In American politics, Republicans routinely speak in broad themes and tend to blur the details, while Democrats typically ignore broad themes and focus on details. Republicans, for example, speak constantly of “liberty” and “freedom” and couch practically all their initiatives—tax cuts, deregulation, and so forth—within these large categories. Democrats, on the other hand, talk more about specific programs and policies and steer clear of big themes. There is a reason for this: Republican themes, like “liberty,” are popular, while Republican policies often are not.
Read the whole article by Michael Tomasky for the New York Review of Books
In the wake of 9-11, the Bush administration launched a political branding initiative centered around the words “terror” and “evil.” It worked. We ate it up like a box of White Castle sliders. It validated our anger. Maybe you bought it, maybe you didn’t. The point is, enough of us did.
Before you write it off and key your neighbor’s car with the “W ’04″ sticker still on it, it’s worth evaluating how closely we were paying attention. Do you remember the specifics of any other Bush-era policy not affiliated with either of those two words, off the top of your head? Or do you just remember those two words?
There’s the TARP. But the GOP dropped it like an underaged prostitute when it became unpopular, and have swept it under a rug called Obama. No matter that most economists agree that the TARP (or some iteration of it) was actually a good thing, or at least a necessary step in our economic recovery; the GOP understands that it’s better to trash a tarnished brand than to try to redeem it. Not unlike a toilet scrubber, ultimately: If you got some shit on it while you were using it, throw it away and get a new one, because it’s not worth the cleanup job.
They conceive, develop, kill, and enforce their “product” branding in a way that’s concise, disciplined, and flawlessly in step with each other and with their base. How does a bill become a law? First, mock it up as a bumper sticker. This is not a rant, it’s a love song; I wish my team had a Karl Rove in the dugout.
So, without further ado: A quick case study:
BRAND OBJECTIVES (What image would you like the brand to convey?)
The GOP would like to be seen as the party of…
- Smaller, limited government
…even though Reagan himself didn’t really do anything to reduce federal spending, after his brief attempt with Social Security spending in 1981.
…even though it was Clinton, and neither of the Bushes, who restored fiscal responsibility during the nineties. And it was Bush 43, not Obama, who converted the surplus to the debilitating deficit we have today, due to his reckless federal spending –coupled with tax cuts– in an inspiring defiance of basic math.
…even though it was Bush, not Obama, who passed the TARP.
…even though the most expensive piece of legislation to hit the floor under the Obama Administration was proposed by the right: the extension of Bush’s tax cuts, which are projected to add $4 trillion to the deficit.
…even though support for “cap and trade” was once part of the McCain/Palin platform before it became unpopular with the right. Where my mavericks at?
- “Liberty” and “Freedom”
…despite the refusal to extend the right to marry and the opportunity to serve, to gay Americans.
…despite the “Patriot Act”, itself a brilliant piece of Brand Vernacular. It’s actually an acronym for “Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.” In other words, wiretapping. Also known as the opposite of freedom, liberty, and patriotism.
BRAND VERNACULAR (Your everyday language can subtly reinforce your brand.)
- The vilification of the word “elite” – Part I: The etymology
They took a word that means “best” and used it to mean “worst”. They literally reversed the word’s meaning, and it has caught on like a plague of stupid. I’m impressed — as long as the word “impressed” means embarrassed.
- The vilification of the word “elite” – Part 2: Further down the rabbit hole
The black son of a single mother is an “elitist”, and the son of a wealthy, political family is not. What happened to the party of “pull yourself up by the bootstraps?” How did this happen?
- The vilification of the word “elite” – Part 3: The “liberal media elite”
Fox News, enjoying the most elite stature in the business, slings the term at its competitors like a threatened orangutan.
This arrangement of three words has allowed Fox News to discredit any ideology that conflicts with its own narrative, in two distinct ways:
1. It allows them to dismiss a contrary expert opinion simply because it comes from an expert, which is by nature an elitist, and thereby disconnected from the “real world.”
