Are you better off than you were four years ago?
A famous actor once asked that question in a debate with a former peanut farmer. Of course, I’m referring to the classic intellectual joust between Sir Anthony Hopkins and George Washington Carver. It was really tough to organize the event, given the fact that the two participants lived in different eras. A lot of people don’t know that.
The line was repeated with devastating effect in 1980 when former Governor Ronald Reagan (R-California) debated incumbent President Jimmy Carter (D) in a bid to deprive Carter of a second term.
The nation was struggling with inflation, unemployment, unrest in the Middle East, and the decline of disco. It is estimated that from 1977 to 1979, the United States GDP was mostly based on John Travolta. People are just finding that out.
As the 1980s began, America was torn.
The voters had elected Jimmy Carter in 1976, ousting incumbent Gerald Ford. Ford was a former nominated (not elected) Vice President who had risen to the office by virtue of Richard Nixon’s resignation. Carter’s smiling, earnest optimism stood in stark contrast to the Nixon era, and the people were ready to put the ugliness of the past behind them.
Unfortunately, the economy and international affairs forgot to play along with our national step in a new direction. Inflation was growing, finishing the 1970s in double-digits. The GDP’s growth was stagnating. The Iranian Revolution and the ensuing oil shortage and hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and several other events catalogued in the hit We Didn’t Start The Fire by Billy Joel (D-Allentown), all took place during Jimmy Carter’s watch.
Enter Ronald Reagan, stage left.
Reagan was a former actor, starring in such hits as football-themed film Knute Rockne, All American (that’s the movie Reagan’s catchprase, “Win one for the Gipper,” comes from), monkey-themed movie Bedtime For Bonzo, and the orangutan-themed classic Every Which Way But Loose.
Okay, he wasn’t in that last one, but a lot of people are giving alternative facts that he was. Don’t bother looking it up, the “deep state” has already scrubbed “Wikipedia” of all “information” on this matter.
Reagan was polished. He understood camera angles and had dramatic timing down to a science. He was handsome and charming. But perhaps more importantly than all of that was one crowning achievement: he was not Jimmy Carter. For anyone looking to replace the leadership in Washington in 1980, Reagan had the unique qualification of being option two in a set of binary options.
In the final moments of the final debate of the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan did what all good politicians do: he distilled the choice at hand into one where he was the obvious answer.
“Next Tuesday is election day. Next Tuesday, all of you will go to the polls; you’ll stand there in the polling place and make a decision. I think when you make that decision, it might be well if you would ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we’re as strong as we were four years ago? And if you answer all of those questions yes, why then, I think your choice is very obvious as to who you’ll vote for. If you don’t agree, if you don’t think that this course that we’ve been on for the last four years is what you would like to see us follow for the next four, then I could suggest another choice that you have.”
What’s not apparent in text, however, is the fact Mr. Reagan started this segment from the top turnbuckle, and finished it by dropping an Atomic Elbow on Mr. Carter’s head. No one had ever seen anything like that, believe me.
The result of Reagan’s debate performance? He got a huge spike in support the closing days of the election, culminating in a come-from-behind trouncing of his Democratic incumbent opponent. Carter had been ahead in the polls up until the last week. He lost the 1980 presidential election in a landslide, falling behind Reagan by nine percentage points, and losing the Electoral College in spectacular fashion (489 to 49). The Republicans, bolstered by Reagan’s success at the top of the ticket, took over the Senate for the first time since 1954.
I desperately wish someone would dab on the current president like Ronnie did on Jimmy. Unfortunately, a logical, timely, well-delivered rhetorical argument is not likely to work this time.
In 1980, the Republican Party was not like it is today. This was before Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Rush Limbaugh, the Internet, Sean Hannity, Fox News, InfoWars, the My Pillow guy, the Tea Party, the Palin/Nugent/Rock triumvirate, social media, 4Chan, Russians hijacking social media, “patriots” walking around with AR-15s, weekly mass shootings, and 5G.
To most people in 1980, the Republican Party simply represented the opposite side of the same coin the Democratic Party occupied. Neither party was perfect, but neither was an existential threat to our then 204-year experiment in representative government of, by, and for the people. In other words, if you didn’t like Coke, have a Pepsi. It tastes slightly different, but it’s basically the same thing.
