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My shorthand for this dichotomy is:

Democrats campaign in prose; Republicans govern in poetry.

Roger Keeling

Mark, I think you AND Chait are both quite right.

There is an enormous reservoir of ideas on the liberal / Democratic side. There are all those research papers and 10-point plans that the think tanks cough up regularly, to be sure, addressing just about every specific issue on the planet. More broadly, there are the BIG ideas that may be "old," in the sense that some have been mainstays of liberalism for two centuries, yet remain as vital and vibrant as ever if anyone ever bothers to explain them in contemporary terms.

So Chait is right. But so are you when you note that too often Democrats obsess on polling and strategy and tactics and spin and all the other crap that they think might give them a little edge and win an election. Too often the result is that we don't appear to believe in anything specifically. We never seem -- in public, I mean, in those national ads at election time and so on -- to directly confront and battle the hoary old accusations the rightwingers constantly fling at us. Maybe the next time they scream, "Democrats want big government," we should be thinking about replying, "Damned right! And here's why." But we never do that anymore. We ALWAYS seem to cave in at some level, to accept the terms of the debate the rightwingers lay down rather than laying down our own*.

-- Roger Keeling

*Except Clinton. At his best, he frequently pulled the rug from under them and put debates onto HIS terms. Which is why so many of us adore him even if we know full well his many flaws.


Sorry for the extra long comment, but I can't help myself. I've been biting my tongue for too long.

I'm not a political guy; I come out of brand development and marketing. From that perspective, this seems so much easier than the liberal gliterati seems to want to make it. And I reluctantly include you in that group, Mark, of smart smart people too close to the subject to see it clearly. Not that I claim to, but just taking your own arguments and statements on, there seems to be some fundamental disconnect that, from my experience in the business world, would in an analogous way set up the conditions for business failure.

And yet you seem so close to getting it. For instance, you say:

The old ideas that shaped liberalism-- the social safety net, a strong government role in health care and economic security, regulatory protection of the environment-- have been discredited by the right and progressives defend them too half-heartedly to form an agenda. The next generation framework for progress is not yet born.

In the brand development processes that I've worked through (with some pretty big brands if I do say so myself), there is a simple yet surprisingly effective way to understand one's brand in such a way that the requirements for future success become much clearer. Three simple questions are the key:

1) Where does this brand come from?
2) Where is it now in it's growth trajectory?
3) Where do we want it to go?

What most organizations get wrong is #1. Read that again, because it is important. And I think that Dems are getting that wrong now too. As you say, Dems policy wonks and leaders see liberalism as "the social safety net, a strong government role in health care and economic security, regulatory protection of the environment." But is that really what liberalism really is, or is that more accurately a set of policies supported by liberals? It's a key question, and imho eliding that difference is part of what creates the disconnect that underlies the recent failures of liberals to succeed at electoral politics.

Anyway, if I go to the wikipedia, I read that liberalism is:

Liberalism is a political current embracing several historical and present-day ideologies that claim defense of individual liberty as the purpose of government. It typically favors the right to dissent from orthodox tenets or established authorities in political or religious matters. In this respect, it is sometimes held in contrast to conservatism. Since liberalism also focuses on the ability of individuals to structure their own society, it is almost always opposed to totalitarianism, and often to collectivist ideologies, particularly communism.

The word "liberal" derives from the Latin "liber" ("free") and liberals of all stripes tend to view themselves as friends of freedom, particularly freedom from the shackles of tradition. The origins of liberalism in the Enlightenment era contrasted this philosophy to feudalism and mercantilism. Later, as more radical philosophies articulated their thoughts in the course of the French Revolution and through the nineteenth century, liberalism equally defined itself in contrast to socialism and communism, although some adherents of liberalism sympathize with some of the aims and methods of social democracy.

There's lots to unpack there, but I'll just emphasize a couple of key points. First of all, liberalism predates liberals. That seems obvious, but it leads me to my second point. Your quick list of liberalism's highlights are really liberals' greatest hits. But liberalism is more fundamental--it is the foundation of modern democracy. What you refer to when you say liberalism seems to actually mean the landmark policies implemented by liberals beginning in the FDR era. But what if getting question #1 right means that liberals retrace their steps back even farther? Back, say, to the founding of this nation? In that definition of liberalism, can't liberals claim the Founding Fathers as the first American liberals? I think they can.

