Monday, March 4, 2019

BTRTN: Hey, Democrats... stop with the "Democratic Socialism." Try "Progressive Capitalism."

Bernie is back, and Steve is terrified that he is going to drag all the candidates down by allowing the smart ideas and policies of the Democratic Party to be tarred by terrible branding.

Democrats are haunted by the parallels between the elections of 2000 and 2016.

In both cases, the White House had been occupied for the prior eight years by charismatic and generally popular presidents. Both of those Presidents – Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – had inherited moribund economies and turned them around, triggering periods of sustained economic growth. During neither presidency did the United States embark on a major new war. Both left office with high approval ratings. Both were generally successful presidencies, and therefore represented perfect opportunities for the Democratic Party to retain the White House.

And yet, in both cases, the Democrats nominated wooden policy wonks who lacked the charisma and appeal of the two Presidents, causing both races to be far closer than one would have expected. Both of those nominees – Al Gore and Hillary Clinton – actually  won the popular vote, but managed to lose the in the electoral college. Both lost to under-qualified and unprepared hip-shooters who utterly lacked the seriousness and gravitas we expect in our Presidents. (In retrospect, Donald Trump makes George Dubya seem like a modern-day Winston Churchill, but it was not that long ago that 43 defined Nitwit-in-Chief).

While not exactly déjà vu all over again, there is a terrifying elephant in the room today: we are going into another election in which one should fully expect the Democrat to re-take the White House, and yet we are all experiencing a mass form of pre-traumatic stress disorder. We are petrified with angst that the Democrats will find a way to blow another seemingly certain win.

Allow me, if you will, to identify one way that the Democrats can manage to load six live rounds into a revolver prior to playing Russian Roulette.

That will happen if Democrats allow Bernie Sanders to brand the progressive agenda as “Democratic Socialism.”

Make no mistake: it is picking up steam. Hey, AOC herself has grabbed onto it, so the odds are that some entrepreneur is designing a “Democratic Socialist” merchandising catalog right this minute, with a stylized logo that features a hyooooooge black line through a graphic reading “one percent.” 
Once upon a time, I made recommendations to executives in Fortune 500 companies about how they could most effectively position their brands in crowded, competitive marketplaces. “Positioning a brand” means to give it a unique, powerful, and credible meaning that enables consumers to know exactly what they are getting, and getting exactly what they want. Think, if you will, of brands like BMW, which has promised its customers “the ultimate driving machine” for over 40 years.

Based on this experience, I am convinced that positioning a candidate as a “Democratic Socialist” is a really bad branding idea. Don’t get me wrong: I think Bernie Sanders has actually put his finger on the most critical issues facing our country. But he is giving his proposed solutions a terrible brand identity. There is shooting yourself in the foot, and then there is placing your torso directly in front of the howitzer. This is one of those unusual instances in which a rose by any other name actually smells like a rotting skunk in August.
Let’s start with deconstructing exactly why “democratic socialist” is a terrible idea.There are three issues at play. 

The first: I wager that a majority of Americans cannot tell you the difference between “socialism” and “communism,” and that if you actually tried to explain it, their eyes would glaze over and they would swivel back to re-runs of season four of “Real Housewives of Atlanta.”

They couldn’t care less about some political scientist’s nuance. They will just assume that the Democratic candidate who self-identifies as a “socialist” is a communist.

And that is before Donald Trump starts handing out nicknames like “Bernie the Commie” or a hybrid slam like “Nikita Pocahontas.” Out there in Red City, the capital of Red State, people know that Ronald Reagan stood up to that Russian guy and told him to “tear down that wall,” because communism is terrible. Or maybe it was socialism. Either. Both.  What-EV-verrr!  

