Political Slogans and the Critique of Progress

15754Today we have a timely and intriguing guest post from Matthew W. Slaboch, a postdoctoral research fellow at the James Madison Program in the Department of Politics at Princeton University and author of A Road to Nowhere: The Idea of Progress and Its Critics. Since the Enlightenment, the idea of progress has spanned right- and left-wing politics, secular and spiritual philosophy, and most every school of art or culture, but in A Road to Nowhere, Slaboch argues that political theorists should entertain the possibility that long-term, continued progress may be more fiction than reality. Here, he brings this analysis to bear on familiar campaign slogans from the past few decades of American elections, wondering whether politics has any room for the idea that the future might not be better after all.

One of the most enduring political ads of the previous century appeared during Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign. In the television spot, “Prouder, Stronger, Better,” a narrator proclaims that “It’s morning in America.” Or, at any rate, this is the message that the Reagan campaign and the media popularized subsequent to the ad’s airing. In truth, the narrator had not proclaimed it to be “morning in America,” but rather “morning again in America.” The difference in phrasing here is subtle, but important. Consider what happens if we apply the “morning” metaphor to American economic and social wellbeing, as the ad’s makers clearly wanted its viewers to do. If it’s “morning in America,” then the future is ripe with possibilities; presumably, citizens can look forward to such things as greater material comfort and more harmonious relationships in their communities. The “again” in the ad, though, is disorienting. First, it serves as a reminder of a dreary past, the dark night through which dawn had to break. Second, it augurs an uncertain future: if it’s morning again, won’t it be midnight again at some point, too? So the scrapping of “again” in Reagan lore is perhaps unsurprising since, after all, the idea of a permanent resplendent dawn is more consonant with the optimistic vision for the United States that the fortieth president sought to convey.


Barack Obama's 2012 campaign slogan (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

There was no possibility of misconstruing the message of a would-be successor to President Reagan, Senator Barack Obama. As a presidential aspirant, Obama ran on a message of “hope” and “change” — a vision of a brighter future and a promise to implement the reforms needed to make that vision a reality. Four years later, as an incumbent president, Obama promised to take voters “forward” by continuing and building upon the policies introduced during his first term. But there was a marked change in the collective mood of the American electorate between the 2008 and 2012 elections. In 2008 the electorate ushered Obama into office with near-universal acclaim and well-wishing. But by the end of his first term, the president found himself on the defensive; voters who’d once shared his optimism had become despondent. Recognizing the changed atmosphere, Obama found it necessary to proclaim, in his 2012 State of the Union address, that “anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” He won reelection, but public uncertainty about the future of the United States remained. At a townhall meeting in June 2016, his tenure as president winding down and his legacy in question, Obama again proclaimed that “the notion that somehow America is in decline is just not borne out by the facts.”

The debate about ordinary Americans’ wellbeing and their country’s place in the world continued right into the 2016 election. Ostensibly challenging Secretary Hillary Clinton for the chance to succeed President Obama, Donald Trump made much of his campaign a referendum on Obama himself. He promised to undo much of what Obama had done as president, including repeal the president’s signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act. The message oft-proclaimed by Trump on the campaign trail, and emblazoned on many a hat in his crowds of supporters, was “Make America Great Again.” But this message had and has an ambiguity to it: if America needs to be made great again, for how long has the country been less than great? Did the rot set in during Obama’s presidency, or can we trace our problems back even further? And is this inglorious period, whenever it may have started, an aberration in an otherwise constant trajectory from worse to better? Or is it the downward part of a predictable cycle of progress and decline? Steve Bannon, candidate Trump’s chief strategist, adheres to a cyclical view of history. Does Trump share this view, and what does it matter, to him, to the American public, and to the world, now that he is president?


A "MAGA" hat (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

There is a danger in overanalyzing campaign slogans or in imputing a full set of beliefs to politicians based on the pithy messages that adorn the buttons or bumper stickers distributed by their managers. I’ve highlighted recent slogans, though, because they share a unique feature: if taken seriously, each asks us to consider the nature and trajectory of historical change. As noted above, Reagan’s “Morning in America” theme had an optimistic ring to it, focused particularly on American national improvement. Obama’s campaign of “hope” was no less optimistic, but it did not explicitly exclude countries other than the United States from participating in positive “change.” And Trump’s imploration to “Make America Great Again” combines pessimism about current affairs with nostalgia for some unspecified past and optimism about the future. Which vision holds closest to the way change unfolds? Is progress a purely national affair? Or is it universal? And is it linear? Or does it follow a jagged path? Perhaps we have no reason to expect future progress at all – maybe there is no inevitable march towards the “right side of history.”

These are the sorts of questions with which I deal in A Road to Nowhere. For answers, I look not to politicians, but to an eclectic mix of historians, philosophers, and novelists. Cross-national in scope, my book examines not only American writers, but German and Russian authors, too. I am interested particularly in how philosophies of history undergird political theories. I present various optimistic philosophies and describe the political agendas with which they are associated. But I focus especially on criticisms of the idea of historical progress, which I suggest political theorists have unduly marginalized. I argue that, at a time of worldwide uncertainty about the future, we have good reason to study critics of the idea of progress: whether we are ultimately persuaded by their ideas or not, we should consider what they have to offer.  

The figures whom I present in my work include, but are not limited to, Henry Adams, Christopher Lasch, Arthur Schopenhauer, Oswald Spengler, Leo Tolstoy, and Aleksander Solzhenitsyn. Several critics of “progress” are also critical of politics, seeing political solutions to intractable individual and social problems as useless at best and destructive at worst. Others are more receptive to political endeavors, particularly if they think that state intervention is necessary to help stave off anticipated decline or bring about predicted, albeit temporary, improvements. Lacking certain constraints faced by politicians, at least those who must compete for votes, the writers whom I highlight were free to say what no campaign ad ever will – “The future might not be better than the present.” No, such is not a politician’s message, but then who’s ever heard of an honest politician? Perhaps, critics of “progress” would argue, a hard dose of reality is precisely what we need, not so that we become dispirited, but precisely to prevent our spirits from being crushed when false hopes inevitably fail to materialize. The point is not that we must become complacent or learn to tolerate the intolerable, but that we should reconsider which facets of the human experience we can realistically expect to improve, ponder how to cope with insoluble problems, and not trade present contentment for a promised future bliss.



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