The Dems are lost in a time-warp
Democrats just lost big. It’s time for Democratic Party 2.0. It’s time for a re-brand
Once I drank too much with a group of important clients. Somewhat over-refreshed, I staggered to my hotel room, threw off my clothes and collapsed on the bed. At 3am I was awakened by an urgent need to pee. I staggered to the bathroom door, opened it and as it clicked shut behind me, I realized it was not the bathroom door at all, but the door to my hotel room. Slowly the extent of my predicament dawned on me. I was standing stark naked in a hotel hallway, bathed in the brightest light, no ID, no room key, no money, clients sleeping in the rooms all around, nowhere to hide. At that moment I heard the elevator tone pinging down the hallway. Somebody was getting off on my floor…
I figure this is exactly how Democrats are starting to feel.
The reality of how badly they are locked out of political power is just beginning to dawn on them.
It really doesn’t look good.
And they will never again have such a hand.
They had the nutzoid party opposing them — believers in QAnon, candidates who supported striking down the ACA in the middle of a mismanaged pandemic, caged immigrants, masks as symbols of personal liberty, wrecked alliances, all of that.
And they had Trump, a man who ran his country the same way he ran his company: right into the ground. The difference between a real estate developer and a genuine businessman comes down in the end to capacity for debt. Our country now looks like an overleveraged Trump business, a fantasy lifestyle brand spending too much and earning too little.
On his watch the national debt has skyrocketed, ballooned, soared — you pick the verb — by 36%, to a new high of $27 trillion. The CBO projects it will exceed 100% of GDP in 2021, the first time that has happened since the end of World War II. And the federal budget deficit hit a record $3.1 trillion in 2020.
Under Trump, self-styled defender of the disenfranchised, a second round of “stimulus” checks was rejected month after month after month as 2020 unfolded. They’re not stimulus checks of course, they’re survival checks. It’s just that “stimulus” works better as a marketing slogan.
In the last four years, wealth disparity accelerated. The two largest asset classes in America are residential real estate and stocks. Now 10% of the population controls 70% of their value. Both are trading at all-time highs — as we bury more than 3,000 Americans a day, most of them elderly, poor or black. A year of death…and the markets boom. Why would we expect the shareholder class to participate in the fight against the virus when its march enriches them? One in four households has experienced food insecurity this year. Nearly half of us work in low-wage service jobs. A quarter of us can’t pay our rent — evictions are running at record levels. The tax code has been rejigged to expand sweetheart breaks long awarded the wealthy, while states and cities are running out of money. Jeff Bezos is worth more than every citizen in Vermont, Alaska and Wyoming combined.
Makes you wonder where Rick Santelli and the Tea Party went.
Makes you wonder why economic stewardship remains a key element of the Republican “brand.”
But most of all it makes you wonder why Democrats got their clock cleaned.
By any measure, this election was a disaster for them. Democrats failed to win a Senate majority. They still might, but it will take a Trump-inspired double miracle in Georgia. (Ironically, in this election cycle, Trump has been Democrats’ biggest promotional asset) They even came close to losing their majority in the House. State house majorities that seemed ripe for the taking in Iowa, North Carolina, Arizona, Florida, Texas, and Pennsylvania instead turned a brighter shade of red. They couldn’t even flip two seats in the Minnesota senate, where they control both the state house and the governor’s mansion. Yes, Minnesota! The benign “bread and butter state,” the state that gave us Walter Mondale. Red as a beet.
Biden’s win is small solace. He won, but only by a whisker. He ran merely as the antithesis of Trump — nobody can tell me what he stands for. It was a nerve-wracking hire-wire performance, like watching an amateur marathoner on slow-mo as he wobbles and flails to the finish line. Every time the old boy opened his gob the guillotine beckoned. And given the down-ballot disaster nothing much will change. Appealing to McConnell’s better angels is like walking into McDonalds expecting white linen tablecloths and candles and Pachelbel wafting gently through the speakers. Whether he keeps his Senate majority or not, we should expect nothing but obstruction.
Like I said, the election was a disaster for the Democratic party.
How did it happen?
Here’s my theory.
Actually, two theories.
1. The Democratic brand is old and tired and increasingly irrelevant.
2. Democrats can’t sell to save their lives.
Dems are the world’s worst marketers. The worst.
