Would someone please reconsider the prominent role of marketing in politics? Or perhaps I should rephrase that question — could we take a close look at the substitution of marketing and branding strategies for politics?
I ask this question only days after the Democratic leadership, well-embarked on flipping the House of Representatives from Red to Blue, has settled on its slogan for the 2018 election: “For the People.” According to Heather Caygle at Politico (August 18, 2018), “House Democrats plan to begin working ‘For the People’ into their statements and press conferences, with a focus on three key areas: addressing health care and prescription drug costs; increasing wages through infrastructure and public works projects; and highlighting Republican corruption in Washington.”
I know a little bit about the perils of slogans and branding strategies from my career in higher education. They cost a lot of money to come up with and most of them are vapid if you are lucky, and hilarious (in a bad way) if you are not. I worked for a prestigious liberal arts college for a while that paid a firm to rebrand it as different from all other prestigious liberal arts colleges. Hundreds of thousands of dollars later, what the firm came up with was: “The Little University.” You can probably guess what they were trying to get at: all the resources and intellectual quality of Yale, packaged up in a leafy campus with no teaching assistants and a terrific teacher-student ratio. But everyone was, of course, horrified: all we could think of was the Little House books, Little Caesar’s Pizza, Little Women, and Stuart Little. It was an expensive disaster, only slightly less humiliating than the previous catch phrase we had paid for, “The Other Ivy,” a cringeworthy phrase that conveyed status anxiety rather than status.
It is not that I have no sympathy for the Democrats’ steep climb when it comes to sloganeering. It is, of course, hard to beat “Make America Great Again” as a rallying cry. It is hard to make your populism persuasive when your pockets are stuffed with the same corporate money that the GOP takes. It’s hard to make everyone forget that Harvey Weinstein was one of your biggest donors.
I get this problem. Yet you would think that Democrats, who have all of these creative types at their command, would come up with phrases that actually convey an idea or two, rather than an attitude. I remember Hillary, in 2016, protesting in her speeches that “America is already great!” a weak response that epitomizes the problem of responding to a classic non-problem.
“For the People” reeks of the same incrementalism that dogged the Clinton campaign: if Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1932 campaign had been run by Robbie Mook, instead of the unqualified “Happy Days are here again!” crowds would have been bellowing the cautious “Happier days are here again” and “A Newer Dealie!”
Similarly, “For the People” hints at populism, but discreetly: it is a politics that sticks its toe beyond the center, but is not all-in left populism, the one that seems to scare Democrats outside the Sanders-Warren wing of the party. It harks back to a day when Democrats were the party of the masses, and the Republicans the party of the classes; it implies, plausibly, that Trump and his cronies are “for the elites,” but without suggesting the class revolution that would give Democratic deep-pocket donors a rash. It argues that the Democrats are not about themselves, but about us (as opposed to the transitive “I’m with Her,” which articulated politics not as a social, but a private, thing; an intimate relationship between the individual voter and Hillary Clinton).
The problem is, of course, that there is very little intellectual or policy content in such a slogan, and that is usually the nature of slogans. Unfortunately, unlike the New Deal and the Great Society, it is that lack of intellectual and policy content that currently hobbles contemporary liberal politics, making the Democratic Party vulnerable from both the right and the left. “For the People” describes no tangible political program, no set of initiatives that addresses the real damage of the Trump administration, or any legible path to rectifying the problems of health care, education, stagnating wages, or corruption.
But why focus on the slogan, you may ask? Fair enough. But if you go to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee website, you won’t find a political program that the party stands for there either. In a sense, Robert De Niro’s “Fuck Trump!” tantrum at the Tony Awards not only taps into the zeitgeist of the Resistance better, but also suggests a clearer course of action.
Of course, it isn’t as if you can’t win a campaign on an empty message. Take, for example, the least rousing campaign slogans of all time: “Let well enough alone” (William McKinley, 1900), “Grant us another term” (Ulysses S. Grant, 1872), “Better a Third Termer than a Third Rater” (FDR, 1940), or “I still like Ike” (Dwight Eisenhower, 1956). And “For the People” is a far clearer and more straightforward slogan than nearly all of the 85 catchphrases that the Clinton campaign brainstormed in 2016, a list that included puzzlers like: “Go further” (further than — ?); “Renewing our basic bargain” (remind me what the basic bargain was); “A stronger America for a new day,”(aargh!); and “Fairness worth the fight” (what kind of fairness is not worth the fight?)
The good news is that the Democrats do seem to have a terrific bunch of candidates this year. They seem like people who would never, say, pay off an aide who rebuffed their sexual advances with federal tax dollars, or (allegedly) turn a blind eye when a team doctor was (also allegedly) groping and showering with the athletes. More than 40 percent of Democratic House candidates are women, as compared to 10 percent of Republican House candidates. In New York City, Bronx newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes defeated long-time congressman and power broker Joseph Crowley.
Speaking of specifics, Democrats might want to pay attention to a key feature of Ocasio-Cortes’s campaign, which was to wipe out student debt. Given that a platform that included the financial burdens of high education would bring young voters out in droves, and that education loans are the time bomb ticking at the core of the economy, it is worrisome that all Democrats are not running on the student debt issue. Instead, every candidate on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee website is presented as a political beauty contestant who has no views and no real issues, but plenty of character, accomplishments, and close ties to their communities.
There is nothing wrong with character and accomplishments. However, as a voter I want to know not just what these people stand for, but also — specifically — what they want to do when they get to Congress. Real policies that these candidates might pursue can only be inferred from carefully crafted personal biographies emphasizing what the candidates care about or identify with. Clarke Tucker (AR-02) is an experienced state representative who cares about health care because he “Live[s] with pre-existing conditions.” He also has the “ability to build consensus across party lines,” and has “proven fundraising ability.” Harley Rouda (CA-48) “is a technology entrepreneur, businessman, and advocate who is running for Congress to protect the California way of life for the next generation.” We learn that Jason Crow (CO-06) “worked minimum-wage jobs during high school, enlisted in the National Guard, and worked construction to help pay his way through college.” Crow then became a paratrooper after 9/11. Then there is Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (FL-26), who “immigrated to the United States with her family as a young girl, working her first job at age 15 to help her family make ends meet and pay her way through college.”
Don’t get me wrong — these are terrific human beings and terrific candidates, and they seem to know how to deliver a day’s work for a day’s pay. Current forecasts also suggest that a lot of them are going to win: as of this week, FiveThirtyEight.com awards the Democrats a solid eight-point lead. But knowing what terrific, knowledgeable and experienced people these candidates are tells us nothing about their analysis of what is wrong with our society and culture, and what role government should play in setting this country back on course, or reversing two years of damage to our political infrastructure. It doesn’t reveal how the Democrats plan to be effective, not just in opposing Trump, but in addressing economic problems that stretch back, not just to Bush II, but to the retreat from New Deal liberalism during the Clinton administration.
Let’s hope that after Labor Day the Democrats can give us more to vote for than a slogan. Winning isn’t everything this year: it’s the only thing. Furthermore, effective policymaking and governance is crucial to what happens after the election.
Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter.