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 bootstraps
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 Wal-Mart.
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 of choice.
"And it should ever be held in mind," Jefferson wrote, "that insult and war are the consequences of a want of respectability in the national character."
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 expectations."
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 world.