ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Gov. Wes Moore flashed his signature smile to the crowd as he pointed to people saying, “We need you,” and thanking everyone like he’d just won an Oscar. The smile and shoutouts that punctuated the October launch of his service year program have become characteristic of Moore’s optimistic style.
“At a time when some of these folks and politicians seem to be more interested in making points than making a difference; at a time when neighbors don’t talk to each other because one votes red and one votes blue, service will save us,” Moore said to a crowd of hundreds at the celebration for the Service Year Option and Maryland Corps.
“Service will save us” has become his mantra, as he rolls out his optional service year program for high school graduates. Political and rhetoric experts say Moore’s employment of this kind of optimistic language, sunny delivery and disdain for the trench warfare politics of today are unusual and unusually effective for the times.
There is a spiritual element to the phrase “service will save us,” and it’s a positive language flourish that gives people hope, said Michael Cornfield, research director of the Global Center for Political Engagement at George Washington University.
Moore even doubled down on the biblical style, referencing James 2:26 during the launch event speech as he discussed the opposition to establishing the programs.
“And then there were the believers, many of whom are in this room, and the people who also understood that belief was not going to be enough, that work was necessary, too,” Moore said. “Because as the good book says, faith without work is dead.”
The governor calls for service so often that it’s become a song, “Service by (Governor Wes Moore),” featured on the Grammy-nominated album “Hip Hope for Kids” by Baltimore-born DJ Willy Wow. Within the first 30 seconds of the track, Moore says “service will save us” and continues, arguing that through service, “we can achieve things no one thought possible.”
“I’m delivering a positive message because I’ve never been more optimistic about the future of our state or our country,” Moore said in an email statement to Capital News Service. “I believe that unity will prevail and we won’t let the political vitriol we are seeing win the day, and my belief is based on what is happening right here in Maryland.”
The hopeful message and positive language are a counterpoint to national politics, where political speech has become increasingly caustic and crude and party lines have hardened.
Examples of that language are numerous. Recently, former President Donald Trump, in a Veterans Day speech, called his opponents “radical left thugs” who “live like vermin;” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., called President Joe Biden “Hitler” on X, formerly known as Twitter, leading House Democrats to seek her censure; the Democratic National Committee marked each GOP presidential candidate’s photo with “MAGA” and trolled Trump with a mobile billboard circling the Miami Republican primary debate venue; and even back to 2016, Hillary Clinton called Trump’s followers a “basket of deplorables.”
A Pew Research analysis from 2022 found that the ideology of Democrats and Republicans was farther apart than in the last 50 years, though the division has been widening for years.
Moore, however, emphasizes the positive, much like several former presidents.
“And here’s a politician who is a throwback to (Barack) Obama and to be bipartisan about it, to (Ronald) Reagan, and to (John F.) Kennedy…. who is preaching and practicing the politics of hope, and it’s sort of a counter-trend right now,” Cornfield said. “So that’s sort of remarkable.”
When speaking about the call to service, Moore frequently references and quotes Sargent Shriver, the Maryland-born founder of the Peace Corps under President John F. Kennedy. For members of the Baby Boomer generation, Cornfield said, mentioning Shriver creates an instant connection to the “Kennedy notion of public service.”
Moore couples his rhetoric to role-switching – appealing to constituents as a combat veteran, a devoted family man, a sports bro celebrating the Orioles at Pickle’s Pub by Camden Yards or reaching out to areas in Maryland with high concentrations of Republican voters.
“We are leading by example, and showing the rest of the country what good government looks like,” Moore said in the statement. “Here in Maryland, we are working in partnership with Democrats and Republicans; business owners and employees; Marylanders from big cities and small towns – bringing everyone to the table.”
Like his predecessor, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Moore speaks out against divisiveness and tries to create a positive image for the public, said Todd Eberly, associate professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
“Regardless of what other folks in politics might think with regard to insincerity, that’s completely irrelevant to this. This is about how the public sees it. And (Moore) is very good at conveying to the public this optimistic, ‘I know we can’ attitude,” Eberly said. “And that worked incredibly well for Hogan, at least politically.”
Moore’s overall approval rating rose to 60% from 55% in June, according to an October Gonzales Poll. Among Republican voters, his approval jumped from 19% to 30%, while support from Democrats remained strong at 78%, up one percentage point.
Along with “service will save us” Moore often uses the phrase “service is sticky,” meaning that you form a bond with those you serve with. At a time when many have lost a sense of civic engagement as social media and mobile devices isolate them, Eberly said, service can push against this idea.
Moore answered “service,” when asked during an interview at the Center for Workforce Inclusion’s 2023 Equity Summit, what gives him hope during these divided times.” He frequently shares his ambition of making this “Maryland’s decade” or alludes to his campaign slogan to “leave no one behind.” As he outlined his goals in his first State of the State address, he adopted the attitude that Maryland could address any obstacles it faces with an emphasis on service.
“But still, that idea of appealing to our optimism instead of our pessimism, I think has great appeal. Because there are no shortage of voices right now, who are trying to do nothing but cash into our pessimism, to make us believe that we can’t accomplish everything, that it is, in fact, too hard to do some of the things that we want to do,” Eberly said.
Eberly, like Cornfield, likened Moore’s optimism to the rhetoric of Reagan, who “constantly spoke in aspirational terms.” Moore’s audience shoutouts, too, harken to Reagan’s State of the Union address in the 1980s, according to Cornfield.
Critics, such as Richard Vatz, professor emeritus of rhetoric and communication at Towson University, said Moore’s optimistic language hasn’t translated into change that addresses the most pressing issues in Maryland.
“If I were his rhetorical adviser, and I had no ethical problem with what he focuses on, I’d tell him he’s doing a great job,” Vatz said. “The consistent smiling – he acts as if he’s not threatened by anything. I mean these are the qualities that very popular leaders have.”
Vatz, who has been criticized by Towson University students and faculty for his role as the faculty adviser of the school’s chapters of Turning Point USA and defunct Youth for Western Civilization, said that Moore has mastered charisma and political persuasion, but fails to solve problems regarding violence, education and finances.
In his first legislative session, Moore signed over 100 bills into law, one of them being the bill that authorized his service year. That success may not carry over to his next session, which begins in January, and in the face of these new challenges, his rhetoric could change, the experts said.
Throughout his leadership, he has been consistent about bridging socioeconomic and political divides. Being a state that “gets to know each other again” by serving together, Moore says, will put Maryland on the path to overcome political vitriol and become a national leader.
Eberly said that current politics “paints a picture of a bitterly divided and angry American populace,” while Moore’s message is “that’s not who we are and let’s try to get back to the heart of who we are as a people.”