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The irrelevance of the liberal 'brand'

There is perhaps no surer signal that Democrats are about to suffer a terrific defeat than to see liberals begin discussing how to define, redefine, or otherwise burnish their "brand." So far as I'm concerned, this falls firmly in the "doesn't matter" category of American politics. In 2004, all liberals could talk about was the power of the conservative brand, and George Lakoff became an icon because of it. In 2006 and 2008, better branding didn't save Republicans from being devastated in the polls, leading Democrats to the first 60-vote Senate majority since the 1970s. So much for brands.

But it is an excuse to discuss an interesting political science paper (pdf) a reader sent in. In it, Christopher Ellis and James Stimson try to untangle an apparent paradox at the heart of our political affairs: "We wish to understand why the American public, in the aggregate, supports 'liberal' public policies of redistribution, intervention in the economy, and aggressive governmental action to solve social problems, while at the same time identifies with the symbols -- and ideological label -- that rejects these policies." In other words, how does a country that self-identifies as conservative keep moving its policy to the left?

To figure it out, they pull together new sources of data to estimate ideological self-identification in the decades before pollsters routinely asked whether we were liberals or conservatives. Here's what they find:


Conservatism, in other words, always outpolled liberalism, but liberalism really collapses in the '60s. Their explanation for this isn't entirely satisfying. In effect, they say that the Great Society created some popular universal programs like Medicare, but also, in its efforts to fight poverty and assure civil rights, created "a new clientele of liberalism, the poor -- and the nonwhite." After that, they say, politicians who were liberals gave up on the label, and so conservatives were able to define it.

Maybe that's right. Maybe not. The polling data tell a general story about the term's decline rather than a specific story about the reason for the decline. But what the article makes clear is that it really doesn't matter. Consider this poll, taken on the eve of the 1936 election, when FDR won 60 percent of the vote and Democrats took almost 80 percent of the House of Representatives. It's a Gallup survey, and it asked, “If there were only two political parties in this country -- Conservative and Liberal -- which would you join?”


So on the eve of an overwhelming victory for liberalism -- a victory not just at the polls, but in policy -- the country still called itself conservative. In the decades after that, the country would call itself more conservative, but it would become more liberal. It would elect politicians to oversee the vast expansion of Social Security, and the passage of the civil rights bills, Medicare and Medicaid, welfare, the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It would march toward equality for both African Americans and women, and, it seems, for gays. It would even come to see conservatives defend both Medicare and Social Security as their own.

The word "liberal" is not popular, it has never been popular, and I do not expect that it ever will be popular. But liberalism -- and the politicians who support it -- are doing just fine. Not in any given election, of course, but over time. It's not obvious that a stronger brand has done much for the right, nor that it has seriously hampered the left. Branding might be important. But product matters more.

By Ezra Klein  | October 12, 2010; 9:31 AM ET
Categories:  Political Science  
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Next: Tom Toles is worth a thousand words


"(And the change would come astonishingly fast: with world-class pros in charge, we'd probably start seeing the first positive results within twelve to 18 months.)" -- Cohn.

So, Democrats don't need different policies geared towards a huge recession. We don't need to stand up for civil liberties. We don't need Medicare for all. All we need to do is rebrand and put the same "world-class pros in charge" that have advised the Democrats into this position.

And you wonder why actual liberals laugh at neoliberals.

Posted by: stonedone | October 12, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

None of that changes the fact that liberals have a branding problem.

More fundamentally, a solidarity and coherence of beliefs problem.

Call them something different if you like, but left-ish ideas aren't doing so well these days, and have been in slow decline since the 70s.

It's not enough to be right or good. A good product will sit on the shelf collecting dust if it's not packaged and sold.

Speaking as a liberal-east-coast-elitist-in-exile, I've heard enough highly educated high-minded people competing for the most logical, just or parsimonious policy position.

Time to really challenge yourselves, guys. Sell it to flyover country.

Posted by: itstrue | October 12, 2010 10:07 AM | Report abuse

Branding is all important at this stage. The question is not whether the Liberal Brand is tenable - 50 years of relentless assaults on it have ensured enough confusion to deflect many away from it. The real question is which brand should be employed. That needed brand is "Populist" - in not embracing it Democrats opened the door to allow the GOP to steal it away through the pseudo-populist Tea Party Movement.

