Politics is all about branding. And brands are not about issues
or details - they're about identity.
When progressives and Democrats think of how Bush voters
understand the word "Republican," they assume these folks are thinking
"pro-life"; "moral values"; privatization and deregulation; "free
trade"; lower taxes; and stripping power from what Republicans call
"special interests," like labor unions and groups advocating rights
for women, gays, and other minorities.
But that's not the picture average Americans think of when they
hear the words "Republican" or "conservative."
Instead, like any good brand, the words "Republican" and
"conservative" evoke feelings as much as pictures. The main feeling is
one of identity: "My tribe." The main picture is the brand's logo -
the American flag. At a deeper level, they carry pictures, stories,
and feelings of NASCAR, Budweiser, the American flag, "standing tough"
and "standing tall" in the world, and pulling yourself up by your
Not only are most Republican voters largely unaware of the details
of the issues facing our nation, studies show that most are badly
misinformed. In some part this is the fault of the media, but the
larger reason is that when a person has bonded to a brand, it becomes
part of their identity. They then develop a psychologically
sophisticated and largely unconscious internal system to filter out
and reject contradictory information.
Progressives, liberals, and Democrats have failed to apply this
simple reality, and therefore have allowed conservatives to define our
brands for us. The very sophisticated effort to do this has been led
by Gingrich, Luntz, and Limbaugh, three men who understand the
psychology of branding, and have used it to sell the Republican party
and the word "conservative" to Americans with all the zeal - and all
the cash - used by other famous brands like Coke, Levi's, and
This is not rocket science, and it's not a secret. There's an
entire industry devoted to teaching these concepts (in which I worked
for two decades).
So why haven't progressives and Democrats figured this out?
We're still letting cons define our brand for us, and they're
still doing it aggressively. In the month of February, 2005, timed to
coincide with the Academy Awards, a con group has rented prominent
billboards in Hollywood that will show a smiling picture of George W.
Bush with the slogan: "Thank you, Hollywood!". In a row under the
prominent and smiling Bush are less flattering photos of Michael
Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Afleck, and other outspoken liberals.
There are no Democratic billboards showing the biggest supporters
of the Republican Party - corporate fat-cats like Ken Lay, with
private jets and limousines, living in baronial mansions.
In classic marketing theory, there are two foundational concepts.
Features ("what is it?") without benefits ("why should I care?") lack
relevance. And, benefits without features lack credibility.
Once these are mastered, you "chunk up" (to use NLP terminology)
to branding: "Features and benefits without identification ("Who am I
when I use this product?") lack "stickiness" or persistence.
Progressives and Democrats are still working on features - the
details of programs.
Most progressives know all the features they're interested in:
Universal single payer health care, a viable social safety net, prison
and sentencing reform, a livable wage, support for unions and the
repeal of Taft-Hartley and its heirs, voting (and voting machine)
reforms, revoking corporate personhood and getting corporate money out
of politics, moral leadership in the world, and working for a
reduction of crime and poverty at home and towards stable, lasting
worldwide peace (to name a few).
But there's no "benefit statement" in lists like these. Sure,
some people think they're obvious, but the cons know - as does any
good marketer - that you have to lead with the benefit, and only then
do you follow with the features. Sell "lower taxes" to everybody
before rolling out tax cuts for the wealthy. Sell "personal accounts"
for Social Security before rolling out benefit cuts for future
generations. Sell "protect your children" before rolling out
homophobia and theocracy.
And, even worse, the left hasn't yet defined its brand.
What is our logo? Bill Moyers briefly talked about wearing a flag
on his lapel, trying to re-brand the flag as the logo of the liberals,
but because there was no national effort behind it, it died.
What is our identity? The cons have succeeded in making much of
America think that to be liberal is to either be a wealthy actor or a
scruffy gadfly. While many people wouldn't mind being either, few
identify themselves in such terms.
The largest lights of the Democratic Party - it's founder, Thomas
Jefferson, and it's two most famous recent presidents, FDR and LBJ -
knew their brand and their identity, and brought the majority of
Americans along with them. The largest landslide Democratic election
victories of the 20th century were FDR's after he introduced the New
Deal, and LBJ's after he introduced the Great Society. Their logo was
the flag, and their identity was average working people, and those who
aspire to the economic and educational middle class.
