Last week, in honor of the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, we took a concise look at some of the issues facing the Republican Party’s brand, going into the upcoming presidential election in November. This week, in conjunction with the Democratic National Convention being held in Charlotte, North Carolina, we take a similar look at the Democratic Party.
Before we begin, let’s get a few things out of the way:
How do I write a piece that addresses a political party’s branding problem in the heat of one of the most partisan national elections in my lifetime without coming across as partisan myself? The only way I know how is to do it the same way I would write a brand audit brief for a company with a similar problem:
1. By acknowledging my own biases so that I can look out for them should they decide to pop up in my analysis.
2. By distancing myself from my own biases for the duration of the exercise.
3. By making sure that the purpose of my analysis is to help, and not criticize or throw stones.
If you’re level-headed, carry on. If this is a hot-button issue for you, take a deep breath and try to keep cool. Okay? Ready? Here we go.
1. There is a problem with the logo. Well… kinduv.
Most of the time, when the general media talks about a branding problem, they are talking about one of two things: a PR problem, or a logo problem. And although the Democratic party doesn’t technically have a logo (it has a symbol – the donkey), that symbol isn’t great. Let’s see… a donkey. What are the attributes of a donkey? The intelligence of the elephant (the Republican symbol) doesn’t exactly come to mind. Grace? Nope. It’s a donkey, not a stallion. Strength? Not really. Courage? … Anything?
Unless you happen to own donkeys and understand all the ways that they are cool, the donkey comes across as being kind of a useless, awkward animal. Not quite as useful as a mule. At best, it’s the ideal sidekick for an ogre in certain animated movies produced by Dreamworks.
Why not change it to a lion or a humpback whale? A wolf? An owl, even. Okay, a liger. Anything with some kind of positive attribute, right? Some kind of animal that we can draw inspiration from in terms of strength, nobility, courage… but no. The Democrats are stuck with the donkey, and it all started with a cartoon many, many, many years ago.
On the other hand, there’s no problem with the color palette, with the trade dress, or with any of the superficial elements (the aesthetics) of the brand. We’ll come back to that in a minute. First, let’s take a quick look at where the elephant and the donkey came from, courtesy of William Safire’s New Language of Politics, revised edition, Collier Books, New York, 1972, via freerepublic.com:
The symbol of the party (the elephant) was born in the imagination of cartoonist Thomas Nast and first appeared in Harper’s Weekly on November 7, 1874
An 1860 issue of Railsplitter and an 1872 cartoon in Harper’s Weekly connected elephants with Republicans, but it was Nast who provided the party with its symbol.
Oddly, two unconnected events led to the birth of the Republican Elephant. James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald raised the cry of “Caesarism” in connection with the possibility of a third term try for President Ulysses S. Grant. The issue was taken up by the Democratic politicians in 1874, halfway through Grant’s second term and just before the midterm elections, and helped disaffect Republican voters.
While the illustrated journals were depicting Grant wearing a crown, the Herald involved itself in another circulation-builder in an entirely different, nonpolitical area. This was the Central Park Menagerie Scare of 1874, a delightful hoax perpetrated by the Herald. They ran a story, totally untrue, that the animals in the zoo had broken loose and were roaming the wilds of New York’s Central Park in search of prey.
Cartoonist Thomas Nast took the two examples of the Herald enterprise and put them together in a cartoon for Harper’s Weekly. He showed an ass (symbolizing the Herald) wearing a lion’s skin (the scary prospect of Caesarism) frightening away the animals in the forest (Central Park). The caption quoted a familiar fable: “An ass having put on a lion’s skin roamed about in the forest and amused himself by frightening all the foolish animals he met within his wanderings.”
One of the foolish animals in the cartoon was an elephant, representing the Republican vote – not the party, the Republican vote – which was being frightened away from its normal ties by the phony scare of Caesarism. In a subsequent cartoon on November 21, 1874, after the election in which the Republicans did badly, Nast followed up the idea by showing the elephant in a trap, illustrating the way the Republican vote had been decoyed from its normal allegiance. Other cartoonists picked up the symbol, and the elephant soon ceased to be the vote and became the party itself:the jackass, now referred to as the donkey, made a natural transition from representing the Herald to representing the Democratic party that had frightened the elephant.