It’s not a fatuous point.
Policy prescriptions don’t matter a damn if you can’t or won’t sell them.
And Democrats can’t sell them. They are clueless when it comes to framing an issue, segmenting a market, counter-positioning a competitor, or controlling a winning narrative.
So they’re always playing defense.
I mean, where did “defund the police” come from? That’s not just a messaging problem, it’s a utopian-will-make-things-worse-in-the-projects problem.
And consider the pandemic.
There are still people wandering around proudly maskless, unknowing or uncaring that the mask is not about them but about us, that wearing a mask is a signal of community, solidarity, and civic commitment. Nobody bothered to sell them on that idea. So not wearing a mask became a symbol of the fight against tyranny.
That’s just the start of it.
As months passed with no relief coming from Washington, financially straightened Democratic states and cities had little choice but to ease restrictions on businesses just to keep the lights on. Not only did they concede the economic wisdom of the more permissive approach in red states, they compounded the problem by allowing Republicans to define the contrast between the parties in terms of individual freedom versus exhausting, erratic, seemingly arbitrary shutdowns and curfews and mandates.
They had no competing strategy to counter Republican messaging. Struggling businesses never clearly heard exactly what they’d get if Democrats ran the show and why that approach was better. They still haven’t heard.
Marketing and Sales 101.
Democrats didn’t lose down-ballot races because of lack of money, or Republican tampering with the electoral process or some kind of epistemological crisis deep within American society.
The central failure was a failure to make the case.
But then, this has long been the central flaw in the way Democrats “go to market.”
They start from a brand position that is tired and outmoded, like that of Sears, or Budweiser, or your local daily newspaper — the Press, the Telegram, the Chronicle, the Herald, the Tribune, the Bugle, the Telegraph — titles that signal a product from another time, a product that is out of touch, a product that is no longer relevant to the needs and sensibilities of the current marketplace.
Democrats start from that vulnerable, brand-weary position. And then they make it worse.
Take the issue of patriotism.
When my son joined the military, many of my liberal friends were mystified. “Your son went to college, right?” they asked. “Did you know you were raising a warrior?” one keeps asking, the distaste made clear by tone. You can see that his choice would be easier for them to understand if the military was a way for him to get up and out. He didn’t need that path, as it happens. It’s simply that he’s the son of an immigrant and wants to give back. But the values of self-abnegation, loyalty to the brotherhood and commitment to a higher ideal trigger reflexive skepticism in the neoliberal crowd.
They’re patriots of course, my friends are a bunch of quiet, if skeptical believers. But they’re conflicted. That’s problematic for the Democratic party. A weak brand is a brand that makes a false or inconsistent promise. The American consumer can spot a flaw in a pitch from a mile away. You can’t claim patriotism and simultaneously find strange or suspect the commitment of those who serve the flag.
Meanwhile most of my conservative Republican friends celebrate my son’s commitment. They fall all over themselves to say “thank you for your service” to him, in that unctuous, self-aggrandizing way they do. It’s like he’s offering them absolution. It drives him bananas.
They do this because they believe in the flag. But what kind of flag has it become? Trump and his gang have been able to shift the meaning of the flag itself. It used to an inclusive symbol, representing a diverse group of people united behind a set of common beliefs. Now it’s exclusive, an appropriated symbol of nationalist pride, a weapon. With marketing techniques like this, Trump and Republicans established overt patriotism as a core ingredient of the brand they take to market, despite his bone spur dodge and their devious laxity on the norms and obligations that lie beneath the explicit language of the constitution, that are harder to see but in fact, make it work — like pluralism, reciprocity and deliberation. No matter what they say or do, they’re the real patriots around here. They own the flag.
Here’s how this plays out on the political ground. I’m a registered Independent, which means that in the past I’ve voted for Republicans as well as Democrats. As a result, I’m on the fund-raising lists for each party. How lucky am I? And that means I’m getting 50 texts a day like this:
Kelly: If every Patriot chips in $25, we can close the gap & keep Georgia RED. Don’t ignore this — I need you, Peter
When Democrats try this kind of thing, it feels inauthentic. It doesn’t ring true. They’ve been framed, you see. Out-positioned. They hate the flag, the radical socialists.
