Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter only debated once, just a week before the 1980 presidential election. At the time the two were tied in public opinion polls.
In his closing statement, Reagan asked one of the most famous rhetorical questions in political history: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
For enough Americans that year, the answer was no. Reagan won in a landslide.
The question made the difference, some people said later. Or maybe it was something else. Maybe it was Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan: “Let’s make America great again.” Reagan even said the words during his convention acceptance speech that year.
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This year’s Republican nominee, Donald Trump, thinks so much of the phrase he’s trademarked it. He wears it on a bright red cap. He says it a lot.
He’s been vague on exactly when America was “great,” though. Some think he’s referring to the 1950s, when Dwight Eisenhower occupied the White House. Maybe the Reagan years, the 1980s.
Perhaps he’s talking about 50 years ago: 1966. In mid-March, Pew Research used that measuring stick, asking voters to compare today’s America with America then.
Roughly half said things are the same or better than they were five decades ago. But the other half — including 75 percent of Trump supporters — said things are worse “for people like me.”
That frustration with contemporary America is fascinating and a key part of Trump’s appeal. It also tells us something important about the 2016 election.
By almost any objective measure, life is better today than it was in 1966. While much has been written about stagnant wages, for example, prices for most consumer goods are still quite low, a phenomenon of improved technology, free trade and cheap foreign labor.
Qualitative measures are more difficult to make but still compelling. Cheap wide-screen TVs are scattered throughout most homes. Cars work better and last longer. Food is more abundant and inexpensive. Houses are larger. Health care is better — we live, on average, 10 years longer than we did in 1966.
Even drug prices are a mixed story. Sure, they’re expensive — but there are more quality medicines available now than at any time in U.S. history.
We own incredible handheld computers that double as telephones. We’re instantly connected with events around the world. Air travel is routine. Music, movies, the arts? My entire music collection, stored for years in large cardboard boxes, now rests on a disk drive the size of a paperback book.
We face enormous challenges abroad, yet in 1966 the U.S. was stuck in an unwinnable war in Southeast Asia. And with all the work we still face, we’re a more equal society than we were then.
Yet Trump’s slogan clearly captivates millions of voters. Why?
The answer seems rooted in social change, not material fact. Americans seem less socially connected than ever — fewer people attend church, or join service clubs, or meet neighbors for backyard barbecues. Lifelong employment is over. Voting has dropped. Media have disintegrated. Union membership has collapsed.
Even longstanding institutions such as political parties seem hollow, more a punch line than an organizing principle of public life.
Rules surrounding race and gender are bent. In 2016, America seems less a melting pot and more of a buffet.
Trump inherently promises to stop that trend by bringing back a hazy, perhaps apocryphal vision of America — nuclear, two-gender families; connected neighborhoods; social cohesion for everyone. For some voters, particularly older Americans, that message has a particular appeal.
Interestingly, Clinton seems to understand this. In late May, she announced her new slogan: “Stronger together,” evoking a time when individuality seemed less important than unity and conformity. Say, 1966.
So the coming presidential campaign may be more about the past than the future — more Beach Boys than Beyoncé. The boomer generation once wanted to change the world and now, in its final gasp, may want to change it back.