Now you know.
Interestingly enough, Democrats happen to have a secondary logo now. One they use quite a bit as it obviously has broader appeal than the jackass symbol:
Here is the 2012 Democratic National Convention’s variation on the theme. Note the obvious similarities:
Why the need for a logo that inspires a little more passion, forward vision and hope from voters than the tired old 1874 jackass? The question kind of answers itself. So… thumbs down on the party’s symbol, but thumbs up on the Obama campaign logo. It’s brilliant.
2. The Democratic Party’s identity is fairly clear.
Unlike the GOP’s somewhat confusing identity (details), democrats have managed to cement their identity pretty well. That can be both good and bad, depending on where you stand politically, but I have to give democrats higher marks than Republicans on this issue.
a) The Democratic party is, at its core, the party of social justice. It fights for women’s rights, gay rights, minority rights, immigration rights… Virtually every group that finds itself oppressed or discriminated against, the democratic tends to represent their interests.
b) Like it or not, the Democratic party is (at least statistically speaking) the party of minorities. Look at the difference in favorability in regards to Presdient Obama vs. mitt Romney (the Republican candidate) among African American voters earlier this year (in April 2012, before the Presidential campaign really began):
That trend has since widened. A recent poll notoriously reported that Mitt Romney had dropped to 0% support from the African-American voters, which is fairly telling of where the racial lines lie between the Republican and Democratic parties. I don’t know if that was a statistical anomaly, but whether the number is 0% or 4% is kind of moot. Democrats do seem to be polling significantly better with minorities than the country’s white majority (where Democrats are tied with Republicans).
The same divide doesn’t exist with Latinos, but there’s this:
If the Democratic Party stays true to its identity and mission and the Republican party doesn’t evolve to address this shift, that could mean good things for Democratic political candidates in the next few decades.
c) The Democratic party is the party of social safety nets (which many might call “socialism”). It has, for instance, been the leading force behind the creation of Medicare (you can thank Presidents Truman and Johnson – both democrats), which gives some measure of social security to senior citizens.
You can also thank the Democratic party for the broader-reaching Social Security Act of 1935 (and particularly President Roosevelt – you guessed it, a democrat).
And of course, the Affordable Care Act of 2010, which, among other things, made health coverage more affordable for poorer Americans, ended insurance companies’ ability to turn patients away for so-called “pre-existing conditions,” and ended lifetime “caps” on coverage spend, was signed into law by President Obama (a democrat).
Note: Republicans deserve their fair share of credit for being behind crucial steps in the history of social safety nets in the US. Two quick examples: Then-president George W. Bush added an outpatient drug benefit provision to Medicare in 2003 and then-governor Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health care insurance reform law of 2006 turned out to be the template for President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Labor unions (which gave the US things like the minimum wage, the 8-hr work day and child labor laws) tend to operate mostly inside the Democratic Party’s political ecosystem (if the Republican Party’s war on unions is any indication).
The negative side of that identity is that for many conservatives, the Democratic party is simply the party of Socialism. This is actually incorrect. According to Merriam-Webster, socialism is:
1. any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.
2. a system of society or group living in which there is no private property and/or a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
Throwing a few social safety nets into the mix to combat poverty and help improve (or preserve) the lives of either poor or otherwise oppressed citizen isn’t socialism any more than having tax-financed fire departments and school buses is socialism. Having said that, neither facts nor accuracy are always at the root of political belief systems. So deserved or not, the socialism stigma has stuck, and Democrats have been either unable or unwilling to completely shake it off. We’ll come back to that in a few minutes.
d) The Democratic party is the party of ecologists. It accepts climate change and seeks ways to protect the environment, cut back on pollution and CO2 emissions, and conserve natural resources. It often gets tagged cynically as the tree-hugger party. There isn’t a lot of negative there, but some environmentalist can come across as being too militant and too anti-business for much of the mainstream. There is a balance to be struck there, but overall the positives and negatives seem evenly matched.
