The Motto of Mad Men
During the 1960s, the most influential of these
Svengalis were the executives working in Madison Avenue advertising firms. By
contrast, 2010's most effective mad men come from Main Street and are literally
angry men—specifically, the tea party crowd that is, according to new polls,
more wealthy, more white, more male, more Republican and more motivated by
racial resentment than the general population. And though their jeans and
baseball caps are less stylish than Don Draper's suits and fedoras, these
anti-government activists deserve recognition: They have crafted a motto as
succinctly expressive and manipulative as the best Sterling Cooper innovation.
My Country Back"—this ubiquitous tea party mantra belongs next to
Nike's "Just Do It" on Ad Age's list of the most transcendent idioms.
In just five words, it perfectly captures the era’s conservative backlash. Take
a moment to ponder the slogan's phrase-by-phrase etymology:
Want"—Humanity's most atavistic exclamation of selfishness—and thus an
appropriate introduction for a tea party motto—this caveman grunt may end up
being the epitaph on the nation's tombstone. America once flourished by valuing
what "we"—as in We the People—need (food, shelter, infrastructure,
etc.). Conversely, today's America teeters thanks to a Reagan-infused zeitgeist
that reoriented us to worship whatever I the Person wants. High-income tax
breaks, smog-belching SUVs, cavernous McMansions carved into pristine
wilderness—it doesn't matter how frivolous the individual craving or how
detached it is from necessity. What matters is that the "I" now
assumes an entitled right to any desire irrespective of its affront to the
allegedly Marxist "we."
Country"—In his quintessentially American ditty, Woody Guthrie said,
"This land was made for you and
me." It made sense. In a democracy, the country is We the People's—i.e.,
everybody's. If, over time, our diversifying complexion and changing attitude
creates political shifts, that's OK—because it's not "my country" or
"your country"; it's all of ours. Apparently, though, this principle
is no longer sacred. Following two elections that saw conservative ideology
rejected, tea party activists have resorted to declaring that there can only be
one kind of country—theirs.
underscore feelings of grievance and nostalgia, the slogan ends with a word
deliberately implying both theft and resurrection. In tea party mythology,
"back" means taking back a political system that was supposedly
pilfered (even though it was taken via legitimate elections) and then going
back to a time that seems ideal. As one tea party leader told The New York Times: "Things we had
in the '50s were better."
To the tea party demographic, this certainly rings
true. Yes, in apartheid America circa 1950, rich white males were more socially
and economically privileged relative to other groups than they are even now. Of
course, for those least likely to support the tea party—read: minorities—the
'50s were, ahem, not so great, considering the decade’s brutal intensification
of Jim Crow.
But then, that's the marketing virtuosity of the
"I Want My Country Back" slogan. A motto that would be called
treasonous if uttered by throngs of blacks, Latinos or Native Americans has
been deftly sculpted by conservatives into an accepted clarion call for white
power. Cloaked in the proud patois of patriotism and protest, the refrain has
become a dog whistle to a Caucasian population that feels threatened by
impending demographic and public policy changes.
As a marketing masterpiece, the slogan would
certainly impress the old Madison Avenue mavens. The trouble is that as a
larger political ideology, its hateful and divisive message is encouraging ever
more misguided madness.
is the author of the best-selling books "Hostile Takeover" and
"The Uprising." He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado and
blogs at OpenLeft.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him on Twitter @davidsirota.
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