And that leads to question #2, where we are today. You're right when you say that the right has discredited much of the old liberal agenda. But they also have an underlying weakness built into that attack; namely that they have come to where they are now, where the ongoing demonization of liberals has taken a stark turn and become an attack on liberalism itself. Because, to reiterate, liberalism isn't just for liberals. Liberalism is the organizing principle of western democracy. As such liberalism is even the underlying premise of modern day conservatism, or at least it's libertarian aspects. But that has changed with the merging of the Republican Party with Christian fundamentalism. The Christian fundamentalists of the Republican Party want the same thing that Islamic fundamentalists want-- for everyone else to abide by thier belief system, whether everyone else wants to or not. In effect this is the attempted overthrow of the Enlightenment, the dismantling of modernity, and with it the eradication of individual freedom that is the foundation of liberalism.

All of the other things that flow from individual liberty--equality, rights, fairness, the free association of communities, control of your own body and property--are under threat as well. I'm not much of a conspiracy theorist, but with the fundamental principles of our democracy under attack by religious fundamentalists, I think this is a very dangerous time.

But it is also a time of opportunity. While we yammer on and on about abortion and gay marriage and all that, most recent polls that I've read indicate that Americans don't want to reverse course on rights that relate to personal freedom. By reconnecting with old school notions of liberalism, today's liberals actually have the means to make a more effective counter-argument that can give liberalism a much more clearer path to future success. Not to be trite, but what I would tell all Dems is that it's about the liberty, stupid. Abortion, gay rights, financial freedom (my term for economic security), are incidental to liberty itself. Put another way, liberty leads to liberalism leads to liberals.

And that starts to answer #3. It also implies much: we have to resurrect the word liberal, dust it off, burnish it again. I feel that the zeitgeist is ready for it. But another reason we have to is because we will always be called it, and running away from it makes us look weak. Like any brand that has fallen into disrepair (think Gucci in the 80s, before Tom Ford), we have to turn that weakness back into a strength. And we also have to quit refusing to look even further back for ideas--they are all there, we just have to look back far enough, to where we really come from.

By doing so I think we change the nature of the debate, because we can take back the words liberty and freedom from the right, and can back it up with an honest philosophical underpinning that is the key to any brand's authenticity. Along the way, the GOP's usurpation of those words can be made to seem like the cheap street vendor knockoffs that they are.


How about "Fight Smart" like "Think Different" worked for Apple Computer.


I think we still need a structure for our ideas and some clear ways of putting them forward

Do you think liberals need to focus on the former (the progressive equivalent of "up-or-down vote") or the latter (the progressive equivalent of Fox News)?

Or is that an unfair dichotomy to make?


I hope ccobb's comment gets some attention, including from our host, because I think he's exactly right. The heart of liberalism is the expansion of liberty. The roots of liberalism are in the struggle to delegitimate and overthrow feudal and aristocratic privileges, and conservatism began its career as an ideology by defending those privileges and a host of ‘traditional’ hierarchies (from monarchy and slavery, to – more recently -- male supremacy and Jim Crow). Things got complicated when liberals figured out that a powerful government is not the only enemy of individual liberty, and that a democratically accountable government can promote freedom by constraining the use (abuse) of private power (of husbands over wives and employers over employees, for example). I’m no marketer, but I think part the problem is that contemporary conservatism has managed to get people to identify freedom with the freedom of the relatively powerful (e.g., employers) and to ignore the way that ‘getting the government off the back of business’ gives business owners and managers more effective power over employees. How to get across the point that freedom for the many requires restraint of the few?


I'll take Johnny Butter's opening prose/poetry analogy, but flip it. Republicans campaign in poetry and govern dyslexically. Democrats are impatient with the grubby business of politics and find love in the realm of policy. Mark, I think the challenge of Democrats is precisely their left brained-ness. A reverence for facts and a seeming embarrassment at a simple fact: America is a feeling as much as geography. It's parked deep in our R-Complex, or reptillian brain and covered here plenty relative to Lakoff and to what he misses, also.

That "miss" would be American self-regard. Our explorer and builder ethic, our resilience and fairness--these are what's missing in limbic terms that Americans of all stripes can identitfy with in ccobb's laudable reminder of liberalism's roots. Sometimes, Manifest Destiny can be a good thing, especially when borne out and borne by evolved ethics.

Institutional democrats carry all the negative traits of a marketing and managerial class that mumbles the words of brand, yet has no feel for what it is they are trying to replicate: loyalty and passionate identification. They are disconnected from their markets and its concversations. Speaking from experience, mention of emotional allegiance, or delving into its levers is alien in many boardrooms, and seemingly, many DNC confabs. Simple questions need to be asked: 1. What are we (Americans first, Democrats second) good at? 2. Why do we need to do and be those things? 3. Who else wants them? And how can we do them more profitably, effectively, relative to the answers we provided to 1, 2, and 3?