The Democratic party’s identity stands in stark contrast with the Republican Party’s platform, which tends to be dismissive and at times hostile to the notion of environmental protection, aims to cut funding to social programs, shift Medicare and Social Security to a privatized model, opposes gay marriage, and has historically had a difficult time reaching out to minorities. Democrats are clearly the opposite of Republicans, and vice versa.
3. But some message confusion does exist.
Generally speaking, Democrats don’t have a message confusion problem. Because their identity is clear, their message is clear: the message is one of social justice, racial equality, gender equality, economic equality, freedom both of and from religion (the latter being distinctive of the democratic platform). They seek to eliminate all forms of gender, religious and racial discrimination, eradicate racially charged “show me your ID laws,” preserve the rights of women to make their own decisions regarding their own bodies, and enact tax laws that divide the country’s tax responsibility equitably across all income levels. Typically, democrats are inclined to spend less on defense than Republicans and shift that funding to social programs and education.
Having said that, something came up this week that I have to mention, because it is relevant to this topic. As the defining question of the 2012 presidential election emerged from the Republican National Convention, several key Democrats initially failed to answer it properly. The question (a throwback to a Ronald Reagan campaign gold nugget): Are we better off today than we were four years ago?
The answer should be simple: Yes. An emphatic, resounding yes, followed by reasons why. To echo the Obama-Biden 2012 campaign slogan of Yes We Can, the answer should have been Yes We Are. Across the board.
Here are some of the things that Democrats could have (and should have) pointed to (and here, let me assume the perspective of a Democrat so I can give you some sense of what the message should have sounded like):
a) The stock market is doing a lot better:
Look at where the Dow Jones was in 2008. That crash didn’t happen on the democrats’ watch. The policies that caused that crash were not those of a Democratic administration. On the last market day before President Obama took office and Democrats effectively took control of the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House, the Dow Jones closed at 8281.22. On the day that the 2012 Democratic National Convention opens, the Dow Jones was at 12,999.43 around mid-day.
Quick math: The Dow Jones has risen +4,700 points to what is essentially a pre-crash, pre-recession numbers. The stock market isn’t completely back, but it appears to be getting there fast.
Verdict: Better off.
NASDAQ closed on January 16, 2009: 1529.33
NASDAQ mid-day on September 4, 2012: 3048.19
Verdict: Better off.
S&P 500 on January 16, 2009: 850.09
S&P 500 mid-day on September 4, 2009: 1398, 91
Verdict: Better off.
b) Jobs, jobs, jobs:
While the US still has a long way to go to improve its unemployment problem, let’s look at where the US was four years ago versus where it is today in terms of unemployment:
Above: macro of job growth for the the last year of the Bush administration vs. the entire Obama administration.
Four years ago, the economy was bleeding almost 800,000 jobs per month. Four years later, the US is looking at over 20 month of consecutive job growth.
Verdict: Better off.
5,000,000 kids with pre-existing conditions can now get medical coverage thanks to the Affordable Care Act. (Some fact-checking on that number: it could be argued up or down a bit, but it seems to check out.)
Verdict: Better off.
Osama Bin Laden is dead. Al Qaeda’s leadership is being systematically hunted down and eliminated. The Iraq war is over and the war in Afghanistan is coming to a close. Special forces, drone strikes and counter-terrorism units have become a lot more effective at dealing with terrorism than they once were.
Mostly though, Osama Bin Laden is dead.
Speaking of the current state of Al Qaeda, here is a report you might be interested in reading.
Verdict: better off.
We could go on and on with positive stories and evidence that we are in fact better off today than we were four years ago. So… why the hesitation? Why the disjointed message? Because we aren’t out of the woods yet, and not everything is better yet. Let’s take a look at that:
a) Unemployment is still high. Although the job creation trend has been positive and healthy for 20+ months now, unemployment is technically higher today than it was four years ago. That’s because we lost jobs so fast in the wake of the financial crisis that organic growth rate in job creation hasn’t yet caught up with the initial scope of the job loss. Note that the job creation curve took a full year to trend out of the negative and finally hit positive numbers in President Obama’s first year.
