24 November 2012

The Republicans' Branding Problem

Immediately after their loss in the general election earlier this month, Republican leaders began saying that their problem was in their branding. People did not accept their message, they said, in essence because it was "packaged" wrong.

The Republicans have a brand problem because they have branded being Republican. If that sounds circular, its because the whole concept is tautological. As usual, the explanation lies in the history which brought us to this point. Indulge me in a brief overview.

When I came to the US, where I was born, from Argentina, where I grew up, for college many decades ago, conservative was a bad word among my classmates. This was true even in the reliably ultra-conservative city of Lubbock, Texas. Conservatives were those who preached segregation and opposed integration of schools. Conservatives were those who insisted all those drafted into military service should serve in Viet Nam without questioning authority in any way. Conservatives burnt stacks of Beatles records and were deathly scared of Communism. When questioned for the reasons for sexual morality, they did not explain: they just told their children "Do it because I say so and don't question."

In 1968, the Republicans captured the White House only because of three factors: first, the Viet Nam war had become Lyndon Johnson's war and, by extension, Hubert Humphrey's. Second, George Wallace ran a strong third party campaign, taking votes from the Democratic candidate in the Southern States, which still voted Democrat. Finally, the strongest candidate, who would surely have won, had been assassinated. I'm speaking of Robert Kennedy. That put Nixon in the White House, but he was an unsavory, grouchy, depressive representative for the Republicans.

When I started graduate school, for the first time I saw Republicans showing up for a citizenship emphasis at our church. They were, though I did not fully realize it at the time, on a propaganda campaign which consisted of repeating tirelessly conservative = good; liberal = bad. I clearly remember pointing out to the middle aged woman who came to talk to us that conservative comes from the word to conserve and had always characterized people who want keep things as they are. They would be the royalists at the time of the American Revolution, the supporters of slavery against the abolitionists, and of Jim Crow against the civil rights movement. She said she had never heard of such a thing. That was not the point. The point was to change perceptions.

To a populace mesmerized by TV and conditioned to take as true anything repeated sufficiently in commercials, accepting the relentless mantra of conservative = good, American, enterprise and liberal = bad, anti-American, socialist came naturally. It had roots in the McCarthyist propaganda of the 50's and felt comfortable to a new mentality which fled social responsibility and threw itself into working and spending, working and spending, and filling up lives with things rather than people and issues.

Now things have changed. Young people wish to serve the community and to find meaning beyond consumer items. They long for relationship, for accomplishment, for dealing with the great problems of inequality, injustice, wars, and the depredation of the environment. The country is rapidly becoming a minority-majority country, therefore the base to which the Republican brand is meaningful is shrinking. The "angry old white men" which form their base are the same people who marched against the Viet Nam war in the 60's. That insubstantial show is over.

Precisely because Republicans gained power through branding, their discourse has been all perception, all talking points, and no essence. We elected an actor for president. What was really happening, the return of the robber baron mentality and the dismantling of the protections that had been built over the decades, was masked by propaganda. But since democracy is neither a product nor a business, because real problems cannot be solved by propaganda, because the particular kind of economy conceived of as perennial "growth" is unsustainable, reality has been asserting itself and the Republican project, long on ideology and short on engagement with the society, has fallen apart.

The point is not that Democrats should gloat. The point is that all of us, of whatever political persuasion, had better ditch propaganda and get to work.

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