A political battle cry is a yell or chant. Battle cries precede combat as surely as thunder precedes a snow slide. They are rarely articulate since the purpose is to arouse aggression, or at least esprit de corps. The threat display aims to lock down a perceived competitive advantage. The screeching battle cry is often overstated primarily to scare the enemy and avoid battle altogether. The sight of the enemy fleeing is the stuff political stunt writers dream about.
A political slogan is witty, catchy, and quotable. It comes during battle and spreads out as the snow slide widens on its way down the mountain. It’s softer than a yell and always shows up at political rallies where the enemy is absent. To be politically successful, a slogan must appeal aesthetically and in poetically leveraged language. To be ethical, it must signal some moral authority.
What are the ethics of writing political slogans and battle cries?
While slogans are the brainstorms of vintage politics and written by well-established writers, little thought has been given to their ethical parameters. The ethics of “politics” is scant—the ethics of writing political slogans and battle cries are even thinner. Abstractly, neither the battle cry nor the slogan seeks truth. How far the battle cry can be heard, and how memorable the slogan is, can be buried under an avalanche of aggression and shrewdness. Truth or falsity are not tests in slogan writing. Politicians can hide from truth by shedding their skins and moulting their horns.
If truth is not an ethical norm for sloganeers or battle criers, what other moral imperatives might be adaptable? Must a slogan keep a promise if it makes one? That depends entirely on Election Day. If the promise maker is not elected then his or her promises are spilt milk. No need to cry over them. The battle is no longer joined, the loser leaves the field, and the winner has his own slogan to live down.
What about kindness, compassion and empathy? Yes, both are ethical norms for longer writings but are rarely heard in slogans, and never in battle cries. Occasionally, there are hints of compassion, almost amounting to empathy in concession speeches, but those are not catchy or arousing.
How does the Golden Rule fare when matched up against a memorable slogan or a withering battle cry? The Bronze Rule works in politics: do it to them before they do it to us.
Many campaigns have sought the high moral ground in political messaging. Enrich the poor. Cure the sick. Feed the hungry. Clean the atmosphere. Restore the oceans. Live in balance with nature. Power the world sustainably. Stop fighting. So far, no candidate past a primary election has espoused these ethical imperatives.
The presidential election slogans over the last forty years are eerily similar. In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s slogan was “Let’s Make America Great Again.” Since that didn’t work, in 1988, George H.W. Bush said he wanted a “Kinder, Gentler Nation.” In 1992, Bill Clinton claimed he was “For People, For a Change.” In 2000, George W. Bush campaigned for “Compassionate Conservatism.” In 2008, Barack Obama hoped for “Change We Can Believe In.” Most recently, Donald Trump, apparently not remembering Ronald Regan said it first, repeated, “Make America Great Again.”
Ethical norms are often found in trigger words that embody moral or ethical imperatives. Greatness is neither ethical nor imperative. Kindness and gentleness historically tests for morality. Compassion is a virtue. Change and belief are often found in rules of ethics. If words imply ethical imperatives then Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush get credit for making ethical overtures to the electorate. And President Obama gets a nod for seeking change we can believe in. Presidents Regan, Clinton, and Trump campaigned on slogans without ethical overtones, much less imperatives.
Twenty-first-century battle cries were a staple for President George W. Bush. Just over twenty months into his first term, his battle cry was “rally-round-the-flag,” sparked by the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. He promptly launched the “War on Terrorism.” His rally effect was sudden and substantial, and gave him a ratings increase seen only by the other wartime president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Donald Trump used his rallies in 2015 to denounce his opponent by urging his base to “Lock Her Up.” Hillary Clinton’s “Stronger Together” slogan was her response to Donald Trump’s Reaganesque “Make America Great Again.”
Perhaps the most controversial political battle cry in American history is Donald Trump’s America First. It is not subtle. It is in your face on purpose, girded by a foreign policy emphasizing an alphabet soup of isolationism, nationalism, unilateralism, and protectionism. It is not a catchy slogan designed to attract all Republican voters. It’s the core of a deeply conservative segment of the Republican Party. Trump’s immigration plan promises to reduce illegal immigration and change the makeup of legal immigrants.
In opposition, the Democratic Party is searching for a battle cry that is a pithy, coherent rebuttal to America First. It might turn out to be a century old, equally loaded phrase, the American Dream. It expresses a very different set of American ideals by defining a foreign policy emphasizing the opportunity for prosperity and success, at home and abroad, an upward social mobility for all American families, conservative and progressive, achieved through hard work in a society with few global barriers. The ethical imperative in the American Dream is the belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society where upward mobility is possible for everyone. Democrats hold the opposite view of America First; the American Dream is a nation of immigrants. Over centuries, the prospect of achieving the American Dream has attracted immigrants from all over the world.
The moral high ground between the two major political parties will turn on which grand slogan wins. If more people want to withdraw behind America First, the GOP will win. If the majority wants to keep the American Dream, it will win. Or, they will splinter into subsets of ethical and unethical sloganeering. We could hear the cry, America Again by Democrats, or Trump Forever by Republicans.
The Electoral College is not persuaded by slogans.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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