It's hard to think of a more meaningless political watchword than "change," but "change" is what the presidential candidates are promising.
Barack Obama's endless repetition of the word won him the Iowa caucuses, prompting other Democratic and Republican presidential candidates to make it their mantra too. Hillary Clinton and John McCain won in New Hampshire by arguing that they too wanted change and that they had the experience necessary to bring it about.
In a Fox News interview Jan. 8, Mitt Romney, who seems less a candidate than a human weather vane, got into the act as well. He managed to utter the word "change" four times in response to a single question. "Change," reported Time magazine's Michael Duffy after the New Hampshire results came in, "is the undisputed theme" of 2008.
But why? Since when did "change" become the Holy Grail of American politics -- and what can the word possibly mean if all these disparate candidates are for it?
The general idea is as old as democracy -- think of the venerable exhortation to "throw the rascals out" -- but the obsessive repetition of the word itself is a relatively new phenomenon. Granted, in 1944, the Republican governor of New York, Thomas E. Dewey, ran for president on the slogan "It's time for a change" -- but that was after his opponent, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had served three terms. After Dewey lost handily, the word went out of fashion for a while.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy promised change from the Eisenhower years with the slogan "Let's get America moving again," but he didn't use the word itself. In 1976, Jimmy Carter offered the slogan "A leader, for a change." Bland as these slogans were, by today's standards they would be too substantive. In the current environment, a candidate who promised to get the country "moving again" might invite attacks that he favored big government, while a candidate who promised leadership "for a change"( i.e., as opposed to the incumbent) might get tut-tutted by the media for stooping to negative campaigning. Even "Let's make America great again," Ronald Reagan's slogan in 1980, would likely prove insufficiently anodyne today because of its militaristic overtones.
All of these candidates campaigned for change, but none fetishized the word "change." That began to, um, change in 1988, the year Michael Dukakis announced in his race against Vice President George H.W. Bush that "I want to be a force for positive change." "We are the change," answered President Reagan at that year's GOP convention. The counter-slogan proved such a success that Reagan repeated it at the 1992 convention.
That time, though, it didn't work, because Bill Clinton had made himself Mr. Change. Clinton uttered the word 10 times in his nomination speech, which was as many times as he uttered the better-remembered word, "hope" (as in, "I still believe in a place called Hope"). "It's time to change America," Clinton said. "Our people are pleading for change," he elaborated. "We've got to change the way government does business," he continued. "How do I know we can come together and make change happen? Because I have seen it in my own state," he concluded.
A LexisNexis database search tells the story. The phrases "change agent" and "candidate of change" turned up in news sources 50 and 70 times, respectively, in 1988. By 1992, they turned up 483 and 557 times. A cliche was born. A similar search for 2008 shows the phrases turning up 217 and 300 times -- and that's only two weeks into the year. On an annualized basis, that's 5,642 and 7,800 times, respectively.
Obsession with the word "change" is at least partly a consequence of the decline in Democratic Party affiliation between 1977, when 48% of Americans self-identified as Democrats, and 1987, when only 38% did. Since then, party affiliation for Democrats and Republicans has hovered between 30% and 40%. As a result, in presidential years the two parties have ended up competing fiercely for the votes of political independents.
This has altered political rhetoric. When a candidate seeks votes from the party faithful, he has at least a general idea of what concrete policies and themes might appeal. But when a candidate seeks votes from independents, he's less clear on what the pitch should be because different people resist party affiliation for different reasons. The only thing he knows for sure about independents is that they're not totally happy with the ideological choices they've been offered thus far. Hence, "change." (This is nearly as true during primary season as it is in the general election because, increasingly, states allow independents, and even members of the opposite party, to participate in a party's primary.)
Change can obviously be good or bad. Jonas Salk was a change agent. So was Pol Pot. But where Dukakis at least specified that he wanted "positive change," today's candidates usually call just for "change." Heaven help the candidate who repeats too often the term "social change." That's sure to peg him as a hard leftist. Best to stick to "change," a word that connotes altered circumstance in the most passive, unthreatening, nonspecific way possible.
The store clerk makes change. The weather changes. The TV channel changes. Why not presidents? It's as good a way as any to kill boredom on a Tuesday morning. Still, the mere promise of some undefined "change" seems a weak basis for choosing the most powerful officeholder in the land. Our political rhetoric, I submit, needs to, er, become different.
Timothy Noah is a senior writer at Slate.