Politicians are eternally positing new ideas to solve the ever-changing problems of society. These ideas range across the political spectrum and address a variety of issues. Governmental policies can be extreme or moderate, authoritarian or libertarian, right-winged or leftist; but regardless of their substance, they have one thing in common: they need to be sold. All ideas must gain support to be implemented, whether it be from voters, parties, foreign allies, or other constituencies. For this reason political initiatives often employ persuasive slogans. From FDR’s ‘New Deal’ plan to fight economic recession in the USA in the early 1930s to the Hippies’ ‘Make love, not war’ campaign in the 1970s to protest American intervention in Vietnam, to ‘Workers of the world unite!’, a Karl Marx quote used to encourage communist revolution. Slogans accompany movements, politicians, policies, and ideas with the purpose of persuasion. So begs the question: how effective are political slogans as a method of influence, and are we perhaps affected by them more than we think we are?
The main purposes of slogans are to encapsulate the principal message of the movement it represents and to rally support. Oftentimes, politicians isolate one purpose to prioritise the other. One of President Obama’s favourite slogans was “Yes, We Can”. This is one of the simplest ones I’ll mention; however, it is a perfect case study for how slogans are effective at rallying support. The following is a speech Obama made during his first presidential campaign which was the origin of this slogan:
We know the battle ahead will be long. But always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change. For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we’ve been told we’re not ready, or that we shouldn’t try, or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. (applause) Yes, We Can. Yes, we can. (crowd chants, “Yes we can”) Yes, we can. It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can. (cheers) It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can. (cheers) It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can. (crowd responds in unison, “Yes we can”) It was the call of workers who organised, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality. (applause and crowd chants, “Yes we can”) Yes, we can, opportunity and prosperity. Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world. Yes, we can.
If that doesn’t generate support, I don’t know what does. “Yes, We Can” is an excellent slogan. It uses the ‘3 syllable rule’, which makes it easily chantable and repeatable; it uses a collective pronoun to suggest unity; it gives hope and suggests an Obama administration will be one of action; and, as a final touch, it has historical context. “Yes, We Can” was inspired by a slogan used by Cesar Chavez, a civil rights activist who advocated for labour rights through the United Farm Workers’ Association in the 1970s. His tagline was ‘Si, Se Puede’.
So, even though Obama’s slogan doesn’t really reflect any policies, given the historical context, it is clear that the slogan aligns with the idea of social change.
Some slogans have been ineffective. During one of her presidential campaigns, Hillary Clinton used the slogan “I’m with Her”. No sense of unity, no collective pronouns, not very chantable, no indication of political intention. Just a flimsy appeal to a feminist demographic, similar to the party name and slogan ‘Unidas Podemos’. The point is that gender has nothing to do with how someone is going to govern a country. Did Hillary lose the election because of the slogan? No. But this weak slogan and the general lack of gusto attributed to Clinton, proved to be ineffective compared to the bombast and easily digestible “Drain the Swamp” slogan (paired with a constant spew of conspiracy theories and misogyny) of her political opponent.
Donald Trump’s slogans can be very telling, but often go by unchecked. One of his most popular slogans was “Lock Her Up” calling for the imprisonment of his political opponent: Hillary Clinton. The slogan was one of the first red flags of the Trump campaign. It was a clear sign of dictatorial aspiration. And this slogan was chanted by thousands at his rallies and echoed through social media for the duration of the election season and later. The slogan was a feat of demagoguery. If the idea of imprisoning Hillary Clinton had been dryly introduced by Trump in a tweet or formal speech, it would not have the effect it had. But because it was conveyed through such a vessel of influence, the slogan, “Lock Her Up” was chanted by thousands of people at the Republican National Convention and around the USA. However, if you were to ask the average Trump supporter what crimes Hillary Clinton actually committed, you’d probably receive a nonsensical, regurgitated answer along the lines of ‘pizzeria pedophilia, and private server emails’ with little to no elaboration.
“Make America Great Again” has an interesting history. Originally used by Ronald Reagan during the 1980s, during a period of economic recession. His idea was to spark a period of economic change and progress, similar to the growth of the previous decades. Donald Trump’s use of the slogan was much more vague. It appealed to an older generation’s nostalgia and also to a resentment towards progressivism felt by right-wing and moderate America. The slogan’s power is not in its substance, but in its cultural significance. As a result of the tagline’s popularity and moments in pop culture (such as Kanye West wearing a MAGA cap), the slogan has become iconic and effective in creating cult-like support. “Make America Great Again” was also adopted by Vox in 2016 with its Spanish equivalent: “Hacer a España grande otra vez”.
On the surface, political slogans are memorable, repeatable taglines that sum up the movements they represent in a few words. However, a slogan holds a much deeper meaning that lies in the subtext. Take, for example, one of Franco’s slogans: “Una, grande y libre!”. On the surface, the slogan is rather unassuming. Big words that mean nothing. However, within the context of 1930s Spain, we can infer many things. To start, ‘una’ suggests the Francoist, anti-separatist sentiment, with regards to Cataluña and the País Vasco. ‘Grande’ connotes Franco’s intentions to expand Spanish territory into Africa, and ‘libre’ specifically means freedom from the threat of the “Judeo-Communist conspiracy”. Once we consider the context, a lot can be inferred from these few, simple words.
This is also true with Franco’s “Arriba España”. These two words are incredibly effective, especially considering that they are still frequently recited to this day. They appeal to a sense of patriotism causing them to evoke passion in those who hear them. Furthermore, the slogan is suggestive of the ultimate fascist ideology of nationalism or national superiority. “Arriba España”, meaning, above every other country or race. It is the cliché pattern of authoritarianism: create enough national pride and suddenly and subtly, the rest of the world is the enemy. This creates an atmosphere of fear, the historically essential ingredient in the recipe of extremist rule.
Jair Bolsonaro, former president of Brazil, mirrors this strategy with his slogan: “Brazil above everything, God above everyone”. This adopts the similar idea of national superiority, but in this case, with a touch of religious populism. Bolsonaro’s presidency was an authoritarian one, characterised by attacks on democratic institutions and, more recently, his refusal to accept the results of the elections that voted him out of office. An appeal to national pride is often an unmissable aspect of an authoritarian slogan. Examples include “Brazil above everything”, “Blood and soil” used in Nazi Germany, and the aforementioned “Arriba España”. (Also notable was Bolsonaro’s slogan, ‘the work sets you free,’ which was inscribed on the entrance of the Auschwitz concentration camp).
On the surface, slogans are taglines meant to encapsulate the values of a political view, while simultaneously being inspirational and repeatable by the masses. However, using critical thinking and historical resemblances, we can uncover hidden meanings and intentions behind seemingly innocent political slogans. So the next time you hear one, really think about what hidden intentions lie behind just a few words.
Lastly, I’d like to leave you with perhaps the most honest political slogan I’ve ever heard, employed by a Philippines' 2014 presidential candidate, Jun-Jun Sotto: “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll do my best”.
Sam Pañeda, Year 12
Image By Ronald Reagan presidential campaign, 1980 - Old Politicals Dead link — (Archived link)Direct download — (Archived link), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48458566