Thursday, December 01, 2005

On what it means to be a Democrat

Okay, so one of the biggest complaints I hear about the Democratic party - and this comes from righties and lefties alike - is that no one really knows what we’re about. The right has it down. They know their values, they know their platforms, and they can recite it all from memory if they can pin you down long enough at a cocktail party. The left has values, I promise, but no one in any position of authority has made the effort to really boil it all down to a few memorable bullet points that can pulled out in answer to the question, "Well, what do Democrats believe in?"

One piece of common advice for job seekers is to have an elevator resume. That’s just a basic rundown of your skills, talents and strong points that can be thrown out in the space of a thirty-second elevator ride. The GOP has it down; ask in the lobby what the Republican party stands for, and by the eighth floor you’ll know that they’re all about national security, entrepreneurship, strengthening our communities and protecting our families. They might not know how the GOP intends to do it, beyond Staying The Course and Fighting For Traditional Marriage, but by God do they know their talking points.

The DNC has talking points, too. Per the 2004 party platform [pdf], we’re all about “a strong, respected America,” “a strong, growing economy,” “strong, healthy families,” and “a strong American community.” These are all good things. So why don’t we ever hear them? Why can Republicans stand up and speak loudly and claim to be the party of national security and family values, when the Democrats support the same thing?


Seriously, that’s all it is. It’s not that we don’t know what we stand for; we all do. And it’s not that the party doesn’t have it organized into the same memorable talking points that the Republicans have; it’s right there on the web site. The difference is that the GOP puts a ridiculous amount of effort into making sure that Republicans are able to spew their official party values in their sleep, while the Democratic Party send John Kerry to blather pedantically for half an hour, bore his audience into a coma and never really land solidly on any of the points he was supposed to make (John, love you, voted for you, but please get a speech coach. We’re thinking clear and succinct, poodle).

One of the challenges with bullet-point-ifying the Democratic party platform is that ours is a party that recognizes (dare I say it) nuances, whereas the GOP is all about black and white. That makes it really, really easy for them. Their goal is to protect our country, so dammit, they’re going to do it at any cost; the Democrats want to protect our country while respecting the rights of our people and the sovereignty of our allies, and that just doesn’t fit as well on a bumper sticker. A reasonable, moderate position takes a lot longer to explain, and that’s why it’s important to boil it down to the most important points.

I won’t pretend to be a marketing or advertising professional. I was an advertising major in college, which I’ll freely admit is a completely different thing; I have little to no real-world advertising experience outside of a couple of low-visibility internships. But even in your basic 3000-level message strategy courses, you learn a lot about reaching people and communicating your message effectively. And since this is my blog, and I can do what I damn well want to, I’m going to take the opportunity to throw down my amateur advertising genius, after which I’ll begin to identify myself as a consultant for the DNC.


Who was it who came up with the idea of a USP? I don’t remember; it’s in my class notes. Every product or service needs to have a unique selling proposition, something that they can claim in their ads that no one else can (or, at least, has). If Colgate whitens with baking soda, then Crest had better whiten while you sleep, or else they have no reason to advertise. If your competitor says, “Our brand burns fat in the shower!” and you follow up with, “Ooh, we do, too! We burn fat in the shower,” then you’re not going to get a lot of work out of your ad campaign.

The GOP has done an awesome job of establishing themselves as the party of national security and family values. We simply can’t jump on that bandwagon, because they got there first. Our only options are to find our own political niche and/or to attack and disprove the GOP’s claims, at which point we can take their place.

Me-Too national security

The GOP says they’re all for keeping the country safe. That’s arguable; if you’re identifying “the country” as the land between the coast of Maine and the coast of California, plus the two little boxes at the bottom of the map, I’ll admit that none of the land or buildings in the US have blown up due to terrorist attack since September 11. But if you identify “the country” as the people who live in it, contribute to its success and depend on it for protection, then I’d say it’s doing a fairly crappy job; sending Americans over to Iraq to fight an ill-conceived, poorly planned war is a lousy way of keeping them safe, as is trying to take away the rights of the people at home.

The Democratic party, on the other hand, says they stand for a strong, respected America. On the surface, it sounds like a great idea; keep America strong so it’s able to defend itself, and try to develop allies instead of enemies so it doesn’t have to. So why isn’t this immediately identifiable with the party? Well, for one, because it takes them thirteen freaking pages in the platform to lay it all out. But also because their strategies for reaching that goal are all Me-Too: Defeat terrorism. Promote diplomacy, peace, and security. Strengthen our military. Achieve energy independence. Strengthen homeland security. Any Republican will tell you that that’s what the administration is doing right now (they’d be deluded, but it’s what they’d tell you).

If we want people to believe that the Democrats are better at defeating terrorism, we need a better plan to do that. We need to show the country that we recognize the real challenges of the war in Iraq. Defeat terrorism? What the hell is that? “Terrorism” is a noun. It isn’t even a concrete noun; it’s abstract. It’s like trying to defeat loneliness or obesity. The Democratic party needs to be the one that will defeat the terrorists and keep new ones from cropping up. That’s the difference; Bush’s strategy is to blow up one terrorist and watch three pop up in his wake. One of our Not-Me strategies for national security has to be defeating the terrorists and stopping the spread of terrorism.

From that point, we can move on to diplomacy, because that’s really the only way to minimize the spread of terrorism. The Bush administration likes to characterize these people as evil and crazy, and there are some of them out there. The fact is, though, the majority of today’s “insurgents” are regular people who are pissed off in an environment that offers them no support, no guidance and no alternative to violence. Desperate people reach out for any support system they can find, and what they find is al-Qaeda standing like crows on a powerline, looking for vulnerable people to exploit. People who feel safe and who feel like they have a realistic opportunity to contribute to their own governance and security don’t blow themselves up in hotel lobbies. Training an army and a police force in Iraq is only a tiny, tiny part of it; empower the Iraqis to govern themselves and give them a sense of security, and the real terrorists will starve. An al-Qaeda operative standing alone is a lot easier to take out than one surrounded by Iraqis who may or may not be insurgents. But self-governance doesn’t mean inserting our own America-friendly politicians or electing a slate of the same guys who were intimidating and overpowering the people before; the people have to be able to trust the people governing them. That’s why another Not-Me strategy should be empowering the Iraqis to govern themselves and take their own stand against terrorism.

Obviously, homeland security is a big issue. The Republicans have grabbed ahold of it and tried to convince us that the only way to keep us safe is to keep us in individual Redi-Kennels with 24-hour closed-circuit monitoring. I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t feel awfully secure that way. Before the government wants to legislate itself the right to spy on its own people, it needs to organize its own intelligence community and find out what information is has already. The Department of Homeland Security was supposed to oversee the various government agencies responsible for our safety and coordinate their efforts; instead, it’s become a day care center where safety officials come and play dress-up and put on puppet shows but never actually cooperate. If your goal is a country that is strong and respected, it has to have people who feel safe and have respect for their government. So another Not-Me strategy has to be organizing intelligence efforts while respecting the rights of Americans.

Me-Too family values

This one is huuuuge for today’s uber-conservatives. They are all about family values, as long as we’re talking about traditional, upper-middle-class, Christian families. Take a step back to, say, a single mother, or a married couple not interested in having kids, or two working parents, and you’re on shaky ground. Another step back into gay-man’s land and you can forget about it.

One thing that I’ve always loved about the Democratic party is that it supports values for all families. Democrats recognize that not everyone lives in the Leave-It-To-Beaver-esque new-cue-lar family, that it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to do so, and that people living in “nontraditional” families have the same needs and values as everyone else. To most liberals, a couple raising kids is a couple raising kids, and the success of the family requires the same support whether the couple is gay or straight. Families need health care and education and a safe place to grow, and that doesn’t change with the number of children or the demographics of the parents.

The Democrats have room for improvement, though, when it comes to tolerance. The joke is that “I absolutely cannot tolerate intolerance,” and Dems have been accused of being intolerant of Hypertraditionalist-Americans who want to impose their ultraconservative values on the counry. I guess there might be something to that; I claim to be tolerant, but if you’re going to try and discriminate against a group of people who have exactly the same rights that you do, I won’t tolerate it. Regardless, the issue isn’t whether or not the Dems are intolerant, but whether or not there is a perception of intolerance. And since there kind of is, we need to make it perfectly clear that we support all families, from the white, Christian suburbanites with Dad, stay-at-home Mom and three little kiddles to the black, Wiccan cityfolk with two working parents. So you could say our Not-Me strategy might be meeting the needs of all families to help them grow strong.

Interestingly enough, Democrats have it easy here, in terms of avoiding Me-Too strategies. The Republicans don’t even see these things as necessary to strong family life. If Democrats want to stand up for families by reforming health care, improving education, and protecting our environment, they can go ahead.

We do have to be careful, though, not to let Republicans claim the mantle of Party of Family Values simply by defining family values in their own favor. They take a more ideological tack, concentrating promoting healthy marriages and responsible fatherhood, promoting healthy choices (including abstinence), protecting the educational rights of parents and students, and promoting a culture of life. Beyond the obvious fact that, as with national security, the Republican party has done a dead lousy job of actually supporting these values, they do sound like really good things. So how do we defend the Democratic party against Republicans who claim those values for themselves?

We make our own. A strong, successful party can’t define itself in terms of other parties; it has to have its own definition. And, as I mentioned before, we’ve got it all over the Republicans in terms of their very own values. You want to promote healthy marriages and responsible fatherhood? Great. Why not make it easier for families to spend quality time together by giving workers a living wage and guaranteeing health care, so that mothers and fathers don’t have to spend all of their time at work to support the family? Why not make birth control and sex education easy and accessible so that couples - married or unmarried - don’t become parents before they’re ready to accept that responsibility? Democrats are certainly in favor of giving parents the tools they need to raise healthy families.

What if you want to promote healthy life choices, including abstinence, and protect educational rights? You don’t do that by watering down a child’s education in order to avoid offending people, or by teaching a restrictive curriculum that gives them the answers to test questions but not to life challenges. Why not give students all of the information they need so they can make healthy life choices? Why not teach them science that’s backed up by scientists, and protect their parents’ rights to give them religious training at home? Why not make sure that all children have access to well-funded public schools, rather than yanking funding out to send them to expensive private schools? It could be argued that we’re all about guaranteeing children an education that will help them face the demands of adult life, and guaranteeing parents the right to teach their own children their own values.

How about a culture of life? Life is precious. So precious, in fact, that it shouldn’t be used to punish a teenager for having premarital sex, or to punish a woman for being stupid enough to get herself raped, or to punish a couple for conceiving an anencephalic baby. All life is precious, including the life of the mother. Life is so precious, in fact, that we should be working hard to make sure that every baby is conceived on purpose, that no woman (or couple) is surprised by a pregnancy that she didn’t expect and can’t support, and that women and men have the knowledge and access to the tools necessary to protect themselves. Democrats believe in respecting all life and guaranteeing that every child is wanted and loved.

What’s next

This is all well and good, but it’s still not an elevator resume. This still requires a lot of talking to explain some fairly basic values. Tomorrow, we’ll look at more advertising message strategy with Selling the Hole (oh, stop that, it’s not dirty), we’ll boil it down to a few core values that Democrats support, and then we’ll look at ways to fit the entire damn thing onto a bumper sticker. Stay tuned.

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