This is Sen. Cornyn. The Democrats are running a Socialist against David Perdue in GA. We can’t win without you — will you donate now?
Vote against Perdue my friends, and you are a socialist — whatever that is. The label is sufficiently broad to cover any political sin. Every Democrat is a socialist now, a part of the “radical left.”
As our personal political beliefs have become a manifestation of our identity, American public life has bifurcated. We now live in two disconnected cultures. One is the world of resentment, a world sponsored by Fox News, talk radio, the Sinclair media empire, and Parler, the new home of paranoid conspiracy theories. On this planet, Trump is a hero taking on elites on behalf of those left behind. The other is the world of pretention. This world is brought to you by the New York Times, the Washington Post, MSNBC, what used to be called the mainstream media and a number of new digital news offerings each specializing in their own particular rendition of liberal orthodoxy — Axios, Vox, Buzzfeed and the rest. On this planet, Trump is a vulgarian narcissist with no respect for the rule of law.
Trump didn’t start this. It’s been festering for decades. Obama’s language often didn’t help. Nor does a political infrastructure so badly our of whack that states containing less than 20% of the nation’s population elect a majority of the Senate while, through gerrymandering, the GOP does about 6% better in the median House district than it does in the popular vote. But the divide has got a lot worse in the last four years. Now Americans live in a state of political apartheid, like tribesmen.
Neither camp talks to each other. Not even a crisis like the pandemic, or climate for that matter, can bring them together. You can’t keep a foot in each camp. Instead, you have to pick a side, and maintain a warlike stance. Because there is no common ground and only conflicting zones of zero-sum self-interest, there is no political arena where policy can be debated on an equal footing. Compromise is a vice, not a virtue. Power for the sake of power is the only currency, because when you have it, you can ram the ingredients of your identity down your opponent’s throat.
In a recent column, David Brooks, the New Times columnist, wondered aloud what can be done about it:
You can’t argue people out of paranoia. If you try to point out factual errors, you only entrench false belief. The only solution is to reduce the distrust and anxiety that is the seedbed of this thinking. That can only be done first by contact, reducing the social chasm between the members of the epistemic regime and those who feel so alienated from it. And second, it can be done by policy, by making life more secure for those without a college degree.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Feels good. Summons hope. And sure, unlike some of my liberal friends, I don’t need Trump’s base to be humiliated. I think many of them are genuinely stupid, but like Brooks, I would like them to have health insurance, decent jobs and security, and I would like especially for them to understand where that help comes from. But the mistake Brooks makes is that not all of Trump’s 70 million voters are paranoid or working class. The doctor down the street is a Trumpy. And so is my attorney. Neither is paranoid. Both have a college degree. Both are people of means. One grew up poor in New Delhi, the other is of middle-class Irish descent. It will take a lot more than “contact” and “policy” to turn their heads. Trump is not their blunt instrument and he is not, as he is for his stereotypical base, an extension of their id, their culture, their destructive drug of choice. For the doctor and the lawyer and people like them, Trump was a chance for the country to kick over the traces, a chance to jumpstart a country that had gotten itself stuck, even if it meant holding your nose.
Now they need to be convinced that a viable new alternative exists to solve the issues they care about the most — the way government spends their money, the threat of China, the collapse of civics and community, the absurdities of cancel culture, unfettered immigration, broken healthcare, outmoded economic policy, and the rest.
Democrats have to compete for their vote. And they have to compete on their turf. They will never win again if they allow themselves to be positioned again as advocates of interventionist government, big spenders, believers in open borders and statist healthcare, more focused on rights and woke behavioral correctness than on pocketbooks, and with a hesitant foreign policy to boot.
They must shed that brand legacy.
That’s why the application of marketing principle is so important.
I spent my career in marketing. I understand that to many people, “marketing” means “advertising” or “promotion.” But that’s not what it means at all. Marketing is a discipline for identifying and defining an audience of prospects and then delivering to that audience segment a particular message that converts them into customers over time. It’s a complex mix of the strategic — and the tactical. It is built on a deep understanding of the relevant market, an understanding that is formed by both data analysis and judgment.
Which brings me to the Lincoln Project.
