In my last blog post, I took a close look at Trump’s campaign messaging, both for 2016 and 2020. Now it’s Joe Biden’s turn. What stories-about-us is he using to support his campaign and energize the voting public?
Before we look at Biden’s slogans, I want to be clear about what I mean when I talk about the group “stories” underlying political campaigns. I mean something very simple and basic. Is the gist of their message, “We can make some improvements”? That’s a Progress story. Is it, “We’ve made it, we’re the best!”? That’s a Triumph. Are they saying, “We shouldn’t rock the boat”? That’s Stability. Or, “We need to overhaul everything, and fast!” Probably that’s a Transformation. The rest is details.
In general, the story underlying the candidate’s campaign is:
1. A vision for the group they’re addressing, and
2. A direction for that vision: up, down, backwards, or steady as we go.
3. Details, like who to credit or blame for our circumstances, or some vivid imagery to capture our imaginations, or at least an evocative word or two, to jazz things up.
That seems obvious, doesn’t it? And yet Hillary Clinton failed that simple test. Certainly her campaign had a storyline — she was suggesting improvements. That means Progress, along with the Stability to make the improvements work through a democratic process (as compared with, say, dictatorial fiat). Remember, Republicans usually want improvements (and Progress) too, although they’re often choosing different goals than the Democrats. Progress is a very conventional, very American story. And with a two-party system, the party in power typically wants to keep making their kind of progress, while the other party usually wants a course correction, to get “back on track” toward their own version of progress — the goals and ideals they were working toward the last time they were in office.
But Clinton’s slogans didn’t do the expected — getting us excited about the vision underlying her extensive collection of policy plans. Her campaign slogans weren’t about our group at all. Instead, they were about individuals. “I’m With Her” — that’s the story of one American, ideally repeated many times over, but still, just one. “Stronger Together” is closer, but it’s still about individuals — the more individuals together, the stronger they are. (And stronger for what? Were we planning a war, or something?) There’s a list online of all 84 of the messages they considered, and not one of them is about America as a group. (“It’s about you.” Seriously?)
Let’s see what Biden’s team is doing. If you go to the official Biden website, you’re greeted with “Our Best Days Still Lie Ahead.” Already, he’s far beyond Clinton: “Our” says it’s about us, “Ahead” gives us a direction (forward, of course), and “Best Days” is a fine vision, an ideal. I like the “Still” too, since it reminds us that we’ve had great collective times in the past. And if we elect Biden, he says, we’ll be even better than that! On the other hand, it’s the kind of thing an older person says to another older person to reassure them, with echoes of a 1964 Sinatra song. I’m not sure they’ve thought all of this through.
Biden’s Vision link takes us to a big grid of “Bold Ideas.” Some of these have inspiring titles, like “Lift Every Voice.” Some fall flat, like “The Biden Plan to Scale Up Employment Insurance by Reforming Short-Time Compensation Programs.” Others are inadvertently awkward, like “Joe Biden’s Agenda for Women.” (I don’t want him setting my agenda, how about you?) It’s important to be able to find his policies, but the page would be stronger if he reiterated and further developed that “Best Days” theme.
Wikipedia lists five other slogans for the Biden campaign. Let’s take them in reverse order.
“No Malarkey” is a slogan that’s trying to attest to Biden’s character, not his vision for the country, and that’s fine, as far as it goes. Not every campaign slogan needs to be about a vision for the country. Personality and character count too. As a Vox analysis explains, this slogan speaks to Biden’s authenticity but also reminds voters that he’s not afraid to come across as uncool. A mixed bag.
“We Are America, Second to None” is a phrase he used at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Yes, it’s about us, and yes, you can rouse emotion by telling us we’re great, but there’s no direction — nothing for us to do with that emotion besides cheer.
“This Is America” was a line from one of the 2019 Democratic debates, where Biden tells Trump America is strong because of its diversity and not in spite of it. Here we have part of a story-of us: He’s defining “us.” He doesn’t go on to say where we’re headed, though, and without the explanation that follows, the phrase “This is America” is a dud. I doubt it’s seriously been considered as a free-standing campaign slogan.
“Restore the Soul of America”… bingo. Biden uses this phrase in an opinion column that was published in several regional newspapers, like the Des Moines Register. His point is that the Trump presidency has damaged our national character and that we need to restore it through policies that reflect our common values, like a strong middle class, health care for all, safe schools, and basic human dignity, along with “the defining American promise — that no matter where you start in life, there’s nothing you can’t achieve.” He’d previously used the phrase in an op-ed on Religion News Service, where he relates it to his Catholic faith and how it’s sustained him during times of great personal loss.
With this slogan, Biden finally uses the Course Correction message we’d expect from the party out of power, but he also does something else. The word “soul” has religious overtones and meaning, of course, but it also resonates well with secular Americans. Soul mate, soul searching, soul food. It’s a simpler word than “character,” and it’s also more powerful.
The most effective political messages have a bit of magical sparkle to them. They’re more vivid. They use evocative language that goes beyond the ordinary — but they’re subtle about it, so they don’t trigger a skeptical backlash by seeming extreme or emotionally wrought.
One of the most effective and memorable campaign commercials in my lifetime was very successful in doing this: Reagan’s 1984 re-election ad, “It’s Morning Again in America.” The commercial documents economic gains in the previous four years, relating them to ordinary people’s lives — heading to work, moving into a new home, getting married. It ends with, “Why would we ever want to return to where we were, less than four short years ago?”
The genius of this ad, and this slogan, is that Reagan isn’t making any new promises, for further Republican-flavored Progress. Instead, he’s fusing together two genres, the Course Correction typical of a party out of office, and the Triumph — he’s already done it. And the simple, vivid, word “morning” evokes sunshine and fresh beginnings without any melodrama.
If the Biden campaign is as smart as Reagan’s, they’ll recognize what they’ve got in “Restoring the Soul of America” and run with it.
Photo source: AP, Charlie Neibergall.