Scratch any neo-con and you’ll instantly hear the vision: “We want small government, low taxes and the government out of our lives.” Clear, crisp and compelling.
Scratch a progressive and you’ll hear paragraphs of theory and a rant that will make your eyes cross and will hurt your brain. And the message will change with each progressive you listen to, leaving you confused and reaching for something solid on which to steady yourself.
The righties have been selling their message consistently at least since Richard Nixon. He wanted to discredit the press – he called them the “eastern liberal press.” They were the people he saw through his paranoia as always attacking him. So, he had his felon vice-president Spiro T. Agnew call them “nattering nabobs of negativity” and Agnew used that moniker over and over. It didn’t matter whether people knew what a nabob was, because the message that the press can’t be trusted got through. And it is continuing to get through.
The attack on the press (now the “media”) has most recently and shrilly been blared through the snarling lips of Sarah Palin, who calls the press the “lamestream media,” which is odd, since she is a regular on Fox News, making her part of the “lamestream media.”
The press used to be called the Fourth Estate. It was seen as a de facto check on government and was trusted to do that job. Not so much any more, though, after 44 years of being slimed by the self-appointed Republican attack machine.
Ronald Reagan was up front in selling distrust of government. He told us that the nine most feared words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” He played into people’s stereotyped attitudes and frustrations and got himself elected as the head of the government, strangely doing this by denouncing government.
He told us he was for small government, low taxes and the government out of our lives. Then he set about massively increasing government, raising taxes twelve times and building national debt that surpassed all other presidents combined. Yet strangely, he’s still remembered as the president who was for small government and low taxes. That disconnect can be traced to neo-cons selling the Reagan image (not the substance) consistently for twenty-four years, so that few Americans hear the lie and realize that the Republicans are largely responsible for the terrible economic situation in which Americans find themselves and their country today.
At the most recent Republican primary debate one of the candidates used the post office as an example of government failure and illustrative of how we don’t want government running our healthcare. The South Carolina Republican audience loved it, even though the post office is a model of low cost mail delivery that consistently produces excellent results. It was fiscally solvent until the Republicans required it to fully fund the pensions of workers not yet born. Furthermore, the government runs Medicare and nobody on Medicare – not a single person – will say they don’t like it. Still, the image of government bungling and inefficiency sells to an already jaded public.
The point is that the Republicans have had great success in keeping their hands on power by selling a clear, crisp and compelling vision in a clear, crisp and compelling way. And they have done that while pursuing exactly the opposite of what they promise. To be sure, that dichotomy is not solely the province of Republicans; however, what is most important to learn is the excellence of their messaging. It sells. It gets votes. It wins elections.
People have chuckled for decades over Will Rogers’ declaration, “I’m not a member of an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” Somehow, that isn’t quite as funny today, when America is desperate for organization around a clear, crisp and compelling vision that is worthy of us and doesn’t pander to extremists.
We’re struggling through the largely fact-free world of politics with little but lies and distortion to be seen. It’s time the progressives got it together to produce a clear, crisp and compelling message to go along with a clear and vibrant strategy. The best products don’t always win, but the best marketing does.
Copyright 2019 by Jack Altschuler
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