Wednesday, July 6, 2022

The Problem With Branded Politics

The problem with branded politics is that people are more likely to change brands than they are to change beliefs.

I mentioned before that many people adopt an off-the-shelf political persona these days.  With a few of the right accessories, you can be an anti-vaxxer soccer mom, a flat-earther home-schooler (Yes, they exist), a gun rights nut with an arsenal of weapons, a Quanon "believer" or a Tump-nut with flags on his pickup truck, and so on and so forth - and that's just the right wing!   Or you could mix 'n match a number of such stylings, to suit your tastes.  Some select all of the above.

The left is no better - there are the "Antifa" anarchists who don't want to pay back their student loans, the neo-communists who believe nothing but revolution will ever make things better, The Bernie Bros, who would vote for Trump if their guy doesn't get nominated, the "Guaranteed Income" crowd who just want free money, or the vegan girls wandering the aisles of Wegmens, subsisting on a diet of cereal.  The left has its own legion of crazy as well.

The idea of political branding is not original to me - someone actually wrote a book about it (shown above). Political branding, to me anyway, is the idea of supporting a candidate the same way people blindly profess loyalty to a brand of lite beer, a brand of pickup truck, or a favorite sports team, celebrity, movie star, or singer.  In other words, it is idiocy of the first order.  While brands stay the same, the products they are attached to may change dramatically over time. Brands can be bought and sold and tacked-on to any sort of product.  A quality car one year is a piece of junk the next year, as the company's new management guts the content.  The party that freed the slaves in 1865, today wants a do-over on that decision.  Parties change, brands stay the same.

The problem with these sort of political identities is that they are not strong.   For most of these folks, their politics is a brand loyalty.  They support Trump to "own the libs" or "make them cry" (whatever that means) as some sort of team cheer-leading exercise.  When it comes right down to it, they don't really understand the politics of their leader (indeed, who does?) but rather have latched onto a brand-name and imbued it with what they'd like to see.   Trump, like Bernie, is a Rorschach test - you can see what you want to see in them.

Recently, after Roe v. Wade was overturned, I am seeing comments online from people who are shocked - shocked, I say! - to find out that the conservative party or church they latched onto is, in fact, conservative.  A lady is horrified last Sunday when she went to her conservative Baptist church and the minister proclaimed "victory" from the pulpit because Roe was overturned.  Who woulda thunk it?  She is upset because the minister is "wrong" and how can she change his mind as well as those of the 100 other parishioners?

Maybe it is time to find a new church. Maybe it is time to wake the fuck up. This lady has been sleepwalking for the last few decades. Perhaps the Unitarian Church might be more welcoming.  Tithing your money to a church that supports political views opposite your own is just dumb.

And this goes both ways, too.  I recall back in the early days of the AIDs crises, some "activists" were interrupting Catholic church services to try to get the Pope to recognize the gays (or something).  I am sure he recognizes them - the Vatican is rife with the Gays.  But back then, and even today, I thought it was stupid.  If a church professes beliefs that conflict with your own, find a new church.   That's why we have so many religions and denominations.   The only way a church will change its tune is if people stop going and stop donating money.  Once they run out of parishioners and cash, they have to close their doors.  Going to a hateful church and hoping they change their tune is stupid, in my opinion.

In another online posting, another woman professes surprise that her Republican Party is behind this effort to unwind Roe v. Wade.  Again, you have to wonder what rock she has been sleeping under for the last 40 years.  She is now - just now - questioning her Republican values?  How can she get the party to change its stance?

She can't.  Again, there are other parties out there, and you look around, you'll find the Democrats are not just vegan hippie lesbian chicks with hairy armpits, or people pining for a socialist nirvana.  But that is the brand that Republicans would like to slap on the Democrats (and sadly, one that Democrats seem willing to embrace).  So many folks are brand-loyal to the GOP not because of politics, but because they see it as the more macho, pro-American party that is less caught up on touchy-feely politics.  It is only when they see the actual policies in action - going against their self-interest - that "owning the libs" seem less like a good talking point.

There is another angle to this, of course.  Some of these self-proclaimed socialists or even communists argue that the reason the Democrats are losing elections (but somehow managed to take the House, the Senate, and the Presidency!) is because they are not wacky liberal enough!  In their view, the only way to stem the tide of right-wing conservatives is to nominate unelectable candidates who will be picked apart in the general election.

The problem with political brands is mutlifold.  Brand loyalty might not be as strong as political loyalty, when it comes down to crunch-time.  Eventually, people realize that the brand they swore loyalty to has drifted over time.  Many Democrats are mystified as to why their party has become the party of wild liberal policies and the rights of sexual minorities.  These were the folks who joined the Democratic party because it was the party of unionism.  Their shop steward told them to vote Democratic.  The party, somewhere along the way, abandoned them, but assumed they would remain brand-loyal - the vaunted "blue wall" that Hillary so famously took for granted.

And maybe some of this is by design.  As union membership plummeted from the 1980's onward, getting the union vote was less of a priority.  More and more people moved away from factories and factory towns and into the cities and clean desk jobs.   Rust-belt communities in the Northeast depopulated.  The new source of voters was in the South, Southwest and the far West.  This new generation of voters embraces more liberal views than the "hardhats" of yesteryear.