And while they may not see the difference, they have deep convictions that socialism is not a form of government that fits with their vision of America. In places like Big Spring, Texas – two hours west of Abilene on the way to Odessa -- “socialism” is the exact opposite of what generations of people have come to view as the American spirit and the American dream. There, and in so many communities across the country, people believe that hard work earns an honest day’s pay, and they don’t believe in government “hand-outs” and “freebies,” even if you were to tactfully point out that many residents depend on Medicare and social security. Independence – or perhaps, more specifically, non-dependence – is a very proud and defining element in the genetic code in these parts.

My discussion today is not about economics, it is about branding. Bernie Sanders may think that “Democratic Socialism” describes a more fair and more just economic philosophy, but as a branding platform, it is a disaster. It will repel the very people Democrats need to convince before they even consider the specific proposals being advanced.

The second reason for disposing of this branding device is actually more significant: “Democratic Socialism” is a misleading description of the economic policies that we need to put in place to correct our society and our economy. 

To be clear, Bernie is right about a lot of things. Despite a robust economy, we have what he would label a hyooooooge economic problem. Income equality and wealth inequality are creating a society in which the benefits of that economic vitality accrue to a smaller and smaller sliver of “haves,” and the vast majority of Americas feel very little benefit from economic growth. Rising tides no longer raise all boats.

The many roots of this problem – the loss of manufacturing jobs to automation and cheaper overseas labor, a broad failure of our education system to prepare workers for a technology economy, tax policies that favor the wealthy, and public markets that only value short term financial performance – are complex and defy simple solutions.

For decades, Republicans have claimed that the best way to address this problem is through “trickle down” economics… the theory that policies that provide advantages to wealthy individuals and corporations will result in greater spending and therefore serve to provide benefits and stimulus across all economic strata. This idea has proven to be startlingly resilient given the utter absence of proof that it is true and growing body of evidence that rich people and companies simply put the money back in their own pockets.

In fact, “trickle-down economics” don’t even trickle. This bogus theory may be one of the biggest reasons for the acute concentration of wealth in our country. It helps explain how the one percent became the  one percent, and how the middle class has been oppressed by the wealthy.

But the failure of “trickle-down economics” should not be equated with a failure of capitalism.

In the 1950s, a churning engine of capitalism drove an incredible surge of economic opportunity and well-being among the very people Democrats want to help: the lower and middle classes. David Halberstam detailed in his book “The Fifties” how the lessons of mass production learned in provisioning the armed forces in World War II were applied to American industries from housing to fast food, clothing to hotels. The tidal wave of infrastructure, investment, and rapid growth created upward mobility at every economic level.

Most interesting: this was also a period of massive government spending at federal, state, and local levels, largely on the infrastructure needed for a rapidly growing society. Government was not “socialism,” it was a vital cog in the capitalist engine that powered the economic boom. The government built the interstate highway system, which itself created jobs… but the interstate highway system enabled companies like UPS to grease the wheels of interstate commerce. Decades later, Jeff Bezos could make a zillion dollars because the government, UPS, and FedEx had already built the distribution system required for internet commerce.

Oh, and that internet thing? The government built that, too. Google Arpanet and get the whole story.

And yes, back then, policies and practices were in place that fought income inequality. The disparity in wages between top management and rank and file employees was far less pronounced. Tax rates on high incomes were higher than today.

A critical final point: government has a vital role in ensuring that capitalism “plays fair.” Government breaks up monopolies, prohibits child labor, regulates commerce, and – one hopes – ensures that we do not leave an uninhabitable planet for our children. Government does not exist outside of or in opposition to capitalism. One of its most crucial roles is to make sure that capitalism works for everybody.

Capitalism is not the enemy, Bernie. It will be a vital part of the solution to the illness in our one-percent society. The challenge and the opportunity for the next Democratic administration is not to demonize capitalism as the root cause of income and wealth inequality, it is to make capitalism work for the lower and middle class.

Just like it did in the decades following World War II.

What Dems need to do is reframe the argument. The problem with our economy is that now it only works for the most wealthy segment of our population. Democrats must advocate capitalism that works to help the poor and raise the middle class.