Everything that is happening right now is based on brand, not product. Think about it - the GOP is promoting fiscal conservatism despite their own record while Democrats refuse to acknowledge they have been the only ones who actually governed w/ budgetary constraint despite their own record.

The GOP is driving both their own brand image and the Democrats' image at the same time and the Democrats have been completely unable to respond. More importantly, the GOP brand warfare has been going on since the day Obama took office and Democrats only awoke from their slumber last month.

Posted by: slahanas | October 12, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Liberal ideas weren't doing well before the Great Depression, nor for several years afterward. Yet as it became increasingly obvious that the nation needed Socialist-style reforms, and that the laissez-faire system had failed, liberal ideas became mainstream.

Posted by: stonedone | October 12, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

Liberalism has paralyzed the state. Great column by David Brooks about the public sector union largesse.

This situation, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, has been the Democratic Party’s epic failure. The party believes in the positive uses of government. But if you want the country to share that belief, you have to provide a government that is nimble, tough-minded and effective. That means occasionally standing up to the excessive demands of public employee unions. Instead of standing up to those demands, the party has become captured by the unions. Liberal activism has become paralyzed by its own special interests.

Posted by: krazen1211 | October 12, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

In other words, as I've often replied to polls in which conservatives out poll liberals, what this really says is that the word "conservative" is more popular than the word "liberal." In addition, it is clear that many people have little idea as to what either of these words mean. (Plus there is no single meaning with a variety of people falling under both labels)

Polls of liberal vs. conservative tell virtually nothing as to where people stand on the issues. It remains a question as to the degree to which being labeled liberal or conservative affects the electoral chances of any individual candidate.

Posted by: RonChusid | October 12, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

The primary recent example of how this works for liberals is that for most citizens/voters, there is no contradiction between being conservative and supporting medicare. After all, it already exists, we like it, so lets conserve it. In popular and media usage, for most people, liberal, moderate and conservative do not identify contrasting political programs, but contrasting political temperaments and sometimes, caricatures. Thus, many people who are in fact, supporters of what is, in fact, a liberal political program define themselves as moderates or even conservatives. They see liberal politicians as people who either want more change or faster change than they want, or as wanting too much federal power, or being suppposedly too liberal with tax dollars, or socially too liberal. OTOH, many persons who, like myself, self-identify as liberals actually do see it as a political philosophy, but as a political philosophy, it is not really the opposite of conservatism. After all, Edmund Burke was a Whig, not a Tory, and he liked our revolution, just not the French one. However, insofar as liberalism and conservatism do get identified in the media as opposites, they then become political code for being either on the left or on the right so that everyone on the left becomes a liberal and everyone on the right becomes a conservative, which works in favor of the right, even though many of those on the right would be more accurately described as reactionaries. This is especially helpful to the GOP in this political year since they can all be against something and paper over they are not all for the same thing. Thus, reactionaries who really want to get rid of medicare can gain the support of conservative senior voters opposed to Obamacare by using the supposed (non-existent) threat to medicare posed by Obamacare, which is itself the product of a temperamentally conservative president with a liberal political philosophy. Thus, ironically, while Obama's temperamental conservatism led him to accept a more moderate, or even conservative, version of health care reform than many on the left wanted, thus causing him a problem there, those on the political right saw it as, or became convinced to see it as, some sort of European social democracy which it was not. Interestingly, while more voters identify as conservative than as liberal, more voters also identify as Democrats than as Republicans. Thus, I think the key for us liberals is to identify politially as Democrats, however frustrating that may often be, and to treat the political opposites not as left/right or liberalism/conservatism, but as Democratic/Republican, and to promote our political program as being in the tradition of the great reforms brought about by the Democratic Party that have made life much better for the average person, which is something that the average person believes to be true.

