What Does “For the People” Mean?

Would someone please reconsider the prominent role of marketing in politics? Or perhaps I should rephrase that question — could we take a close look at the substitution of marketing and branding strategies for politics?

I ask this question only days after the Democratic leadership, well-embarked on flipping the House of Representatives from Red to Blue, has settled on its slogan for the 2018 election: “For the People.” According to Heather Caygle at Politico (August 18, 2018), “House Democrats plan to begin working ‘For the People’ into their statements and press conferences, with a focus on three key areas: addressing health care and prescription drug costs; increasing wages through infrastructure and public works projects; and highlighting Republican corruption in Washington.”

I know a little bit about the perils of slogans and branding strategies from my career in higher education. They cost a lot of money to come up with and most of them are vapid if you are lucky, and hilarious (in a bad way) if you are not. I worked for a prestigious liberal arts college for a while that paid a firm to rebrand it as different from all other prestigious liberal arts colleges. Hundreds of thousands of dollars later, what the firm came up with was: “The Little University.” You can probably guess what they were trying to get at: all the resources and intellectual quality of Yale, packaged up in a leafy campus with no teaching assistants and a terrific teacher-student ratio. But everyone was, of course, horrified: all we could think of was the Little House books, Little Caesar’s Pizza, Little Women, and Stuart Little. It was an expensive disaster, only slightly less humiliating than the previous catch phrase we had paid for, “The Other Ivy,” a cringeworthy phrase that conveyed status anxiety rather than status.

It is not that I have no sympathy for the Democrats’ steep climb when it comes to sloganeering. It is, of course, hard to beat “Make America Great Again” as a rallying cry. It is hard to make your populism persuasive when your pockets are stuffed with the same corporate money that the GOP takes. It’s hard to make everyone forget that Harvey Weinstein was one of your biggest donors.

I get this problem. Yet you would think that Democrats, who have all of these creative types at their command, would come up with phrases that actually convey an idea or two, rather than an attitude. I remember Hillary, in 2016, protesting in her speeches that “America is already great!” a weak response that epitomizes the problem of responding to a classic non-problem.

To read the rest of this post, published at Public Seminar on July 25 2018, click here.

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