The ethics of presidential slogans: They may be catchy, but can we believe them?

September 28, 2020 11:01 am

A screen displays the campaign banner for U.S. President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on the South Lawn of the White House Aug. 27, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“In God We Trust” is the official motto of the United States, but the first to appear on a circulating coin was “Mind Your Business,” conceived by Benjamin Franklin.

The motto appears on the 1787 “Fugio” cent — the Latin for “I fly” is a reference to “time flies.” The coin also is printed with a depiction of a sundial, symbolizing the popular saying “Time is Money.” Franklin penned that, too, in his 1748 essay “Advice to a Young Tradesman.”

“Mind Your Business” encourages entrepreneurialism and privacy, two very American beliefs.

Family mottoes also express beliefs, some dating back centuries and appearing in coats of arms. For instance, the Bugeja family crest depicts a cow or bull with the bovine motto, “To the Willing, Nothing is Impossible.”

Well, yes and no. Determination helps achieve goals, but lots of things are impossible, no matter how willing we are to realize them.

What if you lack a family crest or dislike what yours stands for?

I pose that to my media ethics students who create their own personal heraldry, choosing colors that represent heritage or culture and designing symbols associated with ethics or lifestyle. They add icons to the left and right of a chevron illustrating career path or aspiration. Their motto, or “moral brand,” goes under the chevron.

You can see examples in this article or learn how to create heraldry in this video.

Family mottoes are powerful. We hear them as children and heed them as adults. Here are a few from my class:

  • Treat others the way you want to be treated.
  • Respect your elders.
  • Never apologize.
  • Cheating is okay as long as you don’t get caught.

As you can see, some mottoes are true (Golden Rule), some mostly true (depends on the elder), mostly false (apologies also free us), and false (cheating is never okay).

Assess your own mottoes and put your beliefs to the test.

Presidential slogans are as memorable as mottoes. Campaign officials conceive, test and promote them. Sometimes a candidate says a catchy phrase in a speech, and supporters adopt it.

When candidates put slogans on buttons and banners, they function like political coats of arms.

Slogans fall into broad categories. Some play off candidate names or share platforms, promises and values. Memorable ones inspire unforgettable images or catchy rhymes.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater adopted this slogan: “In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right.” Lyndon B. Johnson countered: “In Your Guts, You Know He’s Nuts.”

Candidate Names

In 1852, Franklin Pierce alluded to prior fellow Democrat James K. Polk: “We Polked you in ‘44, We shall Pierce you in ’52.” In 1856, James Buchanan resurrected that, adding, “We Po’ked ’em in ’44, we Pierced ’em in ’52, and we’ll Buck ’em in ’56.’”

In 1872, Ulysses S. Grant espoused, “Grant Us Another Term.” In 1912, Woodrow Wilson campaigned on “Win with Wilson.” In 1924, Calvin Coolidge asked voters to “Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge.”

“I Like Ike” propelled Dwight D. Eisenhower to office.

Party Platforms

In 1840, Martin Van Buren envisioned an “Independent Treasury and Liberty.” In 1888, losing candidate Grover Cleveland observed, “Unnecessary taxation oppresses industry.” Four years later, Cleveland won on “Tariff Reform.” Theodore Roosevelt was victorious in 1904 promising “National Unity. Prosperity. Advancement.”

Ethical Standards

Abraham Lincoln’s character was immortalized in 1860 as “Honest Old Abe.” Jimmy Carter asked voters in 1980 to support “A Tested and Trustworthy Team.” In 1988, George H.W Bush envisioned a “Kinder, Gentler Nation.” In 2000, George W. Bush advocated “Compassionate Conservatism.”

Borrowed slogans

Sometimes candidates pilfer successful slogans from past campaigns. In 1908, William Howard Taft promised, “A Square Deal for All.” Four years later, Theodore Roosevelt echoed: “A Square Deal All Around.”

One of the most memorable slogans was Lincoln’s 1864 phrase, “Don’t change horses in midstream.” Franklin Roosevelt, seeking a fourth term in 1944, stole it.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan ran on “Let’s Make America Great Again.” Donald J. Trump deleted “Let’s.”

Best slogans

Here’s my top 10:

10. “A Chicken in Every Pot and a Car in Every Garage,” – Herbert Hoover, 1928

9. “Vote as You Shot” – Ulysses S. Grant, 1868

8. “All the Way with LBJ,” Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964

7. “I like Ike” – Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1952, and “I Still Like Ike,” 1956

6. “It’s the Economy, Stupid” – Bill Clinton, 1992

5. “Don’t Change Horses Midstream” – Abraham Lincoln, 1864

4. “Happy Days Are Here Again” – Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1932

3. “Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?” – Ronald Reagan, 1980

2. “Yes, We Can” – Barack Obama, 2008

1. “The Union Must and Shall Be Preserved” – Abraham Lincoln, 1864

In 2020, incumbent Donald Trump is running on “Promises Made, Promises Kept” and “Keep America Great” and Joe Biden on “Restore the Soul of America” and “Anything is Possible, No Malarkey!”

Voters might judge those slogans by the ethical standard of true, mostly true, mostly false, and false. Did Trump keep promises and make America great again? Did America lose its soul and, if so, can Biden restore it? Is anything really possible, or is that malarkey?

We’ll know the answers in November.

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Michael Bugeja
Michael Bugeja

Michael Bugeja is the author of "Living Media Ethics" (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of "Living Ethics." Views expressed here are his own.