From 1992s ‘Make America Dream Again’ to 2020s ‘Make American Great Again’
The 1992 Presidential election is the most recent historical example of the Democratic party defeating the Republican incumbent President, a victory in which the party wishes to repeat in the 2020 election. While the 1992 election was viewed as a difficult fight, including divisive political attacks between the campaigns, unlike the 2020 campaign, political attacks did not define the election. On the contrary, it was defined by in-depth policy debates and ideological divisions within American society. A comparison of the two elections illustrates significant changes in political rhetoric, policy positions, and ideology spectrums over a twenty-eight-year period. This comparative election analysis poses the question of whether these changes reflect recurring shifts between conservatism and liberal idealism or a broader societal change in American post-war society.
The most notable distinction to be made concerning the two presidential elections is the increase of aggressive and divisive rhetoric and the proportion of the elections within which it occupies. While the 1992 campaign did include attacks on both candidates from members of the opposing campaigns, the attacks were usually based on factual criticisms of the opposing candidate’s record and more tempered than the ones seen during the Trump era. The attack rhetoric of the ’92 campaign was often avoided by the individual candidates and used by allies of the campaigns such as Newt Gingrich who attacked the democratic party accusing them of “kill[ing] jobs … [through] taxation, litigation, and regulation.”1 In contrast, during Bush’s one insult about Clinton during his re-nomination acceptance speech, he referred to Clinton only as “my opponent.” Bush’s attack was in the form of a joke about Clinton’s reputation of being on both sides of an issue to which the crowd laughed when Bush said, “he’s been spotted in more places than Elvis Presley.”2 Comparatively, Clinton was also tempered in his use of rhetoric to describe his opponent, the Republican party and their policies. In the presidential debates of October 1992, Clinton repeatedly referred to himself as a “departure from the trickle-down economics of the past 12 years,” but avoided attacking President’s Reagan, Bush or the party by name.3 In a tense debate exchange, Bush repeatedly criticized Clinton’s participation in a 1969 anti-Vietnam War protest in Russia, but concluded, “I think it’s wrong to demonstrate against your own country … that’s about the main area where I think we have a difference.”4 Although this exchange was tense for its time, it stands in contrast with a debate exchange between Hilary Clinton and Trump in 2016 when he accused her of criminal misconduct and promised—if elected—to instruct the Attorney General to investigate her. Clinton said she was thankful that someone with “the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law,” to which Trump retorted bombastically “because you’d be in jail” receiving raucous applause from the audience that had been instructed not to react.5 There is a clear delineation between the rhetoric of the 1992 election and the 2020 election and the Trump era. Moreover, the distinction between both elections in the context of divisive rhetoric is clearer when the quantity of it is also analyzed. Some scholars argue that society has accepted the changing rhetoric because of the timeliness of the Trump message of “nationalist populism …[which] provides emotional release … [to] white working-class Americans [who’ve] experience[d] both economic loss and the sense that their position in the culture is threatened.”6 Thus, the increased divisiveness is reflective of the changing nature of American democracy that has allowed Trump’s nationalist message and accompanying rhetoric to flourish where it wouldn’t have in 1992. The increase in the volume of divisive campaign rhetoric and the space that it occupies in a campaign has also led to a corresponding decrease in policy discussion.
The 1992 and 2020 presidential elections stand in stark contrast from one another due to the shift in policy positions and the decrease in policy proposals and discussions. The most notable policy change was with regards to fiscal responsibility as it was a core theme of the 1992 presidential campaign in the debates as well as during the candidate’s party acceptance speeches and interviews. While both Clinton and Bush supported a balanced budget and a reduction in the national debt, they disagreed on specific policies to achieve that goal. On the one hand, Bush who favoured balancing the budget as quickly as possible said that he would not approve of a stimulus plan—even in the ongoing recession—that broke his self-imposed spending limit.7 On the other hand, Clinton who was also for balancing the budget, but not at the expense of the middle class told the New York Times, “I think crazy is unemployment going up and income going down.”8 At a televised town hall just weeks before the election, Bush and Clinton argued their opposing views on the topic. Bush argued for a significant reduction in spending while Clinton advocated for a slower but equally effective reduction in spending under his “New Covenant,” which he called a move away from trickle-down economics towards increased taxation of higher-income earning Americans under the slogan "invest and grow."9 The second most important policy shift from the 1992 election to the 2020 election was the approach to international trade. Bush advocated for free and fair trade within an “open market” that he felt would remain dominated by unmatched American global economic strength.10 While Bush advocated for open trade, he emphasized the importance of maintaining trade that was fair to US economic interests through his slogan of “Strength, Safety, [and] Security,”11 which he anchored in his administration's victory in the cold war.