2. It allows them to accuse other news organizations of bias. The genius here is that in calling Fox’s hypocrisy (or “attacking”), the competing news organization risks proving them right. FOX has essentially “purchased the rights” to the Bias Accusation. No one else can lay claim.
One more note on the slyest, and most clever of woodland mammals. In 2003, The University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA.org) published a report on just how sorely (almost comically) misinformed the average Fox News viewer is. The report is available for download here, if you can stand the elitism. To sum, in their words, “The extent of Americans’ misperceptions vary significantly depending on their source of news. Those who receive most of their news from Fox News are more likely than average to have misperceptions. Those who receive most of their news from NPR or PBS are less likely to have misperceptions. These variations cannot simply be explained as a result of differences in the demographic characteristics of each audience, because these variations can also be found when comparing the demographic subgroups of each audience.”
Which term are you familiar with? “Obamacare?” Or “Health Care Reform Bill?” Which one is easier to remember, and easier to say? And what sort of brand name is “Children’s Health Insurance Reauthorization Act,” for something as incredible, and as ground-breaking as it is? If you haven’t heard of it, it extends health care coverage to 11 million children. By simply calling it something like “My Child Counts,” the Administration could protect it from the fangs of the soulless, like strings of garlic.
- Sarah Palin
Palin is a living, breathing branding element; essentially a mascot. She has (literally) no political platform, no coherent agenda of her own, or political substance of any nature beyond her image. But that image is extremely valuable. In fact, according to Newsweek, it’s worth $14m once you tally her memoir, her salary from Fox News, her reality show, and her speaking engagements. She’s the GOP’s Pez dispenser: Whenever she opens her mouth, they get an enjoyable little treat of no nutritional value.
So, Mr. President – What happened to the branding and marketing initiatives behind “Yes We Can?” Let’s bring that back. Here’s how.
1. Communicate your achievements
Those annoying emails from Natalie Foster and Mitch Stewart are not enough. I don’t open them anymore. They’re totally out of sync with our culture. We are the people of Twitter. If it’s not Tweeted, it didn’t really happen. If it’s not GCal’ed, it’s not going to happen. If it doesn’t have a logo and a website it’s illegitimate. I’m not about to dig for your accolades as often as FOX is liable to report that you farted in Church. With a deluge of expertly-crafted brand material pushing us in one direction and nothing but skepticism pushing against it, the un-branded are bound to lose. Ours is not naturally a culture of skepticism, but one of conviction; be it adequately informed or not. Fight back with information.
2. Identify your talking points, and repeat them.
We need to hear things more than once to internalize them. We need to hear them from more than one person. Conversely, let’s respond to claims that are untrue when they are made and repeated by the GOP. It’s in our nature to believe something we hear over and over again, and it doesn’t matter how absurd it is.
3. Make it emotional
When things are emotional, we forgo facts. Middle-class Americans who’ve never followed politics before are being drawn in from the sidelines to picket against your proposed tax cuts to them, and instead defending tax cuts for the wealthy. Not only did the GOP manage to stir emotions with an issue as banal as tax policy, but they managed to activate the middle class against its own best interests, and against the advice of mainstream economists. How many teachers do you suppose are out there, supporting budget cuts that will leave them unemployed and their districts underfunded? How many government workers and military families are out there, demanding that we reduce the programs that feed their families and care for their sick? How did the Party of the Wealthy harness this image of populism without changing their policies to accommodate the middle class? With exceptional branding initiatives that most of us haven’t even noticed. By deliberately misusing and repeating emotional words like “socialism,” “liberty,” and “defend.”
Let’s take back the populist vote. Let’s use words like “Civil Rights” and “Human Rights” when talking about the Health Care Reform Bill, or about the rights that should be afforded to our gay brothers and sisters but aren’t. As it stands, the GOP is arguing tax policy more passionately than we are for human rights. How?
There’s an old joke among lawyers: When the evidence is on your side, argue with that. When passion is on your side, argue with that. When nothing is on your side, just argue. But, Mr. President, we have both evidence and passion on our side. So let’s fucking do this.