How the Democrats Were Betamaxed
According to Robert McNamara in the "Fog of War," the first lesson of life is, "empathize with your enemy." In order to understand the conservative movement's ascendancy in American politics, progressives should take McNamara's advice and try to view the world through the business lens of conservatives.
Think of a "marketplace of ideas" where the products are policies, positions, and issues all competing for dominance. On the surface, this may seem like the stuff of dreams for "free market" conservatives, but it turns out it's a nightmare. You see, what we find is that in this marketplace, Democrats actually have the better product and Americans prefer the policies of Democrats by a wide margin to those of the GOP. In the realm of ideas, just as in any marketplace, the superior or preferred product usually wins out, but not always. An inferior product can dominate in the market when it has superior marketing, and this is precisely what we have seen come to pass in U.S. politics over the past two decades.
In 1982, 45% of Americans identified themselves as Democrats; by 2003, that number was down to 31%. During the same period, the Republican Party made gains in party allegiance from about 26% up to 30%. What is more, nearly twice as many Americans now identify themselves as conservatives than as liberals. At first blush, these statistics would seem to point to an electorate that is moving ideologically to the right. However, public opinion polls consistently show that the majority of Americans are more closely aligned with the Democratic Party on the issues than they are with the Republican Party.
Returning to the notion of a marketplace, let's consider these public opinion polls as indicators of consumer preferences. What we find is that a whopping 86% of Americans believe that there need to be stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment; 77% think it is more important to maintain government services such as Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid than to cut taxes; 72% of Americans favor stricter laws related to the control of handguns; 63% of Americans favor affirmative action programs designed to help blacks, women and other minorities get better jobs and education; 62% don't think Roe v. Wade should be overturned by the Supreme Court; and 62% would prefer a universal health insurance program run by the government and financed by taxpayers.
On virtually every issue, public opinion polls show that consumer preferences are for the policies of the Democrats, and not for those of the GOP. Republicans offer inferior, less desirable policy solutions, while Democrats offer superior policies that are preferred by the majority of Americans.
When an inferior product wins out in the marketplace with superior marketing it is called getting "betamaxed." Remember Betamax? In the 1970s, before there was VHS, there was the Sony Betamax, but, as the story goes, VHS beat Betamax through its superior marketing even though Betamax was the superior video recording technology. If we consider policies as the products in the marketplace of ideas and public opinion polls as indicators of consumer preference, then we can only come to one conclusion: the Democrats have been betamaxed by the Republicans. Conservatives offer inferior policies, but dominate through superior marketing.
You really have to give it to them -- the Republicans are truly marketing geniuses. Let's consider some of the core components of marketing that the GOP has managed to dominate over the years. There's branding and negative branding. We have strategic communications, which in the policy world includes what's called "naming and framing," or how you sell your policies, as well as public relations and promotion. And finally, there is placement, or the distribution channels used to reach the consumer.
When it comes to branding, conservatives have succeeded in tarnishing the "liberal" brand to the point where liberals themselves, like Michael Moore, deride liberals as wimps. The GOP's negative branding campaign against liberals is why so many people are loath to use the "L word."
At the same time, Republicans have successfully built the conservative brand around powerful connotations of patriotism, strength, down-home values and righteousness. They have been so successful at building their brand that people still think of Republicans as "fiscally conservative," even though the last three "conservative" Republican administrations have all run record deficits.
The same goes for the branding of the GOP as the party of "small government." This despite the fact that the current Republican-controlled Congress, the first since 1954, has increased Congressional pork by more than 40%; the Patriot Act gives massive new powers to the federal government; and even non-defense domestic spending is up 11% according to an analysis by the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Now that's a brand with staying power.
Republicans also understand the value of strategic communications and the importance of "naming and framing" legislation and policies. Naming and framing can turn the "estate tax" ("estate" sounds like it only applies to rich folks) into a "death tax" -- we all die and it just doesn't seem right taxing the dead. When the GOP renamed the estate tax the death tax, they were able to frame it as a mainstream concern with 75% of Americans supporting its repeal, even though the estate tax does only apply to the rich, and it's paid by less than 2% of Americans.
They name legislation "No Child Left Behind," "Healthy Forests," "Clear Skies" and "Patriot Act," essentially forcing legislators to support their bills, lest they be accused of leaving children behind, favoring polluted forests and skies, or being branded as unpatriotic. It's sheer genius. It makes Microsoft's tactics for marketplace dominance look like child's play.
Another vital aspect of marketing is placement, or controlling the distribution channels. Republicans took this a step further by largely replicating Ted Turner's strategy of vertical integration of content and distribution. Cable maverick Turner recognized that he could become a formidable media force by owing both the channels of distribution -- his TBS cable network -- and content. So, he bought sports teams, acquired the MGM classic movie library and invented the 24-hour news network CNN to fill his cable channels.
