Angry Old Party

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

On the eve of tonight’s last Presidential debate, I though it might be interesting to muse a bit about brands and politics…and how the two influence one another.

I know a lot has been said about the amount of rancor evident at Republican rallies, which seems to have surprised even John McCain. He has found himself contending with supporters he desperately needs…emoting angry nonsense he can’t tolerate.

From stating that Obama is "an arab" who will usher in an era of "socialism" in America, to mad rants about how the ticket needs to "get tough" with the Democrats, the declarations from the faithful suggest that some, if not many, of the Republicans are less "grand" than they are plain angry. 

Republicans aren’t the only ones, though: everyone is mad, and we’re mad at everything. The economy. War. Bad weather. The alarm clock this morning. It doesn’t matter, really. People get mad at any given moment during any given day. Whether it’s the driver in front of you who is camped out on a cellphone, or the injustice of home foreclosure or clubbing baby seals (or just the nagging sense that modern life specifically is as unfair as the human condition generally), anger is ever-present in our lives.

Congressman Tip O’Neill famously said "all politics is local." I’d suggest that it’s more like "all politics is scapegoating," as the key to getting elected over the past few decades, especially nationally, has been to tap into this sentiment, and do so by focusing it on a cause.

We vote against things far more easily than we do for them. You need a positive platform of promises, for sure, but political action is more often about stopping something rather than doing something. We vote for someone because they promise to stop someone else from doing what they promise to do.

It’s no different than the motivators for many of our product and services purchases. We buy things to help stop, fix, avoid, or work around problems. A marketing great once said that he’d rather be in the business of "selling aspirin instead of vitamins."

This fact of life has served the Republican Party well over the years, as its philosophy — its brand — has always been about limited intervention in markets, lower taxes, and strict judicial constructionism. At last at a national level, Americans have regularly opted for the candidate who spoke about getting out of the way of individual initiative (even though at the more local levels, where individual effort can be effectively seen and impacted, folks have generally tended to vote Democratic, so go figure).

But, ever since Nixon, the Republican brand has fit the exigencies of Presidential politics: vote for us because you’ll stop the other guy from doing harm to the country. Nixon wasn’t content with scapegoating his opponent, though. He created an us vs. them narrative that positioned a common folk — his "silent majority" — against the rich intellectuals and those who would otherwise disagree with him.

This was base politics, because it allowed people to channel their inherent anger against not just an individual candidate, but against an imagined group or class of evil-doers, who were committed to ruining their lives (and destroying the American Way). Nixon looked beyond the standard reasons that separated people — religion, income, region — and invented an imaginary conflict that is symbolized today in the colors red versus blue.

This approach has grown and morphed over the years; in fact, it has been codified into all those TV maps of "red states" and "blue states." The Republican anger machine has expanded to target (in no particular order): gays, illegal immigrants, non-believers, the plaintiff bar, supporters of abortion rights, the media, unions, scientists, anybody who lives in a city…all of which are bluish, even if they don’t necessarily look it.

Now, the enemies are greedy Wall Streeters, corrupt Washingtonians and, of course, Barak Obama and his minions of communist/terrorist supporters. And there’s no common-ground for debating this fact; no forgiveness, nor quarter in the battle to defend America against the bad guys.

I’d suggest that the recent outbursts at McCain events are evidence that this political strategy has gotten disconnected from the brand it was intended to further. More pointedly, when did the Republican Party brand get overtaken by reactionaries and crackpots?

It makes the Democrats seem downright sensible by comparison, and that’s no mean feat.

I’m not a fan of how the Obama team has run its campaign, and I don’t agree with the reactionary nutcase ideas propagated by the Far Left. But, in this election cycle, I think the Democrats have benefited greatly (if not mostly) from being something other than the Republicans. Full stop.

It doesn’t help that the media machine that supports this evolution of the Republican Party  — Fox News, along with all of the bloviators and think tankers who wouldn’t exist without the charade of a "culture war" — can’t get beyond stoking nutcase anger with more nonsense, and more spin.

They’ve effectively backed themselves into a corner by claiming that everyone else in the entire world is against them. There’s no such thing as disagreement or debate, as anything other than their truth is untruth. No wonder crazy people find their way to McCain events so they can chant "death to the Democrats!"

Like I said, everyone’s already angry. 

But the challenge is to tap into that reality without losing sight of why…or of what your brand becomes by doing so.

So it will be interesting to see which candidate shows up to the debate tonight: will it be John McCain the true Republican maverick, or McCain the standard-bearer for the insane? 

It would be great to watch him challenge Obama on the very strategic ideas that built the Republican brand, and not on the political tactics that are destroying it.

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