Re-branding the Democrats.

An advertising strategy for the coming political realignment.

Photo by Jon Tyson.

The election of 2016 feels like a million years ago and maybe that’s a mercy. The wounds were so jagged. Nevertheless, let me take you back to that unpleasant summer. Sometimes pain needs to come before healing.

Long before the conventions, or the surreal Trump rallies, or The Russians, whatever they were up to, I already had a sinking feeling about the election. The Republicans were hell-bent on self-immolation. But it was the Democrats that worried me.

The political advisors surrounding Hilary Clinton were certain they could score a tactical victory over the hapless Republicans. They’d screwed the lid onto her message so tightly it wasn’t getting any oxygen. Nowhere did I see the big emotional themes you need if you want to connect with the public.

Election eve came. As I was leaving the office two confident young women stepped into the elevator wearing their “I’m With Her” buttons. I said I wasn’t so hopeful. My plan was to mix a strong drink and be face down on the bed by the time the TV started broadcasting election returns.

It turned to be the right plan. Lying there, immobilized, I was a metaphor for the whole Democratic Party. It struck me as an unhealthy way to spend the next four years.

So as an exercise I’ve been thinking about a new branding strategy for the Democrats.

White space, and what it means for the Democrats.

In my world of advertising, when we need to fix a brand we start with what we call white space. It’s a simple concept. What territory does the competition occupy? What white space is left for us to own?

The term originated in graphic design, where white space refers to the part of the page left empty. A good designer believes the white space is as much a part of the design as the visual elements, and uses it to guide the eye and deftly focus attention. It’s an elegant way of thinking.

The idea of white space has come more recently to advertising and marketing, where it helps guide brand strategy. I’ve never heard the word used in the political sphere. Maybe it’s time.

The political landscape is a bleak place for the Democrats right now.

The white space available to the party is more hopeful. It may even be a generational opportunity. It’s like the song says. You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.

What the Democrats need right now is to stand for something. They already tried running on the thin gruel of pure, naked opposition to Donald Trump. It didn’t work out so well. The way things are going in the White House we don’t know if there’ll even be a President Trump to run against by 2018.

Obstruction is a useful and necessary tactic for the Democrats, but it can’t serve as a rallying cry for 2018 and beyond. To find that, the party needs to take advantage of the white space available to them. It’s loaded with opportunity because the Republicans have walked away from so much of what they once stood for.

Taking the high ground.

A good description of the ground newly available to the Democrats comes from former Republican policy advisor Max Boot, writing in the New York Times about his reasons for leaving his party. “The Republican Party was once the party of small government, free trade, traditional values, principled foreign policy leadership and, most important of all, adherence to the Constitution.” The operative word here is “once”.

Political thinking would suggest coming up with policy ideas to address all these opportunities. And that’s where the infighting would begin. We saw that happen when Democratic National Committee chairman Thomas Perez and Senator Bernie Sanders tried to put on a “Unity Tour” this spring. It came off like a Family Feud road show.

The beauty of thinking of the party as a brand instead of a political entity is we can sidestep that sort of dysfunction, at least long enough to start revitalizing the party. In advertising we succeed when we keep things simple. That doesn’t mean small. It frees us to think big. We can use the newly occupied high ground to craft a broadly inspiring message.

So let’s put the complicated policy arguments on hold for the moment and see what could actually work to guide the Democratic Party back from the political wilderness.

This is how I’d write the new brand position: The Democratic Party stands for truth, justice and American values.

That’s right, the Democrats get to be Superman.

I’m not joking.

Here’s why it can work.

Most of what you hear from the Republican Party boils down to one idea. Freedom. Free markets. The Freedom Caucus. The freedom to choose your own healthcare — unless, of course, you have the bad luck to be a cancer survivor or are no longer living in the healthy blush of youth. Freedom to walk into your kid’s daycare carrying an assault rifle and a banana clip.

The Republican focus on freedom is like a laser beam. Intense but narrow. And getting narrower with each new day they try to run the government. New York Times Columnist Gail Collins described the party’s fixation on making freedom their sole governing philosophy by remembering an old Janis Joplin lyric. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

So what does this leave for the Democrats to work with? A lot. Basically, all the ideas and principles that fit under the column heading E Pluribus Unum. That’s what I distilled into the new brand statement for the party.

Imagine Democratic candidates stepping up to the podium in hundreds of districts across the land and beginning a speech with this simple proposition. “The Republicans in Washington no longer care about truth, justice and American values, but I do.”

Such a speech could talk about fighting to re-establish a government that doesn’t routinely lie to its citizens. A government that doesn’t hide from bright scientific truth. A government that honors the First Amendment.

Then this speech could go on to talk about fighting for justice. Economic justice, combined with real economic growth where the jobs won’t disappear all over again during the next crisis. A determination to fight the injustice of throwing millions of our fellow citizens out of their healthcare plans. A determination to fight the injustice of voter suppression. The list goes on.

