A Return to Liberalism's Jeffersonian Roots
the oldest political committee in the world elects a new
chairman this week in meetings at the Washington Hilton,
the Democratic Party faces a problem common to venerable
institutions: a loss of brand equity.
the marketplace, a brand is a story wrapped around a product
to differentiate it from similar stuff, so you feel good
when you buy for more reasons than just the utilitarian.
Nikes aren't feet covers, they're coolness. My Jeep isn't
transportation, it's a toy for a middle-aged boy.
Democratic Party label -- a two-century-old moniker -- is
suffering a branding dilemma similar to the Episcopal Church
after the 1950s. You didn't go to the American branch of
the Church of England just to visit God. Being Episcopalian
was a statement about your old-line, blue blood. But then,
along came the egalitarian, meritocractic '60s, and Episcopalian
membership no longer had cachet. Professor James Twitchell
points out in his recent "Branded Nation" that church membership
slumped from 3.6 million in the 1960s to 2 million today.
in the agrarian era of its founder, Thomas Jefferson, the
Democratic Party's original story was of a small central
government serving self-sufficient "little people" (farmers,
shop keepers, frontiersmen), prizing and preserving individual
liberty -- juxtaposed against the elitist federalists, and
their monarchical, big central government ambition.
Democratic Party story was refashioned in the industrial
era, particularly with arrival of the New Deal, when one-size-fits-all,
central authority, wealth-redistributive policies were appealing
to those little guys. Most of them had traded self-sufficiency
for wage labor. Their economic lives revolved around big
impersonal corporations, against which they were represented
by big labor.
in a post-industrial, information economy, the little guys,
who Democrats have always claimed to represent, are again
more self-sufficient, empowered to make -- tailor-make,
in fact -- choices for themselves. (I built my own Nikes
online; a hundred pairs at Foot Locker weren't enough.)
The "Central Authority Solutions" story offered by Democrats,
from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, lost luster. That's
especially true with regard to economic issues. On the other
hand, when it comes to lifestyle and personal choices --
the social-cultural issue frame -- the party still has some
juice left from that original Jeffersonian story, which
made individual liberty central to party ID.
still vote Democratic, of course -- they still buy the product
-- but the old-time Democratic religion has lost its revivalist
energy. Nowhere is that reflected more than in the abandonment
of the party's auxiliary label, "liberal."
that with Republicans, who universally embrace an ideology
by name. Whether you're a libertarian, balanced-budget,
Neo-Con, or religious right Republican, you call yourself
"stickiness" (as marketplace brand managers would call it)
of the Republican Party label is in the story enthusiastically
shared by Republicans of all stripes: government, with its
taxes and regulation, is the problem, not the solution.
could reduce the GOP brand to this: "Government bad. America
good. The marketplace will provide. In God we trust. Equal
opportunity, but not equal outcomes, for all."
the story behind today's Democrat brand?
a Democrat, but I'm not sure. I believe it's something like:
"Government isn't all that bad; look at Social Security
and Head Start. America isn't always that good, we try to
impose our will on a multicultural world. The marketplace
is full of bad guys who need to be restrained. Hey, we're
religious, too. And redistributive social justice for all,
because, except for me and my friends, racism endures."
in the center find some of each party's message appealing,
some appalling. The last two presidential elections and
the partisan split in Congress prove it.
what you will about each message -- the Republican story
has clarity going for it. The Democratic narrative sounds
like a John Kerry speech -- a little of this, a little of
wasn't always so. From Jefferson, to Jackson's Democracy,
the party of the people had an energizing little-government-for-the-little-guy
ideology, firing up the base and attracting the center.
And from FDR to LBJ, the message was clear: We'll use government
to protect the little guy from those greedy bastards.
usual prescriptions for party renewal come in two forms.
like the Democratic Leadership Council, propose triangulation
tactics that divert the attention of persuadable voters
from the Washington-based politics of interest and identity
group-dominated left liberals. DLC Democrats offer government
as a tool to provide middle-class economic opportunity,
not an end. They've been good at talking to the center,
but haven't offered an energizing philosophy for the base.
And their foreign policy increasingly sounds neo-conservative.
second approach, offered by the reactionaries heavily represented
in the party's congressional wing, preaches a return to
an "old-time religion," "complete-the-New-Deal" ideology.
That might have made sense once. But it is mismatched for
today's educated voters, who want to make decisions from
their homes, or at least their states. Economic left liberals
often peddle a kind of middle-class neo-populism (Gore 2000,
Edwards 2004), a William Jennings Bryan appeal to folks
with SUVs and satellite TV. Old-time religion fires up the
base, but leaves the center cold.
need something radically different from those too tired
story-lines. We need to stop fooling ourselves that we lose
because the GOP outguns us with money and tactics. Terry
McAuliffe did the party a huge favor by putting to rest
that nonsense. We're losing because of message.
our Jeffersonian roots, we have the glue to make the brand
sticky again. The new desktop-empowered generation, turned
on by Republican economic choice, but turned off by the
social-cultural intolerance of the GOP Taliban wing, could
embrace Democrats if we return to our founder's philosophy
-- a back-to-the-future Jeffersonian liberalism.
who said the government that governs least governs best,
knew the era of big government was over before Bill Clinton
proclaimed it. If we listen to the man from Monticello,
who advocated "peace, commerce and honest friendship with
all nations, but entangling alliances with none," we can
rediscover our anti-war, anti-interventionist nerve. We
can be as insistent as Republicans that pluralistic democracy
and free markets are noble and worth emulating; but we must
equally assert that they be spread by example, not force.
can be an inspiration to our candidates, who need a better
way to talk about religion and politics. Instead of mumbling
about restoring faith to public life, Democrats can find
the courage to say what we believe: We protect religious
liberty by keeping God out of government. Our Founders knew
that; there is not a single reference to God in the Constitution.
need a new story. Here's rough cut: "Government: Assure
liberty by staying as far away as possible from our bank
accounts, our bedrooms and our bodies. Spread pluralistic
democracy and free markets by example, not by force. Restore
the moral authority of the mid-20th century civil rights
movement, by fashioning public policy around individuals,
not tribal identity groups."
a message that can inspire a 21st century base and attract
voters who believe both parties are obsolete.
Michael is a former press secretary for the DNC. He directs
Center for Politics & Journalism. This article first
appeared in the Washington
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