"There is something happening when people vote not just for the party they belong to but the hopes they hold in common ...we are ready to take this country in a fundamentally new direction."
"We've gotten tired now of looking backward. We want to look forward and, from here, my friends, the future, it looks really good. It looks really good."
I remember when the movement started. It took the press by surprise. It took the political establishment by surprise. It was driven by the people - people from around the country who had a new or renewed interest in politics. They were fed up with the status quo and wanted something different--something that felt a lot like a revolution. They took to the streets and the web. They came out in numbers much greater than expected. The establishment tried to marginalize them, to silence them, to make them irrelevant.
The message that drove them was energizing. It was defined by a sense of imminent opportunity--that it was possible to turn this country around, to right what was wrong, to serve the people, to build a better society and a better future for our children. The language was positive and forward-looking. It referred to what we can do together instead of what the politicians could do alone. It was about "we" not "I." It was about hope...and change.
So was it the Obama Campaign in 2008? Or the Tea Party in 2010?
The answer is both.
Contrary to what nearly every talking head would have us believe, 2010 is no more an "anger and fear" election than in 2008. The only thing different this time around is that the sides have changed. The fact that the media has created a different narrative about this election than in 2008 says much more about the media than it does about the people now running for office.
Look again at the quotations above. One is Barack Obama and the other is Sarah Palin. Can you tell which is which? Even if you can, it doesn't matter. The language each uses to describe the movements they represent is so similar it could easily have been penned by the same speechwriters.
So why has this election cycle been framed as an election all about fear and anger, while 2008 was all about hope and optimism? There was clearly no shortage of anger in 2008. Many liberals equated President Bush with the devil and spouted venom toward his administration for the better part of his second term. A key rallying cry of 2008 was to avoid a continuation of the Bush policies--no matter what. It wasn't uncommon to see him compared to Hitler.
This year's anger is no different...it just comes from a different set of voters. And therein lies the rub. The same media that ignored the "anger narrative" in favor of the "optimism narrative" in 2008 has now chosen the opposite approach. I'll leave it to the bomb throwers on conservative talk radio to postulate as to why this is happening now. The larger point is that by framing it this way, the media and the pundits are missing the point entirely.
If you listen to the Tea Party candidates...actually listen to what they (as opposed to the media filters) are saying, you start to hear the same language of hope and optimism we heard in 2008. You may not agree with their philosophy for creating a better future for America, but the optimism is the same. The goals are the same. It is simply the media narrative that's changed.
In fact, the more closely we compare the themes and language of the Tea Party to those of the Obama Campaign, the more similarities we see. Many of America's problems are defined in the same ways:
- The current administration is driving our country off a cliff
- We have mortgaged away our children's future
- The policies of the current administration are irresponsible and unpopular
- Power has been taken away from the people
And many solutions are the same as well.
- It's time to take back America for the people
- It is time to change the way Washington works
- We need to cut spending
- We need to stop those in power from taking what is rightfully ours
- Together, we can rise up and make this change happen
- America is great, our future is bright, and we can succeed if we do what is necessary
Don't take my word for it. See for yourself:
The language is the same, applied to governing philosophies that are frequently as different as night and day. What's happened is that rhetoric met reality and now many voters (mainly Independents) are at once frustrated with a campaign borne of hope, while hopeful for a campaign borne of frustration.
As Nelson Mandela once said, "Where you stand depends on where you sit." If you're a Democrat, Hope and Change are hollow and ominous in the mouths of the Tea Party, just as those words sounded similarly suspicious to Republicans in 2008. If you're a Republican, Sarah Palin's brand of Hope and Change in 2010 is just what the doctor ordered: the anti-Obama antidote.
The media may not like it or want to admit it, and in fact, many in the Tea Party may not want to admit it either. But this election is Hope and Change 2.0. The actors are the same. The dialogue is the same. They've simply switched scripts on the same national stage in an attempt to get their supporters to the polls on Election Day.
So assuming the polls are right and the Democrats are headed for a rout, the real question for Sarah Palin is, "How's that 'Hopey, Changey' thing going to work out for you?"
Michael Maslansky (@m_mas) is CEO of maslansky luntz + partners, a language strategy and research firm, and the author of The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics.