For at least the last several election cycles I have been rankled by a political phenomenon that I am hard put to explain: the appallingly bad quality of Democratic Party messaging, especially in national campaigns. Republicans, clearly, have been winning the messaging wars, though at times their slogans are not matched by effective policies.
Before we tackle the Democrats’ problems with campaign rhetoric, let’s look at the GOP side’s main slogan for the 2016 presidential election: “Make America Great Again.” “Make” tells voters that “You can do this. You are the ones to do the ‘making.’” Secondly, both “America” and “Great” are top-drawer words to wrap into a slogan.
“Again,” I’m afraid, while a strong word, has generally been interpreted as a pitch to the fears of older white voters, especially those in rural areas. “Again” implies that going backward in our history our country was indeed stronger, prouder, more resilient than at present.
What “times” should we be thinking back to? The Vietnam War, which cost us over 55,000 U.S. troops and civilians dead and hundreds of thousands wounded in a military campaign that ended in defeat?
To the times of the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, all amid the discombobulation of Vietnam, draft dodging, the flag and draft card burnings?
Back to a time of “sundown cities” (all Blacks out of town by dusk or else), Jim Crow and lynchings across the South and right up into Indiana and other parts of the Midwest?
So much for the Republican side.
Hillary Clinton’s main campaign slogan “Stronger Together” didn’t say that much. It seemed to indicate that if all our ethnic and political differences could just magically disappear, everything in America would be, as the byword from the 1920s might have it, “hunky-dory.” Few on the right were ready to buy into it.
The Joe Biden campaign achieved a leap forward with the slogan, “Build Back Better.” Notice that as in “Make America Great Again,” the Biden slogan put the ball in the people’s hands with the word “build.” The message was “you are part of what we’re doing; you are important.” And “better” is a tried and tested Madison Avenue advertising word. It resonates. Who doesn’t want “better” for their life and for the country?
On to what I consider the real losers in Democratic messaging. I’ll cite three, though others are just as bad:
“Gun control.” Yikes! Talk about waving a red bandana in front of the bull’s face and inviting him to kill you. That just leads the NRA to suggest, “Watch out! They’re coming for your guns!” The call should be for “gun safety,” which implies: Keep guns from children and erratic or criminal adults.
“Critical Race Theory.” Sounds like it emerged from a graduate seminar in sociology at Yale. The three-word combo has a decidedly leftist academic ring sure to turn off about two-thirds of the country. Less inflammatory language can convey the same message: “Honest Review of American Racial History.”
“Defund the police.” Are you kidding me? Straight out designed to ensure defeat of any and all candidates who use it. So much smarter: “Public Safety for the 21st Century, ” which implies a change in tactics and perhaps even reallocation of resources.