“Sloganeer” is a dismissive term, generally used to describe a shallow, insincere huckster. Yet political slogans, as a new WikiLeaks release of stolen, presumably authentic Hillary Clinton campaign e-mails makes clear, are serious business. Top campaign staff and the candidate all weigh in, looking to convey crucial information, a competitive advantage and a thematic point of view in a succinct phrase.
The Donald Trump campaign may be a daily circus of crass incompetence, but its slogan, “Make America Great Again,” was expertly crafted to appeal to his core followers. It conveys nationalism, nostalgia and deep pessimism and insecurity about the nation’s current status — three pillars of Trump’s run — along with the implied agency required to reverse course. You, Disgruntled American Voter, can “make” it happen.
The contrast with Trump’s opponent is also implicit. He’ll do what’s necessary to return to the great days of yore when white men were on top at home and America dominated the world. Under his opponent, his slogan portends, white men will continue to lose power to racial minorities and women, while the US loses out to foreign nations.
Hillary Clinton’s slogan — “Stronger Together” — is less rousing but at least it’s targeted at a majority. Like almost everything in this campaign, it is shaped by the outlandish anomaly of Trump’s candidacy. Still, it captures a fundamental contrast with the Republican nominee. While Trump is divisive, pitting people against one another and weakening the fabric of the nation, Clinton’s slogan promises to bring people together to build on the nation’s collective strength.
An August 2015 e-mail from Clinton’s pollster included the “Stronger Together” slogan. It also included 84 alternatives. Many of the rejects are telling.
In August 2015, Clinton led her main primary opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, by more than 2 to 1, though Sanders clearly had momentum even then. The ideal Clinton slogan would have both blunted Sanders’s rise and positioned Clinton for her general-election run. (Barack Obama’s “Change We Can Believe In” worked in both primary and general elections in 2008.)
Of the 85 proposed slogans, 17 included some variation on the word “fairness,” showing how sensitive the campaign was to the uneven distribution of wealth in recent decades. “Fairness First” and “A Fair Fight for Families” tell you all you need to know about how middle-class voters view the economy of the 21st century.
There are nine different “fighter” slogans. Who is Clinton fighting for? Middle-class families. Why do they need a fighter? Because the economy is stacked against them, of course. So something like “Your Family. Her Fight” is really just another way of acknowledging that the middle class is getting the shaft while asserting that Clinton will be a champion.
“Strength” is another category of slogans, but it includes subtle variations. “Strength and Fairness,” for example, is an offer of two distinct qualities. “Strength You Can Count On,” by contrast, is an explicit character reference, so it’s not surprising it was rejected. The electorate’s faith in Clinton — its willingness to count on her — isn’t broad or deep enough to enable the slogan to do its work.
“Stronger together,” the campaign’s eventual choice, is both a rebuke to Trump’s divisiveness and an assertion that Clinton shares the nation’s reigning values and ideals. She’s part of us, but, interestingly, she makes no explicit claim about leading us, or carrying us on her shoulders. We’re all just in it together.
A revitalized social contract is another recurring theme — and yet another claim to fairness. “A Better Bargain for a Better Tomorrow” sounds clunky, but it captures the promise of a new deal, that the future will be more reliable and fair than the recent past.
A few rejected slogans resonated in unhelpful ways. “Go Further” is not only blandly indistinct. It also recalls the motto for the Merry Pranksters’ drug-addled cross-country bus trip depicted in Tom Wolfe’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” It’s included in a set of slogans pitched to the future, but with no tether to Clinton’s candidacy.
“Rise Up,” “Climb Higher” and “Unleash Opportunity” are all generically aspirational. As slogans, they fail. But they hint at the campaign’s challenge in selling an unpopular candidate. Better to just gloss over who precisely is helping you rise, climb and unleash.
Fortunately for the Clinton team, no dazzling slogans have been necessary since Trump won the Republican nomination. Instead, Clinton’s candidacy has been lifted by the most powerful, if unspoken, political promise in modern American history: “I’m not Trump.”
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.