What’s important to note is that the trend began to improve immediately after President Obama was elected. So in spite of the net numbers, something has been working. It’s undeniable. having said that, it’s easy to look at the net numbers, ignore the trending context, and make the case for higher unemployment today than four years ago. Fair or unfair is irrelevant. Numbers are numbers, and Democrats know what the numbers are. There is still a lot of work to be done.
Democrats however should be quick to bring up the opportunity cost question: the last 4 years haven’t been easy, they haven’t been perfect, but how much worse might things have been, how much worse would they have been, if GM had been allowed to fail, if financial institutions had been allowed to fail? How much worse would things have been? How much worse off would we be today? It’s a relevant question given where we are trending to be four years from now vs. where we could be going back to.
b) Not everything is better yet:
Average price of a gallon of gas on inauguration day 2009: $1.83.
Today: $3.82 (source)
Not better off yet.
Poverty rate on inauguration day: 13.2%
Today: 15% (source)
Not better off yet.
Number of food stamp recipients on inauguration day: 31.9 million
Today: 46.7 million
Not better off yet.
The tendency for a number of Democrats to waffle on the question is due to the complexity of the question.
The honest answer is “it depends.”
The politically expedient answer is “yes, we are.”
The politically savvy answer is “yes, but there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Democrats need to figure out where they want to be on this question, because it is 100% at the heart of the conversation they need to have with voters. It also helps clearly define the road map for their recovery plan, going into 2016.
4. Who’s in charge?
There is no leadership vacuum for a party with a first term president running for a second term. The hierarchy in the democratic party is currently very clear, and so the message and overall vision tend to be somewhat uniform. Aside from a few radical left wing blogs, the message is mostly consistent across all channels.
Caution ahead: Who are the superstars of the 2016 election? Aside from Hillary Clinton, who will help define the future of the Democratic party? Democrats need to make sure they have strong leaders in the pipeline. If they don’t start developing them now, 2016 will be too late.
5. If you don’t control the message, someone else will.
Democrats suffer from the exact same problem as Republicans: they often allow their opponents to control their message, and therefore their brand.
Remember the Apple vs. Microsoft ads? What happened there was Apple took control of both Microsoft’s image and message. Apple gave Microsoft a face, a suit, a personality, and a voice. In essence, Apple hijacked the Microsoft brand and reinforced existing biases to create a simple, visceral message about the value of one brand versus the other.
Here are some examples:
Affordable Care Act vs. “Obamacare.” (The ACA clearly communicates what it does: it makes healthcare more affordable and accessible. Calling it “Obamacare” makes the program vague and ads a layer of “nanny state” cynicism to what it is and what it does.) Point: Republicans.
Social safety nets vs. “Socialism.” (Republicans have managed to paint every single federal social program as “socialism” even though they technically are not. Surprisingly, Democrats have not fought against this effort to shift perceptions. Big mistake.) Point: Republicans.
Marriage Equality Act vs. the “war on marriage.” (Semantic combat). Point: Draw. No one wins this one.
No more pre-existing condition exclusions vs. “death panels.” (Although technically, the Affordable Care Act eliminates what might be effectively argued are “death panels,” the notion of death panels stuck with many conservatives who also see “Obamacare” as a move towards socialism.) Point: Republicans.
“Pro-choice” vs. “Pro-Life” (This implies that anyone who isn’t “pro-life” is in fact “anti-life.” It’s a subtle distinction, but one that Democrats have not addressed. In recent months, Democrats have also failed to defend the pro-choice position beyond the issue of rape and incest, allowing conservatives to move the discussion from a pro-choice vs. pro-life position to a pro-life by default position, with exceptions for rape and incest.) Point: Republicans.
Other areas where Democrats have failed to control their own identity and message. You could argue that these are common myths and misconceptions about Democrats that still stick:
Myth 1: Democrats are weak on defense.