Posted by: gregspolitics | October 12, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

Redistribution and intervention in the economy are easy. On the redistribution, you can't call it redistribution when the top one or two percent are getting a better deal than the rest of us. Why can't I defer taxes on my profits? Why can't I have a bunch of (tax-loophole) subsidiaries in the Caiman's, and elsewhere to get over on billions in taxes every year? And you know they're still hiding money in offshore accounts. You know what the rich say, paying taxes is for suckers. The only redistribution I see is from the bottom up.. And on the intervention in the economy, we've never had a free market system to begin with, so how can you not intervene. Just look at our trade policies, they've got it set up so the U.S. can't even compete. And I won't even get into the stock market, you know as well as I do that that whole damn set up is one big manipulating Mafia operation. The money makes its into or Govt. and the people on the bottom get screwed again. I've got to laugh when the Republican preach that free-market Bull. They mean free to rob the American people. Just look what happened under Bush. Oh yeah, naked short selling is good for the market. Greed has taken over this country.

Posted by: HemiHead66 | October 12, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

I dislike the way the the information in the liberal vs conservative graph is presented. Since the x axel doesn't start with 0 it does look, like conservative has a lot bigger lead on liberal than it really does. Sure, one could argue that it's clear that the graph starts at 15. But in reality your mind will still trick you.

So I did modify it a bit.

Posted by: PJx45 | October 12, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

Labeling people as "liberal" or "conservative" is much like saying "left handed" and "right handed," and about as meaningful.

Just as us right-handed people find our own left hands really valuable, actually, in reality these pure, ideological categories are of no use for about 95% of the population about 95% of the time.

I'm definitely liberal, conservative, libertarian, rash, thoughtful, quick, slow, etc.

Really, this us vs them nonsense is such a profound waste of time.

In the end, we'll value and integrate all the good ideas, from all sources, or just be impoverished.

Meanwhile, most Americans will quite sensibly be "liberal" and "conservative" everyday, as they always have been, and if lucky, won't travel down the intellectual dead-end of this stupid dichotomy.

Posted by: HalHorvath | October 12, 2010 5:10 PM | Report abuse

: "We wish to understand why the American public, in the aggregate, supports 'liberal' public policies of redistribution, intervention in the economy, and aggressive governmental action to solve social problems,

The problem with liberals: they are insane

Posted by: pihto999 | October 12, 2010 8:23 PM | Report abuse

The problem is not with the branding. Democrats branded the bejeezus out of Barrack Obama in the months leading up to the election. Hope and Change. Greek columns. The oceans receding and the lands healing. Messaging on Twitter and Youtube.

The problem with the Democrat platform isn't that they don't have a brand. It's that people are disillusioned by what they got after buying the brand. They didn't sign up to strong-arm banks and still not manage the mortgage crisis. They didn't sign up to take over a car company and put up an electric car that gets fewer real combined miles than a car with an all-gas engine that costs half as much. They didn't sign up for "post-partisan" politics that involves the US President openly smearing political opponents and even news pundits. They didn't sign up for legislation that raises health care costs, raises the deficit, and requires people by law to purchase a private product. They didn't sign up for trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye could see.

The problem isn't the brand; it's the agenda.

Posted by: TheSchaef | October 12, 2010 9:38 PM | Report abuse

I really don't care much about the liberal label. I care more about working people making at least $10 an hour these days of the second Republiklan party generated depression so go here.

Posted by: WWWoDEMOCRATZoORG | October 13, 2010 1:43 AM | Report abuse

I don't think the liberal "brand" is irrelevant, especially in today's sound bite media culture. What is effective about conservative branding is that it fits on a bumper sticker, whether or not it actually makes sense or works. And those bumper sticker phrases have helped more people feel comfortable with the "conservative" label, which arguably makes a difference in a hyperpartisan environment.

I do think Ezra's post is supportive of more effective branding of liberal policies, and maybe even the word "liberal". People like how it works, they just need a positive succinct way to express that support.

When I originally read the Citizen Cohn post, I tried to come up with some concepts that captured the essence of progressive/liberal thought (inspired by this chart:, and I came up with the following:
Economic Security
Tolerance & Diversity
Good Government
Individual Freedom
Equal Opportunity
Social Responsibility

It could obviously use some refining, but could anyone seriously argue those are undesirable goals? At least it would be better than conservatives who frame liberals as being for big government and higher taxes.

Posted by: reach4astar2 | October 13, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

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