Sacrifice theme returns to US politics
Both McCain and Obama cite the need for selflessness and service.
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But in the past four decades, asking voters to sacrifice has been fraught with political risk. Just ask Walter Mondale. When the former vice president became the Democratic presidential nominee in 1984, the US faced a budget deficit of about $180 billion, considered massive at the time. During his nominating speech, Mr. Mondale decided to tell Americans what he believed had to be done.Skip to next paragraph
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“Let’s tell the truth,...” he told Democratic conventiongoers in San Francisco. “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”
That was supposed to distinguish Mondale as the “honest” candidate. Instead, President Ronald Reagan and his political team characterized it as a “pledge” by Mondale to raise taxes. On Election Day, Mondale lost all but one state and the District of Columbia.
Previously, President Jimmy Carter hadn’t fared well either when asking for sacrifice. When the 1979 energy crisis hit, he called it a “moral equivalent of war,” famously donned a cardigan, and asked Americans to turn down their thermostats. He was not reelected.
“Sacrifice has kind of a bad name when it’s applied to the American people. We like to remember that we’ve sacrificed ... – but in terms of asking people for sacrifice, that’s the sign to a lot of people of a liberal,” says Mark Leff, a historian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.“But the political discourse seems to be shifting.”
In his research, Mr. Zogby identifies what he calls “four meta-movements that separately and together are redefining the American dream.” Top on the list is living with limits (followed by embracing diversity, looking inward, and demanding authenticity).
If Americans are more receptive to the idea that they, personally, will be called upon to make sacrifices, it may be because the nation’s problems loom so large. The US is involved in two wars abroad and is reeling from a financial crisis, the depths of which are still unknown. More than 80 percent of Americans say the US has veered off track; to some, dangerously so. At times of crisis, historians say, citizens tend to respond to leadership that involves them in solving the problems.
“There’s some recognition of the country being under threat and being challenged and wanting to step up to it,” says Lewis Feldstein of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. “Obama is responding and generating and evoking this. I also feel there’s some of that in McCain’s rhetoric as well, with his ‘Country First’ [motto].”
Obama often invokes the “decent, generous” nature of Americans and their willingness to “sacrifice for future generations.”
“Patriotism must, if it is to mean anything, involve the willingness to sacrifice – to give up something we value on behalf of a larger cause,” he said in Florida in June.