Jefferson not only defined the identity of the Democratic Party
that he founded - the longest-lasting political party in world
history - but defined the identity of America as well. He defined us
in positive terms (what we're for) in the Declaration of Independence,
as well as in contrasting terms (what we're against like the "ban on
monopolies in commerce" he tried to write into the Bill of Rights).
For example, in a February 8, 1786 letter to James Madison,
Jefferson made clear his thoughts on what he considered a great
international immorality - national belligerence that leads to a war
"And it should ever be held in mind," Jefferson wrote, "that
insult and war are the consequences of a want of respectability in the
Later, Madison - also a member of Jefferson's Democratic
Republican Party (which dropped the "Republican" from its name in the
1830s, although the www.whitehouse.gov website now lists Jefferson,
Madison, Monroe, and John Quincy Adams - the first four Democratic
presidents - as "Republicans") would write, "No nation could preserve
its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
FDR brought us back to Jefferson's ideals with his third inaugural
address, sometimes called his "Four Freedoms speech," on January 6,
1941, when he said:
"The basic things expected by our people of their
political and economic systems are simple. They are :
"Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
"Jobs for those who can work.
"Security for those who need it.
"The ending of special privilege for the few.
"The preservation of civil liberties for all.
"The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and
constantly rising standard of living.
"These are the simple, the basic things that must never be lost
sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern
world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political
systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these
In that, FDR created a brand, a packaging concept, a place for
people to anchor their identity. It's name was the New Deal, but it
was far more inclusive than just that.
Twenty-three years later, in his first State of the Union speech
after the death of JFK, Lyndon B. Johnson said:
"This administration today, here and now, declares
unconditional war on poverty in America. ...
"These programs are obviously not for the poor or the
underprivileged alone. Every American will benefit by the extension of
social security to cover the hospital costs of their aged parents.
Every American community will benefit from the construction or
modernization of schools, libraries, hospitals, and nursing homes,
from the training of more nurses and from the improvement of urban
renewal in public transit."
In declaring his Great Society program and starting the Medicare
program, LBJ cut poverty in America in half. And he, too, created a
brand. (Had he not gotten caught up in Vietnam, he may now be
remembered as one of our greatest presidents, as the impact of his
social programs on America were tremendous.)
And, like Jefferson, both FDR and LBJ were overwhelmingly
re-elected by the American people after declaring sweeping social
programs that benefited average working people and those who aspired
to the middle class.
The brand - the identity - of progressive ideals doesn't need to
be reinvented. It's been with us since the founding of this nation.
It long predates the Republican's Faustian deal with the Robber Barons
and war profiteers. And when the Democratic Party has been strongest,
it's been because Democrats have asserted a clear brand that stood in
opposition to Republicans and their fat-cat owners. We are the -
truly - We the People.
If the Democratic Party is to survive, it must embrace the
progressive concepts that led to its founding in the late 1700s. It
must tell average Americans what's in it for them, and once again give
Americans a "brand" with which they can identify. It must stop playing
defense, letting the Republicans define the agenda of public debate,
and instead reinvigorate traditional progressive rhetoric,
legislation, and identity.
Democrats must reassert their brand, and establish their identity.
To do this, the Party must say, loudly: "We're for the average working
stiff in America, and we'll prove it by bringing jobs back from
overseas by pulling out of the WTO and NAFTA, supporting organized
labor, strengthening the social safety net, and keeping government
from being a honey pot for either churches or corporations." And then
they must come up with a simple name for it, like Newt's "Contract" or
Roosevelt's "New Deal" or LBJ's "Great Society" to provide voters with
a hook for identification.
They must further back this up by working with Greens and
progressives for Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), the end of
Republican-affiliated corporations programming our voting machines,
and advocate social, economic, and environmental reforms - and
bringing them into the Party.
Only then will the Party of Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Johnson
again be able to advance social justice at home and peace around the
Thom Hartmann (thom at thomhartmann.com) is a Project Censored
Award-winning best-selling author and host of a nationally syndicated
daily progressive talk show. www.thomhartmann.com His most recent books are "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight,"
"Unequal Protection," "We The People," "The Edison Gene", and "What Would Jefferson Do?."