Saturday

June 24th, 2017

Insight

The politics that we deserve

Charles Lane

By Charles Lane

Published Jan. 18, 2016

President Obama billed his final State of the Union address as a departure from the norm - a broad look at the future, not the usual legislative to-do list. In a subtle but significant way, however, it resembled his previous addresses: Yet again, Obama argued that someone or other "deserved" something good from Washington.

This time around, "our kids and our grandkids" deserve "the jobs we'll create, the money we'll save, the planet we'll preserve" by supporting clean energy. Last year, the "American people" deserved criminal justice reform. In 2014, "the Syrian people" deserved "a future free of dictatorship, terror and fear."

Republicans deploy "deserve" too. Announcing his candidacy for president, Jeb Bush said "America deserves better" than another Democrat. In Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's 2014 State of the State speech, "every child" deserved "a chance to have a great education."

"Deserve" is everywhere - such a familiar trope that Netflix's new spoof ads for "House of Cards" tout the evil but, fortunately, fictional politician Frank Underwood as "the leader we deserve."

Clearly, political rhetoric has evolved since John F. Kennedy's 1961 admonition to "ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country."

But why? "Deserve's" audience is a people far different from the nation of World War II and Korea vets that Kennedy asked to gird for a "long twilight struggle" with the Soviets: more affluent; more accustomed to large, active government; and, perhaps, more likely to think of ourselves as intrinsically meritorious.

For us, this type of language "raises expectations and gives audiences license to demand more than the status quo," as pollster and communication guru Frank Luntz has written.

To be sure, the D-word took some time to arrive as a political cliche. First, it had to get a thorough workout on Madison Avenue.

As Nancy Friedman, a branding consultant, explained in a fascinating 2013 article, the first corporation to tell a mass audience they deserved a good thing was McDonald's. Its "You Deserve a Break Today" campaign began in 1971 - more or less accidentally, after lawyers advised the company to scrap its first choice ("so near yet so far away") for copyright reasons. It was a huge hit. At roughly the same time, L'Oreal began selling hair dye to women not as a way to attract men but "Because I'm Worth It" - with similar success.

Previously, only luxury goods were marketed this way. But, Friedman wrote, Mickey D's and L'Oreal proved the masses would respond not only to the "promises or warnings" that advertisers had previously offered, but also to the "reassurance and encouragement" once lavished exclusively on rich luxury-good consumers. It is probably no accident that such campaigns arrived at a time when millions of women were moving into the workforce, feeling simultaneously hassled and empowered.

Fast-forward. Today, a Google search for "the service you deserve" produces hits from a huge array of businesses: hotels, lawyers, dry cleaners. And, sure enough, hair-dye company MadisonReed tells women, "You deserve perfect color."

When, precisely, "deserve" crossed over to politics is harder to say. Luntz dates it to - of all things - then-Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine's Democratic response to President George W. Bush's 2006 State of the Union address.

Blasting Bush's sloppy handling of Hurricane Katrina, Kaine declared, "You have a right to expect that your government can deliver results" - whereupon Luntz's focus group subjects turned their emotion-dial devices approvingly.

Luntz told me he coached Republican clients to adapt Kaine's line but they balked, saying "right to expect" conveyed welfare-like entitlement that wouldn't play well with conservative voters.

He recommended the equivalent "deserve," which allowed more room for interpretation. It can accommodate a conservative-friendly pitch such as the oft-heard "benefits our veterans deserve," or even "home values . . . for our citizens that they deserve," to which Michigan GOP Gov. Rick Snyder alluded in his 2015 State of the State speech.

The good news is that Americans don't settle for poor government performance. The bad news is that they may not see their own inconsistent demands - ever-lower taxes, ever-better services - as part of the problem.

It will take sacrifice, preferably shared, to solve the country's long-term deficit and many other structural problems. Leaders who constantly tell their constituents, in effect, "ask what your country can do for you" are not preparing them for that.

The current political usage of "deserve," in short, is about validating grievances, not setting priorities among them. The word, meant that way, probably would not have escaped the lips of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

That memorably mordant sociology professor worked for presidents of both parties in the '60s and '70s and got elected senator of New York as a Democrat in 1976 - despite his belief that, as he once put it, "for most persons, it would be exceedingly painful to live in a world where you get what is coming to you." .

Comment by clicking here.

Columnists

Toons

Lifestyles