This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on October 15, 2010.
There’s been quite a bit of buzz over the last few days about a TNR article by Sara Robinson of Campaign for America’s Future that argues progressives need to emulate conservative “brand-building” through professional marketing techniques and institution-building.
It’s not exactly a new argument. At TPM Cafe, Todd Gitlin, who strongly agrees with Robinson, notes:
I mean no disrespect when I say that some version of this piece has appeared during every election cycle of the 21st century, and a lot of good books have sounded the theme.
Sometimes, of course, arguments for “branding” or “promoting frames” for progressives are less about using savvy marketing techniques or paying attention to basic values and themes, and more about insisting that the Democratic Party enforce the kind of ideological consistency that has made “branding” a more mechanical undertaking for Republicans, at least since Reagan. Robinson acknowledges that progressives don’t have the sort of level of consensus as conservatives, but argues that disagreements must be submerged in the interest of projecting a clear message.
Personally, I’m all for using smart techniques in politics, and have spent a good chunk of my own career in training sessions aimed at helping Democrats unravel and articulate their values, policy goals, and proposals in a way that promotes both party unity and effective communications.
But it’s important to understand that conservatives have an advantage in “branding” that I don’t think progressives can or should match. The best explication of this advantage was by Jonathan Chait in a justly famous 2005 article (also for TNR) entitled “Fact Finders,” which argued that conservatives, unlike progressives have little regard for empirical evidence in developing their “brand,” and thus can maintain a level of simplicity and consistency in political communications that eludes the more reality-minded. Here Chait makes the key distinction:
We’re accustomed to thinking of liberalism and conservatism as parallel ideologies, with conservatives preferring less government and liberals preferring more. The equivalency breaks down, though, when you consider that liberals never claim that increasing the size of government is an end in itself. Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people’s lives. Conservatives also want material improvement in people’s lives, of course, but proving that their policies can produce such an outcome is a luxury, not a necessity.
Thus conservatives are entirely capable of arguing that deficits don’t matter if they are promoting tax cuts, while deficits matter more than anything if they are trying to cut social spending; that tax cuts and deregulation are essential if the economy’s good, and tax cuts and deregulation are essential if the economy’s bad; and that particular totems like, say, missile defense, should be a top national priority both during and after the Cold War. Their agenda rarely changes, no matter how much the world changes, or how little evidence there is that their policy prescriptions work. The continued adherence of most conservatives to supply-side economics, that most thoroughly discredited concept, is a particularly important case in point.
As Chait notes, the refusal of progressives to ignore reality creates a real obstacle to consistency (and by inference, “branding”):
[I]ncoherence is simply the natural byproduct of a philosophy rooted in experimentation and the rejection of ideological certainty. In an open letter to Roosevelt, John Maynard Keynes called him “the Trustee for those in every country who seek to mend the evils of our condition by reasoned experiment within the framework of the existing social system. If you fail, rational change will be gravely prejudiced throughout the world, leaving orthodoxy and revolution to fight it out.” Note how Keynes defined his and Roosevelt’s shared ideology as “reasoned experiment” and “rational change” and contrasted it with orthodoxy (meaning the conservative dogma that market economics were self-correcting) and revolution.
What progressives gain in exchange for this sacrifice of the opportunity to pound in a simple message and agenda for decades is pretty important: the chance when in power to promote policies that actually work. And of all the “brands” that are desirable for the party of public-sector activism, competence is surely the best. Indeed, the most ironically perilous thing about the current political environment is that Democrats are paying a high price for the consequences of ideologically-driven incompetence–not to mention very deliberate efforts to destabilize the planet and promote economic inequality and social divisions–attributable to the last era of conservative control of the federal government.
The best news for progressives right now is that conservatives are engaged in another, and even more ideologically-driven, effort to promote their “brand” at the expense of reality. Indeed, one way to understand the Tea Party Movement is as a fierce battle to deny Republicans any leeway from the remorseless logic that will soon lead them to propose deeply unpopular steps to reduce the size and scope of government, while also insisting on policies virtually guaranteed to make today’s bad economy even worse, certainly for middle-class Americans. I’m willing to grant conservatives a “branding” advantage and keep my own political family grounded in the messy uncertainties of the real world.