Will Bunnett

Politics • Branding • Psychology

Republicans Attack Government’s Brand, 2 of 2: Origins and Future of a Branding Problem

Conservative hero (and top government official of the United States) Ronald Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

That quote is perhaps the most iconic example of Republicans’ systematic efforts throughout recent decades to poison the brand of government — an irony or sorts, considering many of the perpetrating Republicans are themselves involved in government, as I explored in Part 1.

For years, it’s been a wildly successful campaign — one of the most successful ever, I’d say. For one thing, consider that the brand of government entered the picture with a huge positive head start from projects like the Panama Canal, the Hoover Dam, and the space program that created big, visible, and lasting impressions of the power of government to do awe-inspiring and beneficial things. For another, the negative brand image Republicans have created around government itself has been so successful that it’s created a real barrier to accomplishing all sorts of thingss, from responding to financial crashes to building high-speed train networks.

The Panama Canal really was a huge symbol of America’s brand as a nation when it was built, making it a tempting target for puppet terrorists, I guess.

But lately it seems like the brand attack has been foundering, as younger generations reject not just negative branding efforts aimed at specific programs like Obamacare but even the efforts aimed at government sui generis:

Younger generations have begun to embrace government for its own sake.

Younger generations have begun to embrace government for its own sake.

Where did Republicans’ branding campaign come from? And why has it stopped working so well?

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Reagan’s crystallizing quote was preceded by several high-profile failures of government, including the Vietnam war and Watergate. Yet why should those examples dominate and drown out the good examples? On the surface, they don’t seem to be enough to create a whole ideology of hatred.

Sure, Vietnam damaged President Johnson’s own political brand to the point that he didn’t even run for reelection 1968. And sure, the man who replaced him, President Nixon, saw