Using this same vertical integration model, conservative think tanks and foundations, like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, have been laboring intensively on the research and development of conservative policies, as well as their packaging in media-friendly ways. These policies provide the "content" to feed to three primary distribution channels: legislative distribution channels including elected officials, candidates, senior staff, and political appointees; judicial distribution channels; and various mainstream and dedicated media distribution channels, such as Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the Washington Times, et al.
In the first quarter of 2002 alone, Heritage Foundation policy experts briefed three Cabinet secretaries, 33 senators, 48 members of Congress and 164 senior administration officials. Increasingly these policy experts are being groomed to push their ideas in the media directly. In 2002, according to the Heritage Foundation's annual report, as many of their policy experts were seen on television in a single year as during the entire 1990s. They appeared on more than 600 television broadcasts, more than 1,000 radio broadcasts, and in approximately 8,000 articles and editorials.
With dedicated channels, sound-bite content and expert spokespeople in the mainstream media, conservatives are retailing their ideas directly to the public or in marketing terms, the "end user." At the same time, in terms of direct marketing through the media, Republicans have managed to intimidate Democrats from competing with them by creating the "liberal media" myth, effectively forcing Democrats into a defensive position.
When we fail to view the world through the conservative business lens, we can easily see all of this as a vast rightwing conspiracy. However if we recall the frame of the marketplace of ideas, then we see it for it is: a well-run operation that recognized its weakness -- a less desirable product -- and figured out a way to dominate in the marketplace through an incredibly successful, integrated marketing strategy. Branded by the right and blind-sided by the conservative marketing machine, for more than a decade Democrats have been running to the right and abandoning core progressive issues and values in an attempt to keep pace with conservatives. This has been completely the wrong response.
Conservatives, after all, are dominating through superior marketing, not with better ideas or policies. However, because Democrats have failed to grasp the root of the problem, they have reacted to the growing conservative dominance by trying to fit into a more conservative mold. This wrong-headed response has played into the hands of conservatives. Democrats have lost ground in the marketplace of ideas, and have helped to tarnish their brand, as the right and left alike branded them as "wafflers," "Republican-lite" and "spineless liberals."
What Democrats should have done was stick to their principles and progressive policies and develop an equally formidable marketing strategy. It's not too late.
For many progressives, thinking about marketing when it comes to policy is an anathema. Progressives like to believe that "the truth alone will set you free," and that facts and figures on the issues and persuasive arguments win elections. They confuse framing issues with spin. There's endless talk about "elevating the policy dialogue," when what they really need to do is to use plainspeak and frame issues in ways that resonate with Americans. Progressives hear branding and they outright cringe. It all seems so disingenuous. But do Americans wear Nikes? Eat at McDonalds? Drink Coke?
Conservatives don't make a move without considering marketing. Remember when White House chief of staff Andrew Card told the New York Times that the reason the administration waited until September to make its case for the war in Iraq was because, "from a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August"? Know how the founder of the Heritage Foundation explains how the conservative movement was built? He attributes its ascendancy to what he calls, "The four M's: mission, money, management and marketing."
It is time for the Democratic Party to recognize that they cannot stem the conservative tide by moving further to the right, by going about business as usual, or by denying the importance of marketing. Progressives have been betamaxed by conservatives, and the first step to recovery is recognizing the problem. If we want progressive ideas and policies to dominate in the marketplace of ideas then we have to start fighting fire with fire and thinking strategically like conservatives in terms of marketing.
Progressives have an enormous uphill battle before them. Conservatives have what is known in business as a "first-mover advantage;" they've been at this for more than 20 years. What it will take to counter the conservative movement is an aggressive, hard-hitting counterstrategy with a quick ramp-up, long-term resolve and sufficient resources.
The good news is that conservatives have kindly provided us with the roadmap to build a successful counter-movement. A progressive movement should be built upon the four M's: mission, money, management and marketing; plus one more, mobilization. Progressives need to compete on the same grounds as conservatives but draw upon the Democrat's unique advantages.
With a solid foundation already in place, as well as numerous competitive advantages and untapped resources, progressives can build a movement that genuinely reflects the preferences of the majority of Americans, while drawing upon the traditions of the great progressive reformers of the past. By seeing the conservative movement for what it is, a well-executed, successful strategy dominating through superior marketing, a clear path to build a progressive counter-movement emerges.
Laurie Spivak manages a UCLA research center devoted to the study of civil society, philanthropy, and nonprofit and grassroots organizations and movements. This article is adapted from her forthcoming book, "Counter-movement."