The very strength of the Democratic Party—a wonderfully diverse coalition of people and ideas—is precisely what makes it suck so badly at branding.
By David Todd McCarty | Tuesday, June 9, 2020
We have a saying in my family that we believe illustrates our dichotomy quite well, which is, “Often wrong, but never in doubt.” It is our way of conceding that we are, as a group, an opinionated bunch of know-it-alls with the supreme confidence of a master chef, yet with a soupçon of self-awareness that we may, in fact, be wrong about all of it.
Admittedly, this is a trait that is much more at ease in the self-possessed domain of conservative politics in which I was raised, than within the rocky shoals of liberalism with which I have grown accustomed, if not comfortable.
Ask any self-described liberal today what the Democratic Party stands for and you’ll get as many answers as people you ask; that or a blank stare. There is no central focus to the party—no common theme to grab hold of, as there are simply no handles. But everyone you ask will have, not only an expert opinion on what the focus should be, but why that is.
It’s not that liberals are somehow less opinionated than conservatives—far from it—but that conservatives are much more sure that they already have the answer, while liberals are quite sure there is a better answer out there, if only we searched a little longer for it. Conservatives agree on leaving well enough alone for the most part, while liberals are never satisfied with what they have. We are an agreeable people in that we are more than likely, to agree to disagree.
Consequently, liberals like to make committee decisions rather than executive ones, which means you end up with, not necessarily the best idea, but the one that offends the least amount of people. This might actually be the best we can hope for when it comes to making policy decisions, but it’s a recipe for disaster when it comes to marketing.
Someone once said that a camel is a horse designed by committee, everyone putting in their two cents about what is needed and where, but no one looking at the whole picture. When it comes to branding, what you need is clear vision and a simplified message—which is the one thing you can be assured you will never get from a committee.
Effective branding, like effective leadership, is best suited to the singular kind. It’s why we elect individuals to lead, but rely on organizations to manage the implementation. The person with vision is rarely the one who knows how to get it done. Steve Jobs didn’t invent the iPhone, but he created an environment and provided the leadership that allowed thousands of individuals to develop something entirely without precedent. Phil Knight made Nike a global brand, not by following trends, but by breaking the rules and encouraging risk-taking, but he wasn’t designing sneakers. He didn’t even come up with the logo.
Politicians and their advisors are, by design, risk-averse. Not saying anything is almost always considered a better strategy than risking saying something wrong. In our fifteen-second news cycle, one blunder can be spun into hours, if not days, of negative news, so it can be advantageous to keep your mouth shut and risk looking foolish, rather than opening it and leaving no doubt.
The mainstream media sees their job as holding elected officials, business leaders and public figures in general, accountable for the things they do and say. Politics aside, journalists are trained to call out bullshit and report on corruption and lies. Partisanship, while certainly a factor in as much as it is the lens through which we view the world, is not the reason that journalists seem to harp on Republicans. It’s because the conservative media bubble has convinced them they are Jedi knights who can dismiss your questions with calm voice and a wave of their hand. When that doesn’t work, they accuse the media of being out to get them.
The problem is, any journalist worth their weight, goes after candidates and elected officials of both parties, equally and unequivocally. Some might argue that the more liberal the journalist, the harder they’ve been on politicians they agree with ideologically, so as not to appear to be giving them any undue latitude.
This is the political and social environment we find ourselves in, as Democrats and people of conscience everywhere, try to grapple with developing an effective messaging strategy that can combat the ravages of Donald Trump’s Republican Party on America.
We know it’s bad. We know he’s lying. We know he’s an immoral, illiterate, racist buffoon without empathy, curiosity or class. But we also know that half the country wouldn’t care if he actually shot someone on Fifth Avenue, and couldn’t care less how incompetent he appears.
The problem is, we want to rule by committee, and not by decree. We are a people ruined by our own notion of democracy; that everyone gets a say, and everyone gets a trophy. We are more concerned with losing, than we are with winning. We too, are risk averse.
The Republicans are not entirely wrong about us. We are a bit too preoccupied with pleasing everyone and offending no one. We do tend to act like effort counts for as much as accomplishment. We aren’t willing to sacrifice anything or anyone in order to achieve our goals. From the perspective of someone who needs to make the difficult decision to sacrifice some in order to protect the many, we are more likely to sacrifice most if it means denying anyone.
Democrats would rather spend whatever political and economic capital we have, fighting over factional issues—which we have convinced ourselves are a matter of life and death—rather than put aside our relatively minor differences in order to fight a significantly more dangerous, common foe.
This is why the most effective political marketing campaign in America today, is by a group of angry Republicans who would rather see the entire Republican Party burn to the ground, if it means being able to get rid of Donald J. Trump. They seem more than willing to take down Trump and anyone who supports his failing Presidency, for the good of the country, or at least some semblance of a future for the Republican Party.
Currently, while in the midst of a generation-defining crisis of conscience involving nothing less than the very soul of our country, especially as it relates to critical issues of race and social justice, liberal social media is arguing passionately about what to name the effort to reform an institution that has been killing black people with prejudice and malice since the days of slavery.
We have real issues in this country that need to be addressed, and while we need to listen to everyone, at the end of the day, everyone needs to quiet down again, and someone has to lead.
Representative democracy works because 320 million people are not going to agree on anything. We can’t even get 100 Senators to get anything done. We don’t need more voices, we need less, we just need the voices we choose to actually be representative of everyone with a stake in the game.
We need a better brand, but in order to achieve that, we need leaders with the courage to try and fail. We need them to aim high and swing for the fences. We can’t get caught up in the weeds of what we can and cannot do without even first trying. We need to reach for the stars and we need to support those willing to do so.
America needs a better brand, and it’s our job to contribute our voices to the narrative of this country for better or worse, but in the end, it was one man who wrote the words “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”, and it was one individual who pleaded with a nation “that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”, and it was one man, championing a life of equality for all people, that gave our nation the words, “I have a dream.”
They weren’t perfect, they didn’t act alone, and they didn’t come to these ideas without listening to a great many voices before them, but they spoke with one voice and they did so clearly and resolutely.
We must try to do the same.