Will Bunnett

Politics • Branding • Psychology

Republicans Attack Government’s Brand, 1 of 2: The Anti-Brand

In a way, the closest branding parallel to today’s Republican Party is the punk movement.

Punk emerged and grew as a sort of anti-statement, a counterpoint to popular culture, commercial marketing, and other forms of telling you what to think.

The Obey brand thrives by embracing opposition to commercial brands themselves, just as Republican government officials thrive electorally by opposing the brand of government itself.

The Obey brand opposes constructs like commercialism and marketing in spirit while thriving off those very same tools in practice.

Eventually, punk was coopted and commercialized. As the ironic California Über Alles turned into the radio-friendly Dookie, so the “biting sarcasm verging on reverse psychology” punk ethos of the Obey clothing line has become a ubiquitous and successful commercial fashion product.

Likewise, today’s Republican Party has built its own brand by coopting what is essentially an anti-brand platform: tearing down the brand of government itself.

How does that tear-down work, and how successful can it be? I’ll explore those questions here in my first post of this two-part series. In my second post, I’ll explore why this type of right-wing political brand is unique to the United States and what’s behind it.

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Right-wing Washington power broker Grover Norquist famously said he’d like to shrink government down to the size that he could drown it in a bathtub. He is also known for the influential pledge he asks every Republican candidate to sign, saying that it is never acceptable to raise taxes for any reason. But this attitude isn’t confined to one influence-peddler. It’s become a key part of the modern Republican brand.

This is basically what conservatives predict will happen if anybody ever raises a tax on anything.

For Republicans, it’s a sweet deal, because it’s such an easy to brand to build: all you have to do is be bad at your job, and look at that! government IS a problem, just like we said! To see this in action, recall that Republican President George W. Bush was able to appoint a FEMA head who had had essentially no experience doing disaster response. FEMA head Michael Brown’s principle “qualification” for the job seemed to be supervising judges for horse races.

That appointment was on-brand for President Bush, because if you don’t believe government can be effective, then you don’t need to take the job of running it very seriously. Sure enough, Brown proved completely inadequate to the task of responding to Hurricane Katrina, and at that point, the self-fulfilling prophecy was set in motion. See, just make sure government fails, and government will look like a failure.

The only problem is, Democrats keep undermining the brand image Republicans are trying to create for government by making government work:

More recently, Kansas went all-in on supply-side economics, slashing taxes on the affluent in the belief that this would spark a huge boom; the boom didn’t happen, but the budget deficit exploded, offering an object lesson to those willing to learn from experience.

And there’s an even bigger if less drastic experiment under way in the opposite direction. California has long suffered from political paralysis, with budget rules that allowed an increasingly extreme Republican minority to hamstring a Democratic majority; when the state’s housing bubble burst, it plunged into fiscal crisis. In 2012, however, Democratic dominance finally became strong enough to overcome the paralysis, and Gov. Jerry Brown was able to push through a modestly liberal agenda of higher taxes, spending increases and a rise in the minimum wage. California also moved enthusiastically to implement Obamacare.

I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)

Needless to say, conservatives predicted doom. A representative reaction: Daniel J. Mitchell of the Cato Institute declared that by voting for Proposition 30, which authorized those tax increases, “the looters and moochers of the Golden State” (yes, they really do think they’re living in an Ayn Rand novel) were committing “economic suicide.” …

What has actually happened? There is, I’m sorry to say, no sign of the promised catastrophe.

If tax increases are causing a major flight of jobs from California, you can’t see it in the job numbers. Employment is up 3.6 percent in the past 18 months, compared with a national average of 2.8 percent; at this point, California’s share of national employment, which was hit hard by the bursting of the state’s enormous housing bubble, is back to pre-recession levels.

Granted, that’s only one story, and, as they say, the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data.’ But it does seem to be part of a broader pattern. For example, Republicans did a great job for years tarnishing the brand of the Affordable Care Act, to the point where it was quite unpopular with the country, and Republicans were absolutely SURE it wouldn’t work. We know that was a branding achievement because the specific components of the law were by and large quite popular — it was just the name that was unpopular.

However, all that beautiful branding work to tarnish a piece of government came crashing down when Democrats did one simple thing: made government work. The health care law today is largely accomplishing its goals, and support for repeal has tanked.

So if this ‘government doesn’t work’ brand is so successful, but it refuses to “obey” (ha!) the contours of the real world, where does it come from? I’ll explore that in part 2 of 2.

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