Sunday, April 27, 2008

"Somebody who thinks like me"

If Democrats want a stronger hand in guiding America's future, they need to strengthen their brand identity among busy and beleaguered American voters.

For decades, too much emphasis has been placed promoting programs and policies -- or attractive personalities -- over deeper brand identification. There are a lot of folk myths about the 1950s, and maybe this is one of them, but I think I remember a time when brand loyalty made for Democrats' success. A time when, if someone mentioned a candidate's name, the first question someone might ask was, "Is he a Democrat?"


"That’s all I need to know." And that meant another vote for the Democrat.

Democrat meant, he thinks like me. He believes what I do. He’s on my side. You didn’t need to know his or her position on snail darters or NAFTA or gay rights. Or even his name. Democrat meant something.

But how many events have you been to where someone starts talking about what Democrats stand for? And they unroll a laundry list of programs and policies anywhere from forty to seventy years-old. It’s like a K-tel commercial for Democrats’ Greatest Hits. “Can anyone forget the rocking, G.I. Bill?” Proud accomplishments, okay? But they don’t say anything about the beliefs behind those programs, nothing about our passions or ideals, about who we are.

Coke, the Chicago Cubs, Nike, the Marines. Images, feelings and associations are more important in brand loyalty than particular features, and Democrats have neglected brand-building for too long. Behind the argument echoed in Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? -- that many working class voters vote Republican against their own economic interests -- is the assumption that economic interest is (or should be) the basis for casting a ballot and for party identification.

One of the disconnects in American politics between Democratic activists and typical voters arises from activists' focus on the wonky details of programs and policies that busy non-wonks haven't the time to master, even if they have the interest.

Early primary voting is underway here in NC, and yesterday my wife went out to vote with a group of friends. They turned to her to tell them who they should vote for on the down-ticket races. To some degree, they just wanted to vote for Clinton or Obama and the other races were afterthoughts. They wanted, at minimum, to do their civic duty, but were too busy be more informed. For that, they trusted her to advise them.

Why? Because they respect her, trust her judgment, believe she's like them and on their side. They identify with her. As a party, Democrats have to rebuild voters' confidence that that is just as true of the party as a whole.

Democracy isn't supposed to be easy, but with more and more Americans feeling as if they are treading water amidst a flotsam of bills, soccer practice, commuting and longer work hours, throwing them a candidate survey or a stack of position papers isn't helping. They need a lifeline. Like it or not, many voters just want some way to participate that doesn't require that they master the arcana of the legislative process. That's what they have representatives for. They just want some shorthand way of choosing candidates who will legislate in their best interests. A party they can trust. A party who thinks like they do.

That’s all they want to know.

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