalists.

In the presidential troughs between the “activist” peaks, in other words, slogans are redundant, which would seem to suggest to these writers that we have been in such a trough since Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” — which, oddly, they do not include in their list of triumphant political slogans, regarding it as they do as “a useful label for a set of domestic objectives” but “hardly a New Frontier.” And now, no sooner do we elect our first “activist” president in a generation than those darned stabilizers and traditionalists are back, trying to de-sloganize him.

Those who would shrink government may now be on the march, but it”s those presidents who believe in government as a way to improve lives or mitigate distress who seem to define their time in office through self-described calls to action. The emergence of a label for the Obama administration would be a sure sign that it has finally gained traction. “Yes-We-Canners” doesn’t quite fit the bill.

No indeed! But I think the authors dismiss the importance of the electronic media too quickly — not because the electronic media themselves are responsible for the decline of the slogan but because the permanent media environment they have created has produced a revolutionary change in the advertising business, which (though they don’t admit it) is really their theme. Slogans — not just for political products but for commercial ones as well — pretty much died out in the 1960s. In my EPPC/Hudson Institute Summer Movie series this year we have seen two movies from the 1940s about advertising in which slogans figure prominently: Christmas in July (1940) and Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948). In both, the slogan is a joke. The movie audience is treated as belonging to a more sophisticated class of people than those designed to be bamboozled (the word of Cary Grant’s Jim Blandings) by a slogan into buying more “Maxford House” coffee or “Wham” brand ham. This should tell us something.

By the time of Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal,” that is, the advertiser’s slogan was already widely regarded as a by-word for fakery. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” may look in retrospect like the same kind of thing as the Square and New Deals, but that is a result, I think, of his tragically premature death. Before November 22nd, 1963, I very much doubt that there were more than a handful of Americans outside the administration itself and its most fervent Democratic supporters who would have used the term “New Frontier” unironically. It should not be surprising, then, that neither the “activists” nor the “stabilizers” among subsequent presidents have been successful in producing a slogan that has caught on with the public. Neither has anybody else.

Nowadays, people look to advertisers not for slogans, which the media-savvy public no longer takes seriously, but for “image” — that is, an association of the product with something attractive, agreeable, fashionable and suggestive of high social status. President Obama’s equivalent of the New Deal isn’t “Yes We Can” but that Shepard Fairey poster with the single word “Hope” on it. Such associations tell you nothing about the product, nor are they meant to do so. “Hope” for what? Well, “Change.” Change to what? Who cared? Nobody ever seemed to be much interested in the specifics. This is simply the difference between the old-fashioned, literal and content-based politics of the Rooseveltian era and the cool consumerist politics of the age of celebrity. President Obama may be finding out the hard way that activism itself is now, like the sloganeering that was once its handmaid, a back number — along with, for that matter, the print-era term “back number.”

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