Monday, October 30, 2006

Eight Words

Another very interesting discussion over at Mahablog about the eight word problem. The idea being that the Republican Party has its bumpersticker -- "less government, lower taxes, and a strong military." It may not govern to those priorities, but for PR purposes everyone knows what the Republican brand is supposed to represent. No one, on the other hand, knows what the Democratic party stands for in terms of worldview. What is the problem? Why is it so difficult for Democrats to clearly and succinctly state guiding principles, values, and goals?

I agree with Maha that the standard canard -- Democrats don't have any ideas -- is nonsense. Why have we not seen major policy initiatives from Dems for a while? Hmmm...could it be that they control nothing and have no chance of getting them enacted? Or might it be that they are in the opposition and therefore have been, oh, I don't know, opposing? Or perhaps it is because they have finally figured out that Republicans do a lousy job of working out and selling the actual points of their own plans and have been succeeding in the last few decades by simply running negatively against Democratic proposals and by forcing them to put on the table and defend what they actually do, Dems are playing a successful prevent defense. On the flip side, of course, there are many, many ideas on this side of the aisle. Democrats are flush with ideas. The ironic thing is that when we actually do propose them, we are accused of being too wonkish, too brainy.

And maybe that is the problem. We are too smart to be oversimplistic. Our views are nuanced, whereas theirs are jingoistic and oversimplified. They see black and white where we see subtle shades of grey.

No. There are smart, nuanced views on the right, especially amongst the realist camp. They may be right, they may be wrong, but when you look at the best the other side of the political divide has to offer and not the worst, there is not a universal lack of informed, intricate intellectual offerings. Further, there is a similar lack of nuance on the left. For example, one frequently sees a conflation of the notions of religion, fundamentalism, closed-mindedness, and being irrational and anti-scientific. Even as a trained philosopher and teacher of critical thinking who should know better, I myself fall into this trap from time to time. Especially when infuriated by some bit of nonsense from the far end of the political spectrum, it is all too easy for progressives to paint those who differ from our views with too broad of a brush.

So, then what is it? Why can't we successfully brand our party the way the Republicans have so artful done? I think we are looking in the wrong place. It isn't that we can't brand it, it's that we can't brand it successfully. We can come up with bumperstickers that capture our core values, it's just that they all make for lousy advertising.

This is not because the policies they represent are unpopular. When you look at education, health care, economic issues, not to mention national defense and homeland security, people do when asked about specific policy initiatives prefer the democratic offerings. The devil, in this case, is not in the details, but conversely in the generalization. When you clearly enunciate the values which give rise to progressive policies, they are fairness, thoughtfulness for others -- especially the less fortunate, equality, justice, responsibility, restraint,... These are all wonderful things. Our values are virtues.

But therein lays the problem. Let's be honest, they are selling chocolate and we are selling broccoli. They are promising more recess and we are reminding the teacher that she forgot to assign homework. "Less government" = it's ok to be bigoted and think those poor people are just lazy and shiftless so you have no responsibility to help them; "lower taxes" = greed is good, don't you want more money to buy more cheap plastic crap at Wal*Mart which will finally make you happy?; "strong military" = you don't actually have to serve (or get off the couch), because just by being American you become Rambo by syllogism (America is strong, you are American, therefore, you are strong -- QED), you buff, virile, well-hung guy, you. Their promises capture everything tv informercials and spam try to tempt you with. And what do we promise? Nothing: we chastise, we moralize, we tsk, tsk, tsk.

Is all lost? I think not. I've argued before that there was a time when we had a successful brand. Think back to the early 70s (those who can). We had long-haired, guitar-playing, sweater wearing, multicultural kids holding hands and singing with candles that they wanted to buy the world a corporately produced carbonated beverage in perfect harmony. It was cheesy and campy, sure, but it was about freedom, peace, togetherness, caring, good sex, and the care-free silliness of the Beatles in Help! Given the choice, you wanted to be us, not what the repressed, grey-suited Man wanted us to be. But it wasn't just a marketing scheme trying to create some way to sell ovaltine to young baby boomers, it came in part from the liberation movement and the all the possibility that came with expanding freedom; and it came in part from the huge generation who happened to be at the age where they had to consider what they wanted "real life" to look like. Put the two together and there was a sense that a different model of living, a happier model was possible. Love was in the air -- of course, the notion of "love" was loaded with all kinds of political baggage, but that is exactly the point.

Before we can come up with eight words, we need an image. A picture is worth more than eight words and we need a picture of the life we are promising. The liberated couple (gay, straight, or interracial) with a kayak on top of their hatchback, off to enjoy a preserved nature and each other. The mother who is satisfied with her career because she has found balance in work and family life in part because her husband changes diapers while cracking jokes. I think that the Republicans have successfully come up with eight words because there is an implicit image those eight words are describing -- the idealized white suburban life of the late 50s. Before we can hope for any success with our eight words, we need the image beneath that they invoke. We need to be able to clearly enunciate the life that we are envisioning.