Sure, Beto, give it a name. Call it a partnership between government and the private sector that is focused on the middle class. Call it “inclusive capitalism.” Call it  “progressive capitalism.”

It is capitalism and government that work together to invest in infrastructure projects that employ the people who used to work in Ford plants, and to build the next generation of enabling infrastructure that leads to new industries and new jobs down the road.

It is capitalism and government that work together to create the equivalent of a peace corps for young people who agree to go into economically ravaged towns to help improve educational systems at all levels.

It is capitalism and government that work together to create the equivalent of a G.I. bill to educate the young people who donate their time and services.

It is capitalism and government that work together to invest heavily in retraining to fill new economy jobs.

It is capitalism and government that work together to stimulate emerging growth markets like renewable energy.

It is capitalism and government that finally figure out a tax code that does not reward wealth and privilege, but seeks to balance the tax burden more equitably. Perhaps a tax code that reminds the wealthy that they have benefited not only from their brains and hard work, but also from a substantial investment once made by tax payers. Hey, Jeff Bezos, how many of your zillion dollars is the result of the tax payers’ investment in the original Arpanet and the Interstate Highway System? Somebody paid it forward to your generation of billionaires. Seems only fair that you all provide for the next.

Perhaps it is even capitalism and government that work together to figure out how to make affordable healthcare available for all without a single payer system, while not forcing our overburdened hospital emergency rooms to serve as the default healthcare solution for the uninsured. Give that a name too. “ObamaCare” has a nice ring to it.

Yes, Bernie, a lot of this is stuff you are already talking about. You have the right product. You have just given it a terrible name.

And yet – and this is the scary part -- there is yet a third reason why “Democratic Socialism” would be a branding disaster for Democrats.

For some inexplicable reason, Donald Trump decided to make the issue of border security and undocumented aliens the centerpiece of his campaigning efforts in the 2018 mid-terms. In so doing, he completely failed to market the biggest achievement he can claim for his administration – a sizzling economy, bull markets, and low unemployment.

If the Democrats push “Democratic Socialism,” they will be reminding Donald Trump to talk more about his stewardship of the economy. They will be giving Trump a giant crowbar he can use to bang you over the heads of every Democratic candidate. They will be framing the 2020 debate on terms that are most favorable to Trump.

You already got a glimpse of that in the State of the Union. Here’s the quote from Trump: 

“Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. … Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.” 

Hey, Bernie, how does it sound to hear that from the Over-Simplifier-in-Chief? Trump is going to take your big branding idea and weaponize into a Gatling gun of twitter outrage, pasting “socialist” onto every single candidate in the Democratic party.

Please don’t create the mechanism that enables Donald Trump to finally figure out that his very best re-election message is that he is sitting on a roaring capitalist economy, and his opponents all want to make the United States a “socialist country.”

It's too late for Bernie to turn his back on “Democratic Socialism.” He created it, he owns it, and he will ride it to yet another round of primary defeats. And if there is one great big juicy irony in all of this, it is that Bernie Sanders is not even a Democrat. He is an independent. Dear heaven, don’t get me going on what Donald Trump could do with that.

But AOC, think twice before jumping on this particular bandwagon. You have a bright future. Don’t chain it to a terrible branding gimmick.

As for the rest of you – Beto, Kamala, Biden, Booker --  Bernie is right about the issue. It is not impeachment, Mueller, Putin, lying, the Wall, or the terrible haircuts on Don Junior and Kim Jong-Un. It is figuring out how to get the engines of a strong economy working for all Americans… not just the sliver at the very top.

There’s already an enormous amount of good thinking on policy to achieve that goal.

And it is a very good idea to market your ideas, beliefs, and specific policy proposals under a meaningful, powerful, and believable brand identity.

But “Democratic Socialism” is not it.

Perhaps give “Progressive Capitalism” a try.

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