Formed by disenchanted Republicans specifically to oust Trump, the Lincoln Project brought ads like this to market:
Democrats regard this advertising as something delicious but wicked, permissible only in the time of Trump, when striking back was a natural instinct and bolstered your flagging confidence.
But in general they prefer to stay above such grubbiness. Democrats like reasoned argument. Policy debates. Intellectual disputation. They like to claim respect for a different point of view, the very essence of liberalism. They do their best to hide the sneer — that is unless they’re on Twitter, where they preen and perform for each other like nobody’s business, sadly desperate for status and approval. Most deadly of all, they assume everybody is actually paying attention to what they’re doing politically — so there is no need to market, promote and sell a new policy prescription. Apparently, it will sell itself.
But this is how Rick Wilson, a co-founder of the Lincoln Project, sees it:
We wanted that educated, suburban, college-educated voter to see the ad with the 300-pound white guy carrying the Confederate flag in one hand and an AR-15 in the other, we wanted her to think, “Oh, God, if I vote for Trump, I’m with him. If I vote for Trump, that’s me.” It’s the sort of the negative aspirational concept. Where you’re saying to people, you’re not just making a political decision, you’re buying into a whole lifestyle. Is your lifestyle the Alt-Right and the screamers and the crazies and the QAnon and the Confederate flag and the Charlottesville boys? We understood the social power of those ads to block those Republicans who split from the party from coming back. We understood that pushing that angle was a central mission.
Here’s the link to read more of the interview — sorry, you may have to subscribe: https://adage.com/article/campaign-trail/lincoln-projects-rick-wilson-ads-actually-worked/2300051
Democrats can learn from this merry band of Republican malcontents. First, the country is going to be stuck with Trump’s style of toxic politics for a long time. Democrats have to play the game, they cannot afford to stand above the fray. But secondly, as this era eventually wanes and we enter a new one, we are left with a central branding question:
What will Democratic Party 2.0 look like? And Republican Party 2.0?
Democrats have the advantage in that debate. The Republican Party has backed itself into a corner. There is an opportunity to keep it there, to turn the tables and pigeonhole it as an exhausted brand that, under Trump, lost its way, to make explicit that the “America First” they so loudly endorse is actually “Me First,” lacking in any appeal to our better natures and never asking for self-sacrifice in the name of others. That’s a counter-positioning statement for an opening ad campaign right there, a campaign to expose the hollow, self-serving definition of “patriotism” advanced by Trumpian Republicans.
What about re-branding the Democratic party? That’s not a matter of hanging an advertising campaign on top of the rickety policy structure that currently exists, a structure built by a leadership that resembles more an aged Soviet politburo than a smart and contemporary executive team. Nor is it a matter of choosing “progressive” policies over pragmatics, such labels are foolish and play into the competition’s hands. Any re-branding exercise is a laborious and complicated undertaking where all stakeholders have to get back to first-principles, core values and a renewed understanding of electorate, no, market need and how best to fill it.
Policy, like product, flows from that process.
Bill Clinton did this intuitively, not systematically. By championing policies such as welfare reform he blurred the archaic distinction between left and right — a distinction derived from the French Revolution of 1789 for godsake — and ignored the established Democratic “brand” position. He took his lumps within the Party for violating traditional thinking— but was easily re-elected.
I used to be a marketing consultant, I overhauled and updated brands for a living. To do it systematically, you begin by reflecting on your market and the segments within it. For example:
- why does the Republican brand mythology of independence and self-determination work for some Hispanic audiences and not for others?
- does the conservative position of self-determination through hard work account for the growing support for Republicans from African-Americans? Is it that African-Americans are beginning to understand the indifference that has kept them trapped for decades with little chance of social and economic advancement?
- does support from voters under the age of 35 depend upon the embrace of so-called “progressive” policies that risk alienating older voters?
Like I said, it’s a laborious and systematic exercise. It forces priorities and focus. It forces you to pick your shots.
Is a fundamental re-brand built on language and techniques like this irrelevant? Too complicated and time-consuming? Pie in the sky? Unrealistic?
Well, Biden, a likeable dinosaur, is a one-term president. He had no coat-tails, his party just lost big. If you’re a Democrat, business as usual is surely not an option.
Unless of course you’re so used to losing you want to lose the upcoming midterms as well.