Do democrats spend less on defense? Sometimes. And they seem to certainly want to. But one could argue that democrats haven’t technically been weak on defense. They just haven’t been as eager to spend as much on Defense as Republicans to achieve positive results (and yes, there is a difference).
Exhibit A: A refocus of US troop usage and new strategies severely weakened Al Qaeda. More on that here.
Exhibit B: Public Enemy #1, Osama Bin Laden is dead.
Fact: GM, its suppliers and distributors are alive today because of a Democratic president.
Fact: Most investment banks and the millions of businesses they support are alive today because of a Democratic president.
Fact: Trade unions, which tend to be lean towards a Democratic world view, are not anti-business. They are pro workers’ rights. (No business = no workers. Think about it.) A business shouldn’t be against workers’ rights. Happy, engaged workers are highly productive workers. So… the argument that Democrats, because of their association with trade unions, are anti-business is, and has always been a little bizarre. And yet, it sticks.
Fact: Don’t ignore the Obama $15B initiative to increase lending to small businesses.
Fact: The Obama administration created business.USA.gov, which connects small businesses to experts in business management.
Fact: Contrary to certain rumors circulating on conservative blogs, domestic oil production under the Obama administration has increased since the Bush administration (Source: Energy Information Administration). Democrats have promoted renewable energy research and production, but not at the expense of fossil fuel production. So… the “drill baby, drill” crowd needs to fact-check a little. Conversely, Democrats need to talk about this more.
Myth 3: Because Democrats believe in an irresponsible tax & spend style of government, they are bad for the economy.
You would think so, but that’s actually not true (surprisingly). As it turns out Republican presidents also tend to favor tax & spend policies (and in some cases, don’t tax but spend anyway policies). First, let’s look at recent presidents and their impact on the federal Budget:
Note that President Ford, Reagan, Bush and Bush didn’t exactly cut federal spending compared to, say, Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Clinton. In regards to this chart, the case could also be made that the Obama administration is being unfairly saddled with deficit figures since TARP repayments in 2010 and 2011 were retroactively subtracted from George Bush’s deficit spending numbers.
The financial crisis also created a unique situation that calls for a bit of context in an apples-to-apples comparison.
Below is a chart showing recent Presidents’ impact on the national debt:
How about job growth? If you subscribe to the notion that Presidents and their policies can, in fact, create jobs, then Democratic presidents seem to be historically better at creating jobs than Republican presidents (Source: Dept of Labor Statistics):
Verdict: Democrats may indeed favor a tax & spend style of government, but the assumption that they are bad for the economy, create enormous deficits or increase the debt more than Republicans is not historically accurate. Strangely though, democrats have not effectively managed to erode that misconception.
Myth 4: Democrats are controlled by trade unions and secret socialist cabals who seek to take from the rich to give to the poor and destroy the American way of life.
It’s a preposterous, pseudo-apocalyptic assertion, but the myth persists in conservative pro-conspiracy theory circles. Looking back on the first four years of the Obama administration and the administrations of every Democratic president in the history of the United States, there has been absolutely no credible evidence of that. No Democratic president has ever attempted to weaken the country or destroy the American way of life in any way. Quite the contrary.
And yet, that particular myth is as prevalent as ever.
Myth 5: Democrats are pro-gay and anti-family values.
Pro gay-rights, yes. Pro freedom of and from religion, yes. In other words, pro civil rights. Anti-family values though? Anti-marriage, even? Absolutely not. think about it: if Democrats seek to expand the definition of marriage so the institution of marriage can grow, are they fighting a war against marriage? Wouldn’t an attempt to limit the definition of marriage and restrict it not qualify more as a war on marriage than an attempt to help it grow? And yet, the myth persists in many conservative circles.
So… all in all, Democrats have not been effective at controlling their message and in some case effectively sell their political brand, and that’s a problem.
