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Sen. Bernie Sanders before a crowd at the People's Summit in Chicago last weekend. (Photo: National Nurses United/flickr/cc)

Power or Principles: How the Establishment Branch of the Democratic Party Is Choosing to Lose Both

John Atcheson

"The Democratic Party must finally understand which side it is on …" —Sen. Bernie Sanders addressing The People's Summit

There’s a war on for the soul of the Democratic Party.  On one side are the neoliberal elitists who make up the establishment wing of the party – many of whom pose as progressives every two to four years or so – on the other are the real progressives.

That’s not news.  But what is stunning is how the Democratic establishment is choosing to cling to power in the face of clear evidence that that their center-right policies have hurt them, and how the establishment press is supporting them.

For example, take this article from the New York Times with this headline: "Democrats in Split-Screen: The Base Wants It All. The Party Wants to Win."

If one reads on, when they say “the base wants it all” it means they want progressive policies like single payer health care, a $15 minimum wage, tax increases on the rich, and strong environmental protection laws and regulations.

The implicit assumption here is that these policies are somehow not consistent with winning.

The reality is, Democrats have been losing ground at all levels for decades now, precisely because of their reluctance to embrace progressive policies.

Now, the Times is not alone in propounding the notion that backing progressive policies hurts candidates in elections  – you’ll hear it on the airwaves, see it in magazines, read it on the Internet. It’s a staple of the establishment media. 

The Myth of the Center Right Country

But wait, you say, isn’t America a center-right country?  Don’t the Democrats have to appeal to the center to win?  Certainly, that’s what the establishment would have you believe.

Now there are places where these issues don’t play well, but the fact is, the majority of Americans are left of center on an issue-by-issue basis, and they support these and other progressive policies. And this is true in many so-called red states, as results on liberal ballot initiatives show.

And yet, when you ask people whether they are liberal or moderate or conservative, self-declared “liberals” are a minority.  For example, in recent polls on the topic, Gallup found that 37 percent of Americans self-identified as conservative; 35 percent called themselves moderates; and only 24 percent considered themselves to be liberal.

So what gives? Why, if Americans overwhelmingly hold progressive positions on most issues – even in red states – are voters so loathe to call themselves “liberal?”

This may be the most important question facing America, and the answer reveals what amounts to a silent coup, four decades in the making, in which a few rich families and corporations took over first the Republican Party, then the Democrats and the media.

Today, all three are in the business of hawking myths such as the center right majority that support the interests of an elite oligarchy at the people’s expense.

Let’s examine how the myth of the center-right was fabricated and why folks reject the “liberal” label.

Branding and the Demonization of “Liberal”

The Business Dictionary defines branding as the process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product in the consumer’s mind, mainly through advertising campaigns with a consistent theme. Branding aims to establish a significant and differentiated presence in the market that attracts and retains loyal customers.

Notice what is not mentioned in this definition. The differentiation of the product or service need not have any basis in truth, accuracy, reality, or substance.

In politics, branding is used as much to vilify the opposition as to foster your own brand, and the right wing has been quite adept at it.

Branding is frequently designed to sell the attribute, not the product. Coke doesn’t sell cheap flavored sugar water, they sell “taste the feeling.” Everyone in their commercials is young, hip and having much more fun than you and I.

Old Spice doesn’t sell a moderately nice-smelling aftershave; it sells “The man you could smell like.” And he’s someone a lot of guys would like to be, and a lot of women would like to be with.

In the same way, conservatives don’t sell tax cuts for the rich, ineffective government, perpetual wars, corporate hegemony, and constraints on personal choice; rather, they sell “trickle down,” “deregulation,” “strong Defense and national security” (always with a capitol D, and always having more to do with offense). Similarly, they sell “family values,” not restrictions on whom you may sleep with, who you may—and may not—marry, what sexual practices you may engage in, whether you may choose to die on your own terms, etc.

And they do it using the best lessons of rhetoric, a field that is neglected today.

As noted by Joseph Romm, author of Language Intelligence: Lessons in Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln and Lady Gaga, most of us are taught to use big words, avoid repetition and be as literal as possible—using facts, numbers, and details. If you think about most Democrats, this is precisely how they communicate – snooze alert; no one cares about your issue papers.

In contrast, conservatives have been quite effective at creating their brand. As Kevin Drum put it in Mother Jones:

Every American over the age of ten knows what the GOP and the conservative movement stand for. Sing it with me now: low taxes, small government, strong defense, traditional families. See? You know the tune, and the harmony line, too…Everybody knows what the conservative brand stands for, because the conservative leadership has spent four decades nurturing a consistent brand identity for themselves.

One important emphasis conservatives have made in their branding efforts is to target the limbic lizard brain in us all with messages grounded in fear, hate, anger, greed, jingoism, jealousy, or bigotry.

These simple techniques go a long way toward explaining how conservatives have successfully branded both their “product” as desirable and good and the liberal “product” as something between mindless and evil, why it worked, and why liberals (aka progressives) have been unsuccessful in countering the conservative rhetorical juggernaut.

Democrats Join the Coup

There’s one other reason conservatives have been successful at this con game. Not only have establishment Democrats failed to establish a brand of any kind (let alone one based on New Deal policies supporting the people) they’ve rarely – if ever – confronted the grotesque failures of the conservative brand.

How hard could this be? In virtually every case the conservative playbook has been tried it’s resulted in extreme income inequality, huge deficits, and an economic slow-down.  Look at Kansas; look at Louisiana; look at the fact that the three biggest economic downturns in US history  were all preceded by the laissez-faire policies being hawked by conservatives as solutions to the problems they cause. Or take the case of California, where they increased taxes and ignited an economic boom.

C’mon folks. Picking apart the conservative brand should be as easy as shooting ducks in a barrel. Of course, there’s a reason the neoliberals now in control of the Democratic Party and the elite mainstream media don’t do it.  They are both in the pocket of the plutocrats.

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that Democrats can only win by moving to the left, and just as obvious that those in control of the Party would rather retain power than win victories.

And the media?  As wholly-owned subsidiaries of corporate America, they’re literally paid to keep the myth alive.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson, 1948-2020, was a long-time Common Dreams contributor, climate activist and author of, "A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, "WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track". Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson. John was tragically killed in a California car accident in January 2020.

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