Yes, it is true, in the South, there are liberals - sometimes more than it seems than up North.  Georgia is somewhat of a blue State right now, having sent two Democratic senators to Washington - that's one more than Maine, for example.  And our Governor and Secretary of State, while both Republicans, famously stood up to Donald Trump, both on January 6th and during the recent primaries and both look slated to win in the fall - unless Democrats can unseat them.

Similar stories are told throughout the South.  As the South urbanizes more and more, the cities become more liberal - and like both Virginia and Georgia, the major cities can out-vote the sparsely populated rural counties.

Republicans have always been fine-tuning or overhauling their brand.  Once the party of the "North" - representing industry and progressive causes, they morphed over time into a party of the South - the "Southern Strategy" that got Nixon elected and flipped the narrative of Republicans from liberal progressives (no, really!) to conservative religious types.  At one time, the only thing Republicans were conservative about was fiscal policy - but even that tenant is gone from their platform.

You go where the votes are, and both parties have an instinct for survival.  Yes, policies and positions matter, but to some extent, the parties adopt policies and positions that get them elected.  Sounds scandalous, but think about it - the party that wins is the one representing the will of their district. Isn't that how Democracy is supposed to work?   A party that held unpopular positions would be voted from office.

Of course, you can manipulate public opinion - for a while at least - and we are seeing this right now.  I recounted before how I heard on the radio, more than a decade ago - before Obama was President - a GOP operative being quizzed as to what was the big policy question in the upcoming elections.  Without hesitating, he said, "Immigration" to which the radio host said, "But Immigration isn't a real hot-button issue right now!"   And the operative replied, "Oh, we're going to make it one!"

And they did.  Perhaps they needed to change the subject after two disastrous and losing wars, as well as a recession.  If you can control the terms of the debate, you control the debate, and by changing the subject, they got the Democrats on the defensive.  Immigrants are an easy target - they don't vote, and most people don't think about them too much.  The blue-collar hard-hats see them as a threat to job security, even as their favorite restaurant closes due to lack of back-of-the-house help.  It was a win-win for the GOP.

The Democrats have tried this, too, but the GOP is better at it.  It helps that they own their own news channel - which is quite popular with the older set.  The abortion issue, for example, was genius on the part of the GOP.  They have latched onto "Life" as a label and pictures of little cute babies.  The Democrats - always reacting and never acting - lamely respond with "Pro-Choice" which sounds like a weak excuse some 20-something slut uses to kill her baby.  That's how they sell it, anyway (don't flame me, I'm just reporting the facts).  Post-menopausal women have no skin in the game, as they tut-tut at the big-screen TV in The VillagesYoung people today, so irresponsible!  Meanwhile Dad sweats a bit at the thought of what will happen if he impregnates the cleaning lady, but what the heck, if she has one in the oven he can get her deported with one call to the INS.

It was a great message and great branding - you've got ministers across the country thundering from the pulpit.  My neighbors told me their Priest in the Catholic church told them to vote for Trump.  And in a classic case of branding overshadowing real substance, they voted for Trump - a former Democrat, hedonist, narcissist, and self-dealing crook.  Hardly a Christian man.

Brands can be powerful - but also weak.  There is talk that the January 6th hearings are changing some minds.  Maybe it will be too few, too late. Maybe the GOP's latest message - calling all sexual minorities pedophiles and "groomers" will backfire.  After all, chances are you know at leas one gay person - is this the evil the GOP is warning you against?

In a way it is like the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950's - a brand so powerful that it engulfed Democrats and Republicans alike.  Both Nixon and Kennedy jumped on the "Red Scare" bandwagon - better to be leading a parade than following it.  Both quickly distanced themselves from it when it got out of hand - with McCarthy attacking the Army itself, because they wouldn't give his boyfriend a deferment.

By the way, the young man at McCarthy's side during those hearings (who also wasn't gay and donchuforgettit!) was Roy Cohn, the man who would later mentor Donald Trump. What a weird coincidence!  Or maybe not.  He turns up like a bad penny, sort of like Roger Stone (also not gay and donchuforgettit!).  How odd, these folks pulling the strings of our society, having one standard of behavior for others, and another for themselves. It is almost like they have a secret society or something, an Illuminati or whatever.  They accuse others of the very things they do.

But all that can be obscured through branding.  You tell the rural redneck in his Trump-plastered pickup truck that being a Republican is manly and macho and that only weak effeminate liberals are Democrats.  It becomes more than about just politics.  Republicans are patriots, Democrats are traitors (but we won't talk about the Putin thing, right?) The guys down at the jobsite aren't going to tolerate you if you "come out" as a Democrat.  So at best, the dissenting voices are silenced.  At worst, it changes people's minds.

OK, I have meandered here. Branding is powerful. Branding is weak. We'll have to see how branding works this fall - whether it still has legs or whether people will come to their senses.  It seems that the GOP has taken a good thing too far.  Maybe after winning so many battles, they have to find weirder and more extreme "issues" to associate their brand with.  After all, when you've won on both abortion and gun control, where does that leave you?  Sadly, no one from either party gives a shit about the debt clock anymore.

There are, believe it or not, more important issues facing our country than Critical Race Theory or transgender bathrooms.  Really!