Then we come to fighting for American values. Our most important foundation narrative is that we are a nation of immigrants. Our great national treasure is the parks and national monuments every one of us is able to enjoy. Our idea of America as the city on the hill with the eyes of the entire world on it has been around as long as America itself. These are just three of the cherished ideals that the Republicans are tossing onto what Ronald Reagan once called the ash heap of history.

A speech built on these themes says a lot and gives listeners much to connect with emotionally. It says it all without getting tangled up in the issues that have been dividing the party. Democrats can still brutally hammer the opposition, but they can do it without making everything about Trump. Instead they’re speaking from the high ground of what their party stands for.

It’s time to think like marketers instead of politicians.

There are seismic shifts going on in the country’s political alignment. We’re deeply divided. But instead of pulling us apart, I think the effect is more like what happens when tectonic plates get shoved together. It shakes everything up. Old structures collapse. New fractures emerge. At some point we crawl out of the rubble and find the political landscape altered in ways no one quite expected.

If I might torture the geological metaphor a bit further, picture what happens if one of these tectonic plates manages to slide on top of the other. That’s how mountains are formed. This is what I’m proposing here. It’s the sort of repositioning a handful of leaders frustrated with the intractable debate over slavery managed in the 1850s, when they formed the Republican Party. In a less high-minded realignment, it’s what Nixon did with his Southern strategy to shake segregationists loose from their longstanding insistence on always voting for Democrats.

Can the Democratic Party pull off a re-branding on this order of magnitude? I think so. That is, if they stop thinking like a traditional political party. The political instinct is to cater to narrow interest groups and work to hammer them together into a base of power. This is where the Democrats are getting stuck. Do they chase after Bernie Sanders supporters? Do they try to win back the lunch bucket voters that went for Trump? These seem like zero sum choices so the party ends up immobilized for fear of getting it wrong.

Thinking like a marketing organization reverses the calculus. You start with the biggest opportunity out there. Then figure out how your organization needs to adapt to take advantage of it. The work starts out at a high conceptual level, then proceed on to the tactical.

It’s a useful perspective for the fix the Democrats now find themselves in. Fighting for truth, justice and American values gives the party the answer it needs for those asking what Democrats stand for. It offers big, symbolic themes to use in crafting messages that rally core supporters and inspire new supporters.

These same themes also help the party push deeper into difficult issues. One of the finest American values is our belief in a Constitution built out of checks and balances. The Republicans have trouble with the idea of balance because they’ve turned themselves into a party of absolutists. The Democrats can use the idea of balance to broker the honest discussion of divisive issues the country so desperately needs.

The famous example is that freedom of speech doesn’t give us the right to shout “fire” in a crowded theater. Taking the idea of balance further, the haters out there have the right to speak their minds. But we also have the responsibility to shout back our conviction that we’re not going to allow hate speech to divide our society. The Second Amendment gives citizens the right to bear arms. But we also have the right to walk down the street without fear of getting shot by some nutcase who thinks he’s living in Tombstone circa 1881. Women have the right to control their own reproductive systems. But people of good conscious also have the right to have differing opinions about something as important and mysterious as when life begins. None of these are treated as absolute rights by our constitutional system. None of them can be.

The idea of balancing constitutional rights one against another may be one of the most important values the Democrats can bring to our public conversation right now.

Staying on brand.

Working to a brand position makes it possible for the Democrats to be principled in their opposition strategy, rather than merely switching places with the Republicans as the new party of “No”. Think about how the decision to oppose the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch as a Supreme Court Justice might have played out differently if the party had managed to put some more inspiring language behind it. The outcome might not have changed, but running the argument for opposing Judge Gorsuch through a brand filter of truth, justice and American values would have at least made the opposition meaningful. It could have been as simple as, “We oppose Judge Gorsuch because he is not sufficiently centerist to overcome the violation of American values that occurred when the Republicans stole a Supreme Court seat.” The party is going to lose battles like this. Given their lack of actual political power, a lot of them. The idea is to have a strong enough message to eventually win the war.

In the same way the brand filter can be used to decide whether the party should join a bi-partisan effort for something it believes in, such as a plan to rebuild infrastructure. If it’s an honest plan, certainly. If it’s nothing but another con job meant to enrich the president’s billionaire cronies, then no. Decisions like this become more clear when they’re about staying on brand, rather than wondering what sort of political tactic will work.

Ultimately, this isn’t about pushing the party to the left or right, or even to the center. It’s treating the majority of potential voters like a good brand treats its customers. Listening to them. Respecting them. Connecting with them emotionally.

I’ve seen that this sort of thinking can accomplish. A similar sort of long-running strategy created by the ad agency I work for guided Harley-Davidson back from near bankruptcy a few decades ago, to a brand famous for inspiring unshakable loyalty. This is what I believe is possible for the Democratic Party.

Note: this is longer and more serious than my usual writing so if you’ve made it all the way to the end, thanks. Please do me the bigger favor of helping get it out into the world with shares, recommends, etc. Even better, hit reply and add your own ideas.