We’ve likely all seen one – or many – of the spin-offs from the British propaganda poster: most recently “Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands.” On this most momentous occasion, election day 2020 in the U.S.A., I feel obligated not only to lift up the original message – but also to share a bit of its history, on what we all expect is a historic day for us.
‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was one of three slogans created in 1940 by the British Ministry of Information (MOI, the government’s public relations team). The other two slogans found widespread use during World War II, though they are not nearly as memorable: ‘Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution: Will Bring Us Victory’ and ‘Freedom is in Peril; Defend it with all Your Might.’ But surprisingly – given how familiar the red and white meme has become around the world – ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was not actually seen by the public until almost 75 years later! The counselors at MOI had intended it to be used in the event of a German invasion of the United Kingdom – something that would have unnerved even the most stoic Brit. Since that didn’t happen, the slogan was known to only a few insiders until an abandoned poster was discovered at a BBC Antiques Roadshow event in 2000 – and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. First commercialized in the wake of the Great Recession in 2009, the sentiment tapped into the sense of despair that so many felt as financial markets, mortgages and jobs around the world were sent into chaos. Today, the slogan is a legitimate brand of its own, generating significant commercial revenue for at least one U.K. company. The public relations team at MOI would be proud and amazed.
But like other slogans harvested from history, we should not let the ubiquitous nature of the iconic slogan detract from its original inspirational intention. It is as strong and appropriate a message as I can imagine sending out to my fellow Americans today, and to our families and friends around the world. Whatever happens over the next few days, we need to keep calm and prepare to carry on as a democratic country. Our nation comprises a remarkable constitution, documented and refined individual rights, a representative form of government at local, state and national levels. Our history includes at least a few harrowing episodes suggesting self-destruction – and we’ve always found a way to step back from the breach. We have persevered and even restored the capacity to thrive. “In order to form a more perfect union” is the language in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, an acknowledgement that we will never be done, never stop improving ourselves. Whoever will be leading us for the next four years as president needs us to remember who we are: the United States of America. President Theodore Roosevelt, Republican of New York, said at the beginning of the last century about leading the country: “Much has been given us, and much will rightfully be expected from us. We have duties to others and duties to ourselves; and we can shirk neither. We have become a great nation, forced by the fact of its greatness into relations with the other nations of the earth, and we must behave as to be seen as a people with such responsibilities.”
Winners of elections tomorrow – and their supporters – would do well to be gracious in victory and quick to reach out to those not celebrating. Losers of elections tomorrow – and their supporters – will need to remember that politics in our country is ‘a long game.’ Because of the complexity of our system of governing, change takes persistence and time. Nothing in policy or regulation will change the day after we know the results; the only thing that can change that fast is our attitude about ourselves as a nation, as a people. Elections are just part of the workings of our amazing democracy. Between tomorrow and the next election, we have obligations to ensure the entirety of our democracy is working. Keep Calm and Carry On.