‘Now more than ever’ is less use­ful than ever

Jour­nal­ist Alex Ca­ton says the in­ac­cu­rate phrase im­plies that the past was unim­por­tant

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @Set­tler­sOfCa­ton Alex Ca­ton, a free­lance writer, is a for­mer Dunn fel­low in the of­fice of Illi­nois Gov. Bruce Rauner.

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.

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