During the US presidential election year of 2004, filmmaker Spike Jonze and musician John Flansburgh of the band They Might Be Giants released a compilation album called Future Soundtrack for America. Among the album's 22 songs was one that had first been performed during the distant presidential election year of 1840. "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" — original title: "Tip and Ty" — celebrated the Whig Party's William Henry Harrison, the hero of the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe (against Native American forces in Indiana), and his running mate, John Tyler. "It was the campaign song that invented the campaign song," Flansburgh told Billboard magazine, explaining his choice.
Tip and Ty rode the song to victory, but the win was short lived: Harrison died, of pneumonia, a month after being sworn in. His campaign song, despite its 2004 revival, also remains obscure. But "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" — an alliterative rhyme with an upbeat rhythm — endures as the first political slogan in American political history, and one of the most popular.
As we approach another presidential election, I've been thinking about campaign slogans old and new, memorable and forgettable. Is the carefully crafted political slogan still relevant? Or are slogans passé in the era of hashtags, acronyms, and memes?
Campaign slogans are "miniature narratives," says Philip Seargeant, a British linguist and author of The Art of Political Storytelling: Why Stories Win Votes in Post-truth Politics (2020). Successful slogans, he told me in an email, "place the desire for change at their heart, and foreground the need for action to accomplish that change." Change through action is at the heart of slogans like "Make America Great Again" — Donald Trump's 2016 campaign motto, often compressed into a hashtagged acronym, #MAGA — and "Take Back Control," a Brexit slogan. "Both use imperatives — 'make,' 'take' — which urge a form of participation from the electorate, and suggest that together some sort of change can be effected in society," Seargeant says.
Context matters too, says Seargeant: "A successful slogan will be a mix of the words on the page themselves, plus outside factors which mean these words resonate with a particular mood in society, with the character of the candidate, and with the larger branding of the campaign or movement."
By those standards, "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" shouldn't have been effective: It lacks a verb and doesn't promise change. But because it was novel and catchy, and because "Tippecanoe" provided a context of "victory," it was able to sway votes and stay memorable.
What about other political slogans over the decades —a nd this year? Here's a brief survey.
54° 40′ or Fight! Context was everything with this slogan, associated with the presidency of James Polk (1845–1849). Polk called for US expansion into the Oregon Territory, then under British control, whose northern boundary was the latitude line of 54 degrees, 40 minutes. Enough Americans knew the significance of the latitude line to make this slogan powerful and successful. It also benefited from alliteration.
Don't Change Horses in Midstream. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln campaigned on the slogan "Vote Yourself a Farm and Horses," a reference to his party's support of the Homestead Act for Western settlers. For his successful reelection campaign in 1864, Lincoln repeated the equine theme with a warning: The nation was now engaged in the Civil War, and change was risky. The idea had enough staying power to be echoed — minus horses, plus extra words — by George H.W. Bush during his own reelection campaign in 1992: "Don't Change the Team in the Middle of the Stream." Evoking Lincoln wasn't enough that year: Bill Clinton won with a slogan that put a positive, double-meaning spin on change: "For People, for a Change."
No Cross of Gold, No Crown of Thorns. Negative slogans are tricky — in general, voters respond more readily to uplift and promise — but, as we've seen with Lincoln, they sometimes work. Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan hoped to recapture the magic with a doubly negative slogan for his single-minded 1896 campaign. His platform: Silver, not gold, should be the nation's currency standard. Bryan, a fiery orator, had delivered a campaign speech in which he thundered, "You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold," and his slogan extended the Biblical imagery. He lost to William McKinley, whose slogan was positive with a P: "Patriotism, Protection, and Prosperity."
A Chicken in Every Pot and a Car in Every Garage. This economic promise was never an official slogan, but it was nonetheless associated with Herbert Hoover's successful 1928 campaign. "A Chicken for [not 'in'] Every Pot" was the headline on a pro-Hoover ad, paid for by Republican Business Men, Inc., that touted "Republican prosperity" that put "a car in every backyard, to boot." Far from being the cheap source of protein it is today, chicken was an occasional luxury in the 1920s — just as it had been in 16th-century France, when King Henry IV proclaimed: "I want there to be no peasant in my kingdom so poor that he is unable to have a chicken in his pot every Sunday." The slogan came back to bite Hoover after the stock-market crash of 1929.
I Like Ike. The first presidential slogan of the television era had its genesis in a Broadway musical, Call Me Madam, written by Irving Berlin. Berlin had met General Dwight D. "Ike" Eisenhower in wartime London, and inserted a song called "They Like Ike," into the storyline about a fictional US ambassador, played by Ethel Merman. The show opened in October 1950, long before Eisenhower had agreed to run for office; the song is sung by two Democratic senators who boast that Harry Truman would win another term and a Republican congressman claiming that Eisenhower was more electable: "They like Ike / And Ike is good on a mike." A reluctant Eisenhower was persuaded to run, and then persuaded to participate in short television ads, for which Walt Disney's brother Roy turned "I Like Ike" into a song and a 60-second animated spot. The Russian-American linguist Roman Jakobson (1896–1982) admired the slogan's "poetic function": like contains the rhyming Ike, which contains I. The slogan thus gives us an "image of a feeling which totally envelopes its object."
No such perfection has been manifest in the 2020 slogans. The Trump/Pence campaign is repeating 2016's "Make America Great Again." Before they dropped out of the primaries, four Democratic candidates — Amy Klobuchar, Seth Moulton, Wayne Messam, and Beto O'Rourke — simply added "for America" to their names. (Good to know they weren't against America.) Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren sampled "Dream Big Fight Hard," "Persist," "I Have a Plan for That," "Big, Structural, Change," and the slightly racy acronym/hashtag #LFG.
Billionaire businessman Tom Steyer, who dropped out in February, was verbose: "There's Nothing More Powerful Than the Unified Voice of the American People." At the opposite extreme was Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, whose terse, words-of-one-syllable slogan was "Not Me. US." "US" is cannily ambiguous here, representing both an inclusive pronoun and the United States.
Which brings us to the prevailing Democratic ticket, former vice president Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris.
When she was running for the presidency, Harris drew on her résumé as district attorney and state attorney general: her slogan, "For the People," echoed the words with which prosecutors introduce their case. Biden's original slogan — "Our Best Days Still Lie Ahead" — contained a wistful promise but no call to action. In July, he introduced a new slogan, "Build Back Better." It ticks off several of Philip Seargent's "effective slogan" boxes: an imperative verb (build), a promise of change (better), and a halo of context (the pandemic; the Trump presidency). And it's alliterative.Is it a coincidence that, just two months earlier, a big TED conference — online, of course — also had focused on post-pandemic solutions and also had been called " Build Back Better"? Well, you know how the old slogan goes: There is nothing new under the sun.