Monday, October 11, 2010

What do liberals / progressives / Democrats stand for?

Sara Robinson writes in The New Republic:

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.

OK, now: What do Democrats and progressives stand for?

Take your time. It's a tough question.

Give up? So have most progressives. Even the movement's most deeply committed members often have a hard time answering this one.

And that's a problem. Specifically, it's a branding problem. Conservatives have worked hard for the past 40 years to create a long-term brand identity for their ideas. Progressives haven't.
I'm generally wary of arguments in which someone defends their political side (whether it's a party or ideology or candidate or policy) by saying: Oh, our problem is we just haven't communicated well enough. This can be a cheap way to avoid confronting the deeper, more substantive problems with your side. I'm not saying there are no deeper, substantive problems with liberalism. But Robinson makes a pretty convincing case that liberals have spent many years letting conservatives run away with the race to create the strongest brand. (She mainly refers to conservatives vs. liberals/progressives. The article might have more precise if she had instead talked more about Republicans vs. Democrats, since that's what she seems to mean.)

Being the Official Conservative Candidate allows you to bask in its reflected glow−which, in turn, gives you all kinds of automatic credibility with the voters. Even if people don't know your name and are unfamiliar with your record, they're strongly inclined to trust you because you represent a brand they're deeply invested in. You don't have to waste valuable time or energy explaining your policies or values (which are already understood), hiring brilliant and expensive strategists (because the voters are already on board), or even selling yourself very hard to the electorate (because they already trust the brand you're affiliated with: they'd even vote for Bonzo, as long he was a conservative). With all that elaborate cognitive infrastructure already in place, running your campaign is as simple as standing up and repeating the familiar conservative tropes, knowing that your voters are already emotionally hard-wired to respond.

Progressives, on the other hand, have never tried to brand themselves in any kind of organized, coherent way−which is why even progressive leaders are often caught flat-footed when asked about the core values our movement stands for. There's no self-defined narrative through-line that carries us from one election to the next (let alone from one decade to the next). When Democrats do engage in PR, they do it in the most ineffective way possible−in piecemeal one-off campaigns that are entirely too much driven by polls and focus groups, and not nearly enough by the imperatives of long-term brand-building and values cultivation. Instead, we do it in limited, short-term bursts that are dedicated to promoting a personality or an issue, not the movement as a whole.
Notably, even though she does spell out the core principles of the Republican brand (those 8 snappy words in the first block quote), she never makes even a tentative suggestion as to what the Democratic brand's core principles are, or should be.


Jason (the commenter) said...

People don't know what Liberals stand for? I'm thinking if this is a problem it's only among Liberals, because Conservatives have no problem saying what the other side stands for.

And any movement that has to come up with a new name (Progessive) just so they don't have to own up to their old one (Liberal), has some serious problems. Conservatives might add a little tag to theirs (social-Conservative vs. fiscal-Conservative) but they never run away from it.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Well, I've seen it said (I forget by whom) that Democrats embrace the word "Democrats" (example: Bill Clinton used the word 6 times in his 2008 convention speech, while he never used the words "liberal" or "progressive"). Republicans are less enthusiastic to proclaim themselves "Republicans," possibly because "Republican" sounds so much like "repugnant." The word itself is simply not as appealing as "Democrats."

"Conservative" has a powerful double-meaning: (1) restrained, cautious, and (2) being tied to tradition. "Liberal" sounds like the opposite of (1) -- unrestrained and free ... in spending a lot of taxpayer money and throwing money at problems. "Progressive" could sound like the opposite of (2) -- eschewing tradition -- but it has a more positive connotation of making moral progress, advancing over the past -- which doesn't require overthrowing all tradition. (We shouldn't keep all of them either; some traditions are bad, like racial segregation.)

So the parallel between "conservative" and "liberal" (or "progressive") is complex. I don't know if it's such a great credit to conservatives that they have a word that means a couple things at once without there being an exact antonym.

Jason (the commenter) said...

Please, there's a Liberal bumper-sticker giving dictionary definitions for "liberal" and "conservative" that are the exact opposite of what you're paraphrasing.

Using dictionary definitions is just crap (a rhetorical trick) they teach you in law school. There are plenty of dictionaries with plenty of definitions. A speaker can pick any they want.

You, of all people, should not fall for that kind of stuff!

Jason (the commenter) said...

Do Liberals think their popularity in America waxes and wanes based on the public's ability to understand the dictionary definitions of the words "liberal" and "conservative"? Some seem to! Perhaps that's why our public schools perform so poorly. It's a Liberal plot to keep people from understanding the definitions of those two words, thus ensuring Liberal triumphs forever more.

"If those god-damned school teachers only did a WORSE job of teaching English, Obama's popularity would be 100%!"

John Althouse Cohen said...

OK... I'm not sure what you think I'm overlooking. I certainly grant your point that it's up to Democratic politicos to shape the debate to fit their own ends, and this could involve playing with words: "Look, they say liberal means X, but really it means Y." Hillary Clinton did exactly that when talking about the words "liberal" and "progressive" in one of the primary debates. I'm just trying to point out some of the complications that arise once we start trying to pit the word "conservative" against the words "liberal" or "progressive" as if that were a totally even-handed competition. Democrats can't just blame the semantics for any of their failures. But I think the semantics are relevant enough to be worth mentioning.

Incidentally, wouldn't Hillary Clinton's definition of "progressive" in that YouTube clip I just linked (starting at 0:56) be a reasonable answer to Sara Robinson's question?

Anonymous said...

I don't think the article had anything to do with anyone being able to define (or not define) what Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives stand for, but rather seemed a pretty specific critique that while conservatives (which often, but not always overlaps with Republican) have done a good job creating a brand, liberals (ditto last parenthetical, except with Democrats) have not done so.

As to whether that theory is correct or not, seems debatable.


Jason (the commenter) said...

and this could involve playing with words: "Look, they say liberal means X, but really it means Y."

Ridiculous. If they did a good job they could call themselves the Lollipop Guild for all anyone would care. They have spent the last fifty years building a brand and people's opinion of them now IS THE RESULT.

They had the House, the Senate, and the Presidency. We've seen what they can do and aren't impressed.

"Boo!" and "You Suck!" are perfectly intelligent responses. Liberals need to get through their heads that they are worse than Bush.

Anonymous said...

Three points:

First, this brand building stuff is not nearly as functional as it is made to sound. Lots of people have an idea of conservative that is nothing like what is suggested here. Keep in mind politics is as much about misinformation as it is about information.

Second, they did build a brand of sorts, and now they don't like how that brand is percieved. Tough luck on that. Most people know they want more government, more taxes, think they can solve every problem, and that they care about everything/everyone in some way.

Third, the progressives can not build a long term brand of the same sort the conservatives have. The reason for this is intrinsic to the ideology. The progressive ideology does not have some sort of tangible permanent goals, but rather requires a sort of permanent revolution where by today's objectives must be denounced in ten years as regressive and oppressive so the new crusade can be launched. Obama's "hope and change" is perhaps the best distillation of progressivism possible, and it isn't selling so well because it doesn't really mean anything in particular.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Second, they did build a brand of sorts, and now they don't like how that brand is percieved. Tough luck on that. Most people know they want more government, more taxes, think they can solve every problem, and that they care about everything/everyone in some way.

I do agree with this.