Ironically, Democrats seem to be pretty good at creating content that communicates their achievements and crafting clear messaging around them, but in spite of their advantage in social media adoption, haven’t been very good at communicating these achievements outside of their core. Let me illustrate:
a) The White House’s website is brilliantly designed. It’s beautiful. Everything about it is pretty much perfect in terms of proportions, color, photography, ratio of images to copy, usability, content, archives, access to information and data… it’s pure digital genius. And yet… it hasn’t been successful at helping spread its content. It seems to have relied more on a build it and they will come strategy than a let’s focus on sharing this with as many people as we can strategy.
b) Healthcare: Check out whitehouse.gov/healthcarereform. How many times have you seen any of this data and associated infographics? Probably never. How many people have read their myth-busting page? Not many. That’s bad.
Tip: Add a “share” button to EVERY page containing data, charts and graphs. You’ll see a difference in how the message spreads immediately.
c) Energy Independence: Look… just check out this page. Why is this data not making the rounds? This should be all over Facebook walls and Twitter feeds.
d) The economy: Here is a comprehensive list of everything the Obama administration has done for the economy in the last 3+ years:
Here is the page that focuses on the Obama administration’s pro-business focus:
Furthermore, the stimulus was a success:
To provide further context, let’s flashback to February 23, 2010 (source – Reuters):
The massive stimulus package passed last year to blunt the impact of the worst U.S. recession in 70 years created up to 2.1 million jobs in the last three months of 2009, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said on Tuesday. The package boosted the economy by up to 3.5 percent and lowered the unemployment rate by up to 2.1 percent during that period, CBO said.
“In CBO’s judgment, that outcome reflects greater-than-projected weakness in the underlying economy rather than lower-than-expected effects”
I could go on for hours. This should all be a slam-dunk in terms of communications.
Strangely though, this information is just not getting out to voters. This inability to push its message, control its message and sell its message is a systematic weakness with the Democratic party.
6. Democrats don’t play offense very well.
See 4 and 5 above.
This isn’t to say that Democrats are any less militant than Republicans when it comes to their core issues. They just aren’t very good at pushing the message, at driving it forward, at really making sure that everyone knows what they want them to know.
By the way, the Occupy movement is not what I have in mind when I think of an effective offensive game. It’s aggressive all right, but not exactly a success. Democrats could do with a little more testosterone though. The story is there, waiting to be told. And yet… crickets. At least until now.
Much of the disappointment in the Obama administration by Democrats in the last few years has been due to this softness. Primarily when it comes to not having taken advantage of the political high ground Democrats held in the first two years of the Obama administration (wasted opportunity to pass sweeping legislation) and second: not sharing effectively all that actually was done. Brag a little. You have to. People want to know what’s being done. They have no idea. You can’t wait for them to come look for answers. You have to talk about it. You have to report to them regularly.
7. But Democrats have a great ground game.
I am not talking about the community activism type of ground game. I am talking about Democrats’ ability to use their opponents’ mistakes on the field to win key plays. To borrow from sports analogies, Democrats are good when it comes to leveraging rebounds and interceptions.
- Take the war on women, for instance. Look at the political capital gained by Democrats over comments made by republicans like Todd Akin and Rush Limbaugh, and how they so easily connected Paul Ryan to that narrative. As a result, the gender gap is increasing in favor of Democrats. Well played.
- Marriage equality and gay rights as well: it wasn’t initially a democratic initiative. Democrats simply leveraged a miscalculation by religious conservatives, and connected their default stance on marriage equality to a narrative that began with repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Democrats waited for the right moment and used social conservatives’ momentum against them.
- Fact-checking and outrage grenades: The process is simple. You wait for the other side to say something that is either factually incorrect or patently offensive, and you throw it back at them for a week straight . When it comes to this strategy Democrats have no greater friends than Todd Akin, Rush Limbaugh, and Paul Ryan (already dubbed “Lyin’ Ryan” on the twitterwebs for the mounting number of fibs and deliberate inaccuracies in many of his recent statements). Recent dubious comments and assertions from key Republicans (Paul Ryan, Hogan Gidley, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Michele Bachmann, among others) have allowed Democrats to progressively brand themselves as the fact-checker party versus… an increasingly factually incorrect party, or worse, the party of spin.