The comprehensive policy discussions that encompassed the 1992 election were largely absent from the Trump era and the 2020 election. Discussions of fiscal responsibility increased taxation or decreased spending, balancing the federal budget, and reducing the national debt—and trade policies, that benefit the US economy, were noticeably absent. These types of discussions were replaced by attacks directed at the previous administrations and how they have allowed other countries to steal American jobs and money through trade agreements such as NAFTA. In contrast to the policy solutions of 1992, the absence of policy proposals on fiscal responsibility or trade to correct problems was masked by Trump’s vague yet appealing slogan, “Americanism, not globalism.”12 The contrast between Presidents Bush and Clinton and President Trump in the 2020 election on the matter of policy is representative of a significant shift in policy position and decrease in policy discussion altogether. While both candidates in the 1992 election held distinct policy positions, in both 2016 and 2020, Trump diverged from holding such positions by opting for vague objectives through generalized promises such as “nobody knows the system better than me … I alone can fix it.”13 This distinction is even more evident when assessing the decrease in substantive policy discussion between the two elections which has led some scholars to conclude that Trump’s appeal is based on an “affective connection” to his followers through nationalist populism rather than policy.14 Clinton similarly built an emotional connection with voters when they were “told details about [his] early life in Hope … [,] his father dying in a car wreck, his middle-class upbringing … they immediately viewed him more favourably.”15 While Trump is not the first candidate to build an emotional connection with voters, he is the first candidate in the post-war era to do so based on that connection alone. The eagerness of the white working-class voter to align with him reflects a new sense of alienation by a demographic that had benefitted the most from the wealth of post-war America.
The increase in divisive rhetoric and the decrease in objective policy discussions between the two elections represent a more foundational shift in ideology in the post-war era. At the Democratic Convention in 1992, Senator Bill Bradley said, “it’s time to ‘let America be America again’, [its] time to let America dream again.”16 A short documentary entitled, A Man from Hope, referring to Clinton’s hometown of Hope, Arkansas, was also shown depicting Clinton as a candidate of humble beginnings interested in change for the people. Clinton emphasized this message of unity and people over power in his speech saying, “now that we have changed the world, it’s time to change America.”17 This message resonated with Americans and was echoed at his inaugural address where he promised to give Washington back to the people.18 While the voters in 1992 chose a message of unity, hope, and change for a better future, Trump’s message isolated and amplified the complaints of a select group of Americans while using almost identical language. Trump’s 2016 nomination speech featured statements such as, “we will make America strong again … proud again … safe again … we will make America great again.”19 This Trump mantra— which mirrors Bradley’s message—is one of many parallels with Clinton’s message and is important in assessing the shift in ideology with the American voter. Although the tone Trump’s inaugural was unique, the address significantly echoed Clinton’s 1992 message of returning power to the people saying, “we are transferring power from Washington D.C. and giving it back to … the American people.”20 He also portrayed himself as an agent of change in saying, “I will fight for you … I will never let you down … And we will bring back our dreams.”21 In comparing the 1992 and 2020 elections, the pivotal question becomes about what the shift between an inclusive message of “make America dream again,” towards a divisive one of “make America great again” represents? This is important in determining if the changes in the past twenty-eight years are simple swings between ideologies or representative of a more foundation change in American post-war society.
While the shift in the ideology of some Republican voters is distinct, the energy and vigour of Trump’s electoral base can be seen as an extension or re-invigoration of the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s. In A War for the Soul of America, Andrew Hartman points to the increasing outrage of conservatives over popular culture’s shift away from the nostalgia of the 1950s citing Ronald Reagan’s “1989 farewell address, ‘patriotism is no longer in style,’” a comment that was later echoed by Pat Buchanan’s assessment of American culture being “more openly anti-Christian, anti-American, [and] nihilistic.”22 This hypothetical shift is also reinforced by historians who argue that “the nation turns away from conservatism and retrenchment to an era of active government and liberal idealism” approximately every 30 years—a theory which is reinforced by the intervals between FDR’s “New Deal”, Kennedy’s “New Frontier” and Clinton’s “New Covenant.”23 In the same manner that the nation swings towards a more liberal idealism as a certain interval, the Trump era can represent a swing towards a more conservatism radical form of conservatism and retrenchment than in previous presidential cycles in the post-war era. If Grant’s thirty-year trend continues, the 2020 election may represent another shift towards liberalism as Joe Biden—the presumptive Democratic nominee—argues for "replacing a president who demeans and demonizes… with a president who believes in empathy, compassion and respect," with a similar message of unity that “there is not a single thing we cannot do if we do it together.”24 In the same way that “Clinton managed to make the election principally a referendum on the economy,” Biden is trying to make the 2020 election a referendum on Trumpism and national identity.25 Should Biden succeed in the election in November, his success will demonstrate in a manner very similar to Clinton’s election, that the nation has once again on a thirty-year interval, turned towards an era of liberal idealism. However, if he doesn’t, the election will point to a much more significant ideological shift in the United States because of the pivot towards alienation that voters have begun to feel in the post-war era.
The twenty-eight years that separate the 1992 presidential election from the 2020 election have witnessed a lot of change in presidential politics. While the 1992 election did have some classic political attacks back and forth between the campaigns, it was predominantly characterized by messages of hope and change for the future conveyed through vigorous policy debates and discussions. The 2020 election and the Trump era has led to a decrease in policy discussion and a corresponding increase in divisive attack rhetoric. These changes have also demonstrated a shift in the ideology of the American voter towards a more radical version of conservatism. In the same way that the 1992 election represented a departure towards a new era of liberal ideas, the 2020 election represents a pivotal post-war historical moment that will reveal whether the changes brought on by the Trump era are a temporary swing towards conservative ideals or an unprecedented shift in the foundation of American democracy.
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2. “George H.W. Bush 1992 Acceptance Speech,” Republican National Committee, CSpan1, August 20, 1992. Accessed January 17, 2020, https://www.c-span.org/video/?31392-
3. “Presidential Candidates Debate,” Commission on Presidential Debates, C-Span 1, October 11, 1992. Accessed January 11, 2020, https://www.c-span.org/video/?33071-1/1992-presidential-candidates-debate.
4. “Presidential Candidates Debate,” Commission on Presidential Debates, C-Span 1, October 19, 1992. Accessed January 11, 2020, https://www.c-span.org/video/?33253-1/presidential-candidates-debate.
5. The Associated Press, “Trump to Clinton: ‘You’d be in Jail,’” The New York Times, October 16, 2016. Accessed March 13, 2020 https://www.nytimes.com/video/us/politics/100000004701741/trump-to-clinton-youd-be-in-jail.html.
6. Robert C. Rowland, “The Populist and Nationalist Roots of Trump’s Rhetoric,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 22, no. 3 (2019): 350.
7. “George H.W. Bush 1992 Interview with ABC13’s Dave Ward,” Youtube, ABC13 Houston, date, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8DOS6pqsGg.
8. Michael Kelly, “THE 1992 CAMPAIGN,” The New York Times, October 31, 1992. https://www.nytimes.com/1992/10/31/us/ 1992-campaign-democrats-clinton-bush-compete-bechampion-change-democrat-fights.html.
9. “Presidential Candidates Debate,” Commission on Presidential Debates, C-Span 1, October 15, 1992. Accessed January 11, 2020, https://www.c-span.org/video/?33137-1/presidential-candidates-debate.
10. “Presidential Candidates Debate,” October 15, 1992.
11. “George H.W. Bush 1992 Acceptance Speech.”
12. “Donald Trump 2016 Acceptance Speech,” Republican National Committee, C-Span 1, July 21, 2016. Accessed January 17, 2020, https://www.c-span.org/video/?412402 8/donaldtrump-2016-acceptance-speech.
13. “Donald Trump 2016 Acceptance Speech.”
14. Robert C. Rowland, “The Populist and Nationalist Roots of Trump’s Rhetoric,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 22, no. 3 (2019): 350.
15. Patrick J. Maney, Bill Clinton: New Gilded Age President (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2016), 38.
16. “Democratic Convention Keynote Address,” Democratic National Committee, C-Span 1, July 13, 1992. Accessed January 17, 2020, https://www.c-span.org/video/?27050-1/democraticconvention-keynote-address.
17. “Bill Clinton 1992 Acceptance Speech,” Democratic National Committee, C-Span 1, July 16, 1992. Accessed January 17, 2020, https://www.c-span.org/video/?27166-1/billclinton-1992-acceptance-speech.
18. “President Clinton 1993 Inaugural Ceremony,” Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, C-Span 1, January 20, 1993. Accessed January 20, 2020, https://www.cspan. org/video/?37261-1/president-clinton-1993-inaugural-ceremony.
19. “Donald Trump 2016 Acceptance Speech.”
20. “President Trump 2017 Inaugural Ceremony,” Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, C-Span 1, January 20, 2017. Accessed January 17, 2020, https://www.cspan. org/video/?422124-1/donald-trump-sworn-45th-president-united-states.
21. “President Trump 2017 Inaugural Ceremony.”
22. Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 173.
23. Alan Grant, “The 1992 US Presidential Election,” Parliamentary Affairs 46, no. 2 (1993): 253.
24. Allyson Chiu, “Biden Calls for Party Unification, Draws Contrast to Trump in Quiet Victory Speech,” The Washington Post, March 11, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/03/11/joe-biden-speech-trump/.
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