“COKE AND PEPSI ARE TOTALLY DIFFERENT!” yells the reader who seizes upon the wrong part of the overarching argument. Stifle, dingbat. They’re both corn syrup and carbonation. Having strong opinions on cola brands is not a substitute for a personality.
Ahem. Back to the point at hand.
It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when it was normal for a citizen to take pride in not being a straight-ticket voter. There were good people and bad people running for office on both sides of the aisle. Which side of the ticket they were on was generally not indicative of their character, patriotism, or motive.
Through a series of chess moves, astroturfing, changes in FCC laws, the full blossoming of the Southern Strategy, changes in campaign finance rules, and amplification via social media, our culture evolved into the polarized “street gang” politics we experience today.
The potentially convincible “middle” of the political spectrum became just a few percentage points of available votes. There aren’t fifty swing states; there are twelve. And thanks to the Electoral College, the tiny, ever-shrinking middle in twelve perennial swing states sway our elections.
Our polarization and team fanaticism mean that an eloquent, rhetorical coup de grâce delivered by a skilled orator will only work in one direction: to shore up the support of pre-existing supporters.
If a modern politician asked voters to consider whether life was better or worse under an incumbent president, members of the president’s party would unilaterally answer better. That answer would be immediate, vehement, and irrespective of whether life was actually better for the voter. The party line—our leader is the best leader there ever was—will be toed, lest one risks of expulsion from the party and a cultural cold shoulder.
Ask a Trump supporter in 2020, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” They won’t hesitate to give you a quick thumbs up. They would say “yes,” but it’s really hard to talk with a ventilator tube in your trachea, so give them a break. And please donate to their GoFundMe fundraiser, as they recently lost their insurance.
If you ask them if it’s easier to go and buy things in the store today, they’ll tell you that the pandemic isn’t Trump’s fault. They’ll then go on a rambling dissertation about 5G, Fauci’s connection to Wuhan, and “Plandemic.” They’ll tell you how face masks are a liberal conspiracy to take away our freedoms. They’ll say the shortage of Lysol and toilet paper is fake, fabricated to make Trump look bad. They’ll argue that if it’s “safe” (e.g. not immediately lethal) to go to Home Depot, then it’s safe to do everything else, too.
Then they might say, “sorry, what was the question?” to which you’ll reply, “is it easier to go and buy things in the store today than it was four years ago?”
They’ll assure you it is, especially since they just got their $1,200 stimulus check and accompanying letter from La Naranja Enojada. They might even tell you it would have been a bigger check, if not for those pesky Democrats in Congress, who tried to get money for mandatory abortions for genderless illegal immigrants in San Francisco, believe me, okay? Excuse me, excuse me, okay? You’re very rude. I know San Francisco better than San Franciscans.
Ask Trump voters if there’s more or less unemployment these days that four years ago. They’ll tell you that when you look at the real numbers (read: the numbers they’re making up to support their own predetermined opinion), unemployment’s the same as it’s always been. They’ll have ample time to answer your question, given they’ve been laid off from their job at the soon-to-be-making-a-comeback-any-day-now coal mine. “Hey, at least the price of gasoline is down!” they’ll say as the oilfield workers and pipeliners walk by en route to the local food bank.
Ask the Red Hat Gang if America is more respected around the world. They’ll loudly scream platitudes such as, “Make America Great Again,” “Keep America Great,” “Build That Wall,” and “Lock Her Up,” as their pupils drift in opposite directions. They’ll ignore international polls, the “everyone’s laughing at him” scenes at NATO, Davos, and the UN, the falling economy, the rising debt to other countries, and everything else, because their opinion isn’t based on facts. It’s based on team loyalty. It’s based on membership in a club, the leader of which is above reproach or scrutiny.
Forty years ago, a reasonable, fair question was lobbed into the crowd. Reasonable, fair-minded people answered as they saw fit. And there were enough of them to turn a losing campaign into a massive victory for the challenger.
In an era where party loyalty trumps facts, where cultural identity trumps data, where proud ignorance trumps lifetimes of research, we can’t expect reason and fair questions to do much of anything.
When the other side can’t be convinced to vote in their own interest with logic, reason, facts, or data, the answer isn’t to yell louder. The answer isn’t more eloquence, better rhetoric, or anything intellectual like that.
The only viable answer is to outnumber them on Election Day. Believe me, okay?
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