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Sacrifice theme returns to US politics

Both McCain and Obama cite the need for selflessness and service.

By STAFF WRITER / November 2, 2008

Not since President John Kennedy urged Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” has the rhetoric of sacrifice sat this well with the public.

Gordon N. Converse/Staff/FILE

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NEW YORK

The notion of sacrifice – asking Americans to give something up for a greater good – appears to be coming back into political vogue after decades of being seen as a poison pill.

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Both major-party presidential candidates are emphasizing the need for individuals to shoulder responsibility for changing the direction of the United States, though they do so in different ways.

Personal sacrifice and service to the nation are central themes of John McCain’s candidacy. His campaign motto sums it up: “Country First.”

On the stump, Barack Obama cites the merits of sacrifice, calling it central to patriotism and urging Americans to help change the country’s direction – whether by turning off the television so children can study or by supporting higher taxes for wealthy corporations and individuals.

Both candidates have also called for expanded national service programs and lamented the Bush administration’s failure to tap the outpouring of civic and patriotic sentiment after the 9/11 attacks.

Not since President John Kennedy urged Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” has the rhetoric of sacrifice sat this well with the public. Concern that the US confronts a huge crisis in the form of a global financial meltdown, plus an untapped desire since 9/11 to help the nation more, makes the public more receptive to the idea that sacrifice can be noble instead of just inconvenient.

“Americans are ready to sacrifice, and they have a whole history of doing it,” says pollster John Zogby, author of “The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream.”

Americans have long honored the sacrifice of its warriors. During World War II, average Americans also stepped up, planting victory gardens, buying war bonds, and recycling rubbish for the war effort.

They paid more taxes, too. The Revenue Act of 1942 subjected millions to the income tax for the first time. Most seemed not to mind. In 1944, 90 percent said the amount of income tax they paid was “fair,” according to Joseph Thorndike, coauthor of “War and Taxes” and a visiting scholar at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

“The federal government launched an all-out campaign to market the new tax changes, including Disney-produced animated shorts featuring Donald Duck touting the importance of ‘taxes to beat the Axis!’ ” Dr. Thorndike writes in the book.

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