That's a atrategy framework for individual, company or nation. But, related in terms of uplift and connection, not shopping list of retail issues--"the social safety net, a strong government role in health care and economic security, regulatory protection of the environment"

Ho hum. That's eating my spinach, it's not narrative, and certainly not not poetry. I'll push my luck and post a snip of roleplay and role-identifying I'd hoped to hear from a democratic candidate last year, but alas, didn't....


Do you share in the pride we all feel to belong to this thing called the USA? Wonderful: You're in, welcome to the club. But first, as citizens, let's do a little inventory: We may look and speak and live differently, but we remain Americans. We're great buiders and great thinkers. We're great sharers. We're great doers. It is who we are. Yet somewhere along the way, someone has sold us a bill of goods. Somehow the idea was introduced that better profits trump the betterment of you and me. Either-or, not both-and. That somehow, national security comes not from cooperation and coordination, but by some imagined lonesome cowboy ethic that never really was. Imagine a movie that expects you to believe this plot--that a sheriff succesfully protects his town by alienating and insulting the ever-friendly marshalls in the surrounding counties. This is the premise and the plan, tragic and costly, we're expected believe today. You're either with us, or you're against us. Our way is the only way.

This is wrong. This is not us. We have more confidence and ability than strained belligerent bluster like that betrays. The only franchise on infallibility comes from God, everyone's God. Our Declaration of Independence is quite clear on this. America is not about being perfect. It is about pusuit of the ideal of perfection. Why? Because the minute we say "perfect," we're done. Our national reason for being is gone. Besides being impossible, "Perfect" is a destination. Terminal. Where to from there? If the world keeps turning, nowhere but irrelevance. But seeking perfection, not accepting good enough, now there's a journey. And a plan. And journeys need supplies, new help, new ideas and new things to discover. And the right journeys are glasses half-full. They are self-sustaining and self-starting. They are energy itself.

Franklin Roosevelt told us fear is no way to face the future. We know he was right. It's not who we are, and it will never be allowed to define us. America's real security, not imagined, must be tended to and our power to protect, ourselves and others, must be unquestioned. And so it shall be, unquestionably. That is what this election is about. And, with your trust and faith, it is why I stand before you today.

But it seems I stand before you for another reason also. Like Dr. King, I have a dream. A dream you share. A dream that the prosperity and security of America for the next century is assured. That dream becomes reality only when we tend to the unfinished business of this great and maturing nation. And that business is the uplift of those who are struggling with task of joining prosperous nations like ours. That is our Mission to the Moon, but on this here Earth. This is altruism, yes, but it is enlightened self-interest also. We are builders. We are inventors. We are managers. We are creators. These endeavours require opportunities for release and action. They require customers. And they mean jobs.

My friends, do you remember the words of Lady Liberty--bring me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses? Well, they don't have to come to us. We, will go to them. And with discipline, fairness, ideas and opportunity, America will not only do well in the 21st century, we will have done Good.


Sorry for the lengthy comment, it seemed apropos after ccobb's call to arms.



If I might add one addendum to my earlier comment, I also think that the Democratic Party's disconnect from the liberalism that long ago formed it's core phlosphy explains how George Bush has put liberals in such a pickle over the Iraq War.

Once the WMD thing went bust, Bush cunningly usurped liberal ideas as the new basis for it. All of this freedom and liberty stuff he spouts would not suit a true conservative but it is the mother's milk of liberalism, the mythos behind our national origin and a truly liberal raison d'etre. But since the Democratic leaders only connect back as far as FDR, they predictably retreat to the 1950s version of liberal groupthink, a sort of bland precursor to realpolitik.

As you can see, that's working for us real well. The right comes across as chickenhawk, we come across as chickenshit. If we re-asserted liberalism as our core philosophy, then it tells us that the way for a liberal to really attack Bush on Iraq is to make him mean it, to out "freedom-is-on-the-march" him, to sound less like Dean Acheson and more like Patrick Henry.


I'll take Johnny Butter's opening prose/poetry analogy, but flip it.

Wow, quite a discussion! I just wanted to note, for those who aren't familier with it, the truism I was making a play on, which is: In politics, you must campaign in poetry and govern in prose. My point was that Dems skip the poetry and campaign in prose, while the Repubs. not only campaign, but also govern in 'poetry' - everything is politics, even after they win. The latter is more successful electorally, but disasterous practically, as can been seen so clearly with our present government. Dems are in the preferable position; modern Republicans can win, but they can't govern - their rigid ideology comes out as unworkable, unpopular, contradictory policy; Democrats know how to actually govern.

