Thursday, November 18, 2004

Recriminations no more

In the last two weeks, I've probably read about 80,000 words from very smart people explaining what is wrong with the Democrats and where the party must go. Many of these articles make terrific points. But if you must read only one, this is it. Funny thing is, this article actually isn't about recriminations or strategy per se, but about a dude's experience canvassing in Wisconsin and talking to undecided voters. The guy broke down the common complaints/concerns/reasoning offered by "swing voters" and, in the process of breaking down, totally illustrates the failure of the Democratic Party's communication strategy. The chief strategic failure for Democrats, as many others (including myself) have argued, is that they buy into Stanley Greenberg's strategy of running on issues that poll well. (Main problem is when you poll people, they will naturally support policies that sound good. But the vast majority of swing voters aren't forced to thinking about issues in such schematic ways, and aren't necessarily going to do start making issues-based decisions just because a politician keeps spitting out stats. Most voters don't go to those websites that tell you which candidate to support based on your own policy preferences.)

In other words, issues lose out to a compelling narrative every time, something the GOP understands. Hence, repetition, propoganda and narrative are the hallmarks of the Republicans' Madison Avenue-styled campaigns. It works. You see the pervasive effect of Republican propoganda (and Dem haplessness) any time you hear some apathetic, PS2-obsessed twentysomething mention something about politics ("flip flopper" "at least I know where he stands" "tax and spend"). The voters who care about politics and believe in political solutions have already made up their minds; they've split about 35-35. For the large group of Americans who haven't, you gotta win them over with clever propoganda -- with insidious memes that slither their way into their unconscious like soft drink taglines -- not with 5-point plans and newspaper endorsements.

The Democrats need to learn how to brand. To use one trivial example, when Bush started dissing Massachusetts during the debate, why didn't Kerry defend his home state by citing its nation-low divorce rate or its historical status as the flashpoint of the Revolution. In fact, the very notion held by many that Kansas or Texas is somehow "American" than Massachusetts demonstrates the Democrats' failure at branding as well as the GOP's success at same.

But there's a silver lining. Hopefully, the Democrats will shake off the focus-group-centric, "issues" campaigns that they've been running and pay attention to George Lakoff, whose new book on framing issues should be the bible for progressives. Also, I heard this book on political branding, Retro v. Metro, is supposed to be pretty good. The key isn't pandering to know-nothings; it's manipulating the information-deficient to see your party as standing for what they stand for.

Sure, it's fashionable and fun to blame the religious right for the loss. But they're not to blame; those folks are a natural part of the Repug constitutency, just as (the much smaller) secular humanists are a natural part of the Dem constituency. And the data now shows that these guys haven't increased their turnout; they've simply swung further to the GOP camp. Still, it sure is fun to mock their sheep fucking ways. And I'm not going to apologize for pointing out that these folks are intolerant, backwards idiots. If the Repugs can tar "coastal elitists" and liberals with impunity, surely the nutcase right deserves the same kind of slime. (These articles about understanding one another are great, but if there's one thing the Bush campaign proves, it's far more effective to take the low road than the high.)

Plus, it makes no sense for the Democrats to pander to nutcases. The mainstream Christians don't want a theocracy, and there are many more mainstream Christians than there are evangelicals. They're part of the swing vote that the Dems should work at winning over with better explanations, more conviction, and a more clever campaign, instead of trying to pander to the alums of Bob Jones University. Lastly, to Victor: what's more "condescending", "elitist" and "arrogant"? Letting people live their lives based on the moral values they've arrived at, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else, or trying to impose your religious tenets regardless of whether people share them or not. Mocking nutcases for intolerance and bad taste, or smugly believing that those who don't buy into your religion are going to burn in eternal misery? Or how about asserting that you're a "real American" while others are not just because you're some white dude with a fat head whose idea of patriotism is sticking a "Support the Troops" sticker on your 10 mpg Escalade?