- “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” will turn out to be the defining question of this election, just as it was in 1980 when Ronald Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter. Republicans dusted it off for what they hope will be a long awaited sequel. My bet: Democrats will intercept that ball and turn it to their advantage. In spite of the initial fumble, it will finally give them what they have lacked for decades: a deliberate, coherent, effective vehicle with which to tell their story and sell the effectiveness of their policies.
But can your whole strategy be to wait for the competition to say something stupid or untrue? It doesn’t need to be. It shouldn’t be. That should just be the frosting on the cake, not the whole cake.
As I write this piece, the Obama and Romney campaigns are tied in the polls. If Republicans hadn’t handed Democrats a few gimmes with the war on women, marriage inequality, racially-tainted rhetoric and its serious credibility issue, where would the Obama campaign be? Ten points behind? Whether you like Democrats or not, given the story they could be telling, the Obama campaign should be ten points ahead, not tied.
8. Looking at a few key Challenges for the Democratic brand:
Can democrats be both pro-labor and pro-business?
Can Democrats be both pro-environment and pro-industry?
Can Democrats be both pro-choice and pro-life (or rather… “pro-birth”)?
Can democrats be pro-social safety nets and pro-capitalism?
Can democrats increase taxes on the rich and be good for the economy?
The answer is yes. The Clinton and Obama administrations showed that to be true. Its two problems are that a) that duality hasn’t been clearly communicated, and b) the Democratic party has itself been reluctant to let go of its pro-labor, pro-poor, pro-environment image. Just like the Republican, it is afraid to lose its core, and therefore its core message. (Could there be a left wing version of the tea party? Certainly.) But in order to get anywhere in the next decade, Democrats are going to have to earn the trust of the business community (big business and SMBs) without appearing to sell out to the labor-friendly crowd. They have a story to tell there, and results to show; it won’t be easy to talk over the noise from organizations like the US Chamber of Commerce, but it needs to happen. They are going to have to change their image and drive its evolution. There is no way around this. The 20th century biases still crippling Democrats have to be replaced by something else.
Specifically, the Democratic Party has to change perceptions from an either business or labor, either ecology or energy independence, either religious freedom or civil freedoms. The either/or distinction drawn by old thinking needs to go. Instead, the message has to be one of business and labor working for each other to produce better results and prosperity for all. It has to communicate the shift to the vital role that ecologically-friendly energy solutions have to play in any credible discussion we have about energy independence. It has to do a better job of showing that civil rights and religious rights are precisely the same thing rather than opposing views. It has to convince fiscal conservatives that prosperity is a lot easier to engineer when businesses and governments partner on building a stronger economy. It has to help everyone move beyond ludicrous capitalist vs. socialist modes of thinking. Well… maybe not everyone, but centrists and moderate Republicans who might not be very excited about too much conservatism on their side of the aisle.
One last comment: if the Democratic party wants to successfully paint itself as the party of the future (and paint the Republican party as the party of the past), it has to be willing to a) let go of the past and allow itself to grow into an identity that is relevant to the 21st century, that isn’t as militant, and that (and I know this is dangerous) is a little more center than left-of-center, and b) effectively communicate that change and what it means. The Obama administration seems to be on the right track with the first half of that mandate. It just needs to get better at the second.
Don’t just do. Tell us.
Don’t just tell us. Show us.
If you want to follow the buzz around Democratic National Convention the way digital monitoring agencies do, check out the DNC Tickr page I built for you. (Disclosure: Tickr is a client. I just happen to use their product.)
As always, I welcome your comments. Thanks for sticking with this piece until the end. I tried to keep it as short as possible, but you know how that goes. Feel free to add what I might have missed in the comment section below. Oh, and please, let’s try to keep the comment section from becoming a political discussion between Republicans and Democrats. If you disagree with my analysis, great. I want to hear from you. But try to focus on the brand management, business development and marketing communications side of the discussion rather than on political rhetoric. Take a step back from your political beliefs and look at this as if you were apolitical and the Democrats were a client. What did I get right? What did I get wrong? What did I miss? How could the Democratic Party do better? Those are the types of comments I look forward to.
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