‘Now more than ever’ is less useful than ever
Journalist Alex Caton says the inaccurate phrase implies that the past was unimportant
In June 1972, Republican pollster Robert M. Teeter commissioned two focus groups of ticket-splitting, blue-collar, 35-and-older Detroit voters to test campaign slogans for Richard Nixon. Nixon’s team wondered if one of the slogans under consideration was “too sophisticated,” but Teeter disagreed. In a memo to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, he explained that “the slogan had a certain emotional appeal which the other slogans did not seem to possess,” and it looked good on a bumper sticker. So it became official: “President Nixon. Now more than ever.”
Forty-five years later, under the specter of President Trump, “now more than ever” is back. It’s also, for the most part, inaccurate.
Since Trump’s political emergence, “now more than ever” has rapidly attached itself to an assortment of cultural components — children’s stories, science, the wonder of New York City, Leonard Cohen’s music — recasting them as constructive outlets for pent-up frustration and fear. Now (that Trump is president) we need (preferred antidote) more than ever.
“Now more than ever” adds gravity to a sales pitch or protest. For the media, it asserts the urgency of the fact-finding enterprise. For the “resistance,” it offers absolution for any efforts neglected during Trump’s 512-day escalator ride to the presidency.
Few institutions have claimed to matter more, now, than legacy news outlets. During the Academy Awards, the New York Times aired its first television advertisement in seven years, a 30-second spot that concludes, “The truth is more important now than ever.” On Nov. 9, the day after the election, the Guardian’s U.S. editor declared, “Never has the world needed independent journalism more.” Ten days later, the Los Angeles Times’ Facebook timeline exhorted, “Now, more than ever, America needs good journalism.” Likewise, the San Francisco Chronicle: “Journalism has never been more important.”
By suggesting that conditions demand unprecedented civic engagement (such as paying for news), “now more than ever” ties an urgent feeling to a concrete act. As ad copy, it’s damn good. But as a statement about the worth of journalism and other small-D democratic institutions, it fails. When tied to the importance of facts and truth, “now more than ever” creates a contradiction. Journalism can’t be both fundamental to democracy and, as the phrase implies, dispensable in the past.
“Now more than ever” enters the lexicon when a relatively apolitical public gets yanked into the political process. The last time the phrase was used so frequently? 9/11. For New Yorkers after 9/11, it was the understandable emotional background for proposing marriage and supporting your kids’ passions. Milton Glaser’s iconic “I N.Y.” poster was reissued as “I N.Y. More Than Ever.” A Brazilian immigrant who once scoffed at yuppies walking by her dance studio told the Times, “I cannot abandon ship; this is my home more than ever.”
In the autumn of 2001 and for some time afterward, politicians and opinionators alike used the gravity of “now” to back up prescriptive claims, some more logical than others. Among things needed then more than ever were the Fourth Amendment, Amtrak, the Olympics, lower taxes and orchestras.
That wasn’t the first time the phrase appealed in a crisis, either. In 1936, a Times editorial about autocracy argued that it was “more than ever necessary today that democratic institutions be vitalized and made effective.” If we think the writers were correct, then unless American history is a linearly worsening series of crises, contemporary assertions are ahistorical and therefore wrong. The phrase has been used to describe the importance of finding “a SCOTUS Justice who will fulfill the role in our democracy as a check & balance,” in a tweet by Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), and of “protect[ing] the Constitution,” in an ACLU petition. In a November letter to donors, the chief executive and national chair of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights organization, wrote that the group’s work “matters now more than ever.” The ADL was founded in 1913.
The 2016 campaign was fought in part over how citizens and their representatives ought to use language. Trump’s opponents flagged his statements as racist and disqualifying, while his supporters rallied to a politician who would “finally” say the words “radical,” “Islamic” and “terrorism” in that order. Exactness is important to some very large constituencies, yet a popular response to Trump’s rhetorical carelessness is more rhetorical carelessness.
Ultimately, “now more than ever” isn’t particularly instructive. “Now” can’t last forever. The political moment is ripe for “outrage fatigue.” And as The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg notes, there’s a danger in rebranding laudable, but ultimately routine, civic engagement — voting, calling your congressman’s office — as the efforts of a next-level anti-Trump “resistance.” It’s easy to imagine civil society receding into a state of complacency without changing any of the conditions that made this particular now possible. “Now more than ever” is a crescendo phrase. Without escalating crises, it ceases to be true and — perhaps more important for left-leaning organizers and subscription sellers strategizing past Trump’s first 100 days — believable.
If, like George Orwell, you see a connection between hazy language and political rot, then precision in the way we describe our world is worth preserving. That might mean retiring certain slogans when they prove to be meaningless. I’d suggest now.