It doesn't have to be high poetry....


Johnny, couldn't agree more, and the linked "plenty" in my comment goes to a post from a discussion with matt yglesias 2 years ago: No politics, no pudding. In this case, the pudding is the the favorite food and avocation of D's: Policy.

The fact that the majority of D's fare poorly in elections of late belies the truth that they are in it to govern--the nobler idea of it--rather than to win.

In that yglesias thread I suggested somethimng that still holds true I think: Stop spending on all the clever media buys, compartmetalising the south, and on the useless Bob Shrums. Instead, invest in a class on storytelling, on narrative structure, and on archetype. Learn how to touch people and reflect their idealized self-image back at them. Only then, will D's stop losing--or winning only by picking up the pieces of R hubris. (Look back at the modulation of presidents and events thru nixon to see what I mean on thatlast point.)

James Kroeger

"I think we still need a structure for our ideas and some clear ways of putting them forward..."

Yes, Democrats do need to build a rational structure for their ideas, but first we are going to work on the "clear ways of putting them forward." From experience, it should be obvious to most Democrats that our nominees have not been devoid of good ideas, especially in contrast to those promoted by the Republicans. But what happens to those ideas during a campaign? What happens every time the Democrats try to talk about The Issues?

From The Republican Nemesis:

"When historians look back on the current era in American politics it will likely stand out as the period when Republican cunning & marketing savvy completely dominated the political landscape. Obliging Democrats have thrown themselves into the fray with enthusiasm, armed with idealistic visions of civil “discourse”, only to be humbled repeatedly by their political masters. Republican strategists have been able to blend their astute grasp of marketing principles, human nature, & social psychology into a formula that delivers almost guaranteed success at the polls. While Democrats knock themselves out every election cycle trying to talk to Swing Voters about The Issues, Republicans have calmly focused their attention on winning The Image Campaign. Quite simply: Democrats lose because they don’t understand what moves their target audience."

"The Issues might actually be important to many Swing Voters early on in a political campaign, but when both sides start to pick apart each other’s facts & interpretations, the typical Swing Voter quickly becomes confused. As the debate over The Issues drags on, Swing Voters realize that they don’t understand the details well enough to make an informed decision, so they end up relying on their impressions of the candidates.  Republican strategists see this clearly.  That is why they continuously try to create doubts in the minds of the Swing Voters about the character of the Democratic candidate. They know that it doesn’t really matter if they can’t find any real flaws in their Democratic opponents. Accusations, insinuations, & innuendo will work just fine. They hope to encourage voters to question the motivation and dependability of The Democrats. They try to create the perception that Democrats are “defective” in a disturbing way. By accusing, the are not [defective like the Democrats]."

"Republican strategists know they would rarely win if election results were always determined by a logical discussion of The Issues and nothing more (they know that most voters would benefit more from Democratic economic policies than from Republican policies). They know they must win the Image Campaign to have any chance of winning. That is why they are committed, now and forever, to negative campaigning.  Republicans have never forgotten a key stratagem they perfected during the Reagan Era: DEMONIZING YOUR OPPONENTS WORKS."

"The most important reason why negative campaigning has worked so well for the Republicans is because their negative attacks on the Democrats create a positive impression of Republican candidates, who appear—in contrast—to be individuals who do not possess the defects that they have accused others of having.  They define themselves [positively] by defining their Democratic opponents [negatively]. On a visceral level, what the Republicans actually “stand for” in the minds of Swing Voters on election day is that they are not Democrats—those defective people who seem to have been born to ruin everything."

To underscore this whole point, it helps to understand how Kerry and his advisors should have handled the Cheney Lesbian Outrage moment last fall. Hopefully, we're going to be able to handle the crap when comes next time...


Well why not high poetry? Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, there are many great American poets who seem to speak for the liberal traditions of this country. It seems to me that Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose prose is as poetic as can be, would be a good author for speechwriters to read. Difficult to quote, perhaps, but he is quintessentially "American." Japanese used to read Emerson to learn good English and to learn about America, if I'm not mistaken. "It is greatest to believe and to hope well of the world, for he who does so, quits the world of experience and makes the world he lives in." Emerson biographers could probably talk all day about this notion of Emerson as spokesperson for America. A few years ago I heard the past poet laureate Robert Pinsky read some pages from Emerson's essays/lectures. He is well versed in "America" and would have wonderful ideas, especially since he spent 3 years travelling the country as poet laureate.

Instead of the word "social" Dems could use the phrase "common good."

Which leads me to suggest that Dems might talk about The Golden Rule as one way to bring in a liberal/religious idea in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

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