A few years ago, the 7-Up soft drink company ran a successful ad campaign branding itself the “un” cola. This defied the conventional advertising wisdom that argued one could not successfully define a product in the negative—by focusing on what it is not. The paradoxical success of the 7-Up campaign offers a ray of hope for the Democrats, who either by skillful design, or bumbling accident, have defined themselves as America’s “un” political party. The only thing that voters understand about Democrats is that they are not Republicans.
Recent polls found that while the public lost confidence in President Bush, Democrats had fallen even further out of favor—only 34 percent of the electorate had positive feelings about them versus 38 percent for the Republicans. Voters know that the Dems oppose the policies of the Bush administration but they are unsure of what they offer to replace them with. For many, Democrats are best characterized as the party whose unifying slogan is, “Just say no.”
A review of the painful presidential race between John Kerry and George Bush reinforces this impression. Democrats picked Kerry because he supposedly was a safe choice; as compared to Howard Dean, Kerry was thought to be a predictable commodity, someone who could be trusted, by the Democratic powers-that-be, to reliably represent mainstream Democratic values. The problem was that these values were never made clear. Kerry’s campaign went through so many twists and turns that what most of us remember about him are not his values but the label, “flip flopper.” George Bush won because he stuck to his guns; while never overwhelmingly popular, he managed to portray himself as resolute, compared to Kerry.
As UC Berkeley Professor George Lakoff, and others, have pointed out, when American voters are asked about the core values of the Republican Party, they believe they know what they are: cutting taxes; strengthening national defense; reducing the role of government; and protecting the traditional family. The GOP has successfully hammered these themes into the American consciousness.
On the other hand, when the public ponders the core values of the Dems little comes to mind, merely the refrain that they are not Republicans. The tragedy, in the continuing saga of the Un Party, is that Democrats actually have a powerful story to tell if they return to their historic role as the defender of the interests of the average American. Such a stance builds upon the inherent populism of the party—it portrays Republicans as representing the rich and powerful and the Dems as defending the rest of us.
If they were to stake out this moral high ground—the true center of American democracy—then Democrats could elaborate four core values that would resonate with the voting public. First, they might differentiate themselves as the Party that tells the truth. Rather than harp on an ever-growing list of the ethical failings of the Bush administration, the Dems should focus on the fact that George Bush and company habitually lie and, therefore, cannot be trusted. Democrats should adopt the candor displayed by Howard Dean.
Based upon a foundation of truth telling, the Democrats could next make the case that they, not the GOP, are the true defenders of America. Dems might argue that since 9/11 the policies of the Bush administration have weakened the U.S.: their war on terror has failed; George’s war in Iraq has strengthened the hand of terrorists; and, Bush has ignored vital aspects of Homeland Security. Dems should propose a realistic program to protect America.
Democrats might also attack the Bush administration for shamelessly pandering to their base—the rich and powerful—while ignoring the needs of the rest of us. Republicans should be characterized as the party of plutocrats and administration policies revealed for what they are: assaults on common decency, deliberate attempts to destroy the social safety net. Dems should propose a real plan for social security and fund it by increasing taxes on the wealthy.
Finally, the Democrats could reestablish protection of the environment as a core value. Again, they might start with the fact that Republicans are not telling the truth: the Bush administration has misled the American public about the dangers of global warming, and dirty air and water. George Bush and company have deceived the electorate in order to favor the rich and powerful and, in so doing, have condoned the looting of America’s resources. Dems should strengthen environmental safeguards and propose a responsible energy plan.
Democrats have a powerful case to make but to do so they will have to return to their historic populism. It is one thing to label the Republicans as the party of deceit, the party that is willing to do anything so long as it benefits the rich and powerful. But it is quite another thing for Dems to stand up as the party that speaks the truth and doggedly defends the common good. By remembering who they are, they can find the strength to cease being the Un Party and become Democrats by deed as well as word.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer and activist. He can be reached at email@example.com.