The Politics of Branding

Tucker Foehl points out this interview with Naomi Klein. Her thoughts on the anti-war movement, the state of Iraq, the failure of the left, and basically everything else are worth reading in full, but this caught my eye:

So what the Republican Party has done is that it has co-branded with other powerful brands — like country music, and NASCAR, and church going, and this larger proud-to-be-a-redneck identity. Policy is pretty low on the agenda, in terms of why people identify as Republicans. They identify with these packets of attributes.

This means a couple of things. One, it means people are not swayed by policy debates. But more importantly, when George Bush's policies are attacked, rather than being dissuaded from being Republicans, Republicans feel attacked personally — because it's your politics. Republicanism has merged with their identity. That has happened because of the successful application of the principles of identity branding.

Klein, of course, is an expert on branding, having written No Logo, the seminal book on the subject. And her thoughts here prove her expertise, she's absolutely right. Over the past 30 years, Republicans have successfully merged identity with politics, the importance of which is almost impossible to overstate. When your party affiliation becomes enmeshed with your sense of self, attacks on your candidate become attacks on your person, and thus ends any hope of being convinced out of your position. No longer are you dealing with policy or evaluating arguments, now your personal defenses are up, your worth is being called into question, and the rightness of your original position is transcendentally important.

Democrats, for our part, have failed to notice this phase shift happening. While we sat around the campfire agog at the Christian culture warriors sucker-punching their self-interest and focusing on trivialities, we missed that they were focusing on what moves them. It's a point Michelle Cottle makes in her excellent critique of Jim Wallis. While liberal evangelicals make a compelling logical case for Christians to focus on poverty rather than penetration, they miss that sex is simply a more interesting and visceral topic, it grabs people better. That's why television is packed with shows focusing on bedrooms while only one focuses on the Roosevelt Room, and even it throws in sexual subplots and features conversations conducted during breakneck sprints through the halls. Same goes for the public sphere, where the titillating easily triumphs over the technocratic and, by involving people on a deeper, more moral level, increases their self-identification with whoever they judge their allies.

Democrats are right to want to focus on health care and the kitchen table. But virtue only counts once elections are won. While Democrats have retained their focus on traditional social targets, Republicans have moved towards focusing on the dramatic aspects of the public sphere, either those associated with culture or those associated with safety. They, not us, embraced Hollywood's values, focusing on fighting and fucking while Democrats continued exciting audiences with stirring invocations of Medicare. And as Democrats became more theoretically correct (all the polls show our domestic platform's popularity), our audiences became more detached. Sure they agreed, but damn were they bored. Republicans, at the same time, kept hammering at primal desires and fears and getting their base more invested, making them feel each election and loss was more climactic and high-stakes. It took the overwhelming hatred of a Republican incumbent to return the fire to the Democratic base, but by then we'd lost too many voters in the preceding years to win a turnout fight.

That's why branding matters. Kerry won the moderates, the independents, the unaffiliated. Those with a mind to make up went for the Democrat. But that group had dwindled over the years, as more and more voters had incorporated the Republican party into their identities. In 1992 and 1996, forign policy was silenced and the Republican candidates were technocrats unable to grab onto the hooks the party had placed in voters, but in every other recent election, decades of Republican branding triumphed. And it triumphed because Republicans understood the brand trumped the quality of the product. That they weren't focusing on the important issues, either for the country or themselves, was never important. Just as few iPods are used without their subpar but instantly identifiable white earbuds, few voters noticed that the issues they wanted weren't the ones that'd do them the most good. But the Republican Party certainly recognized that if you give the people what they want, you get to do what you want. The Democrats didn't. What a shame, then, that Al Gore spent 2000 listening to Naomi Wolf and not Naomi Klein. Maybe if he'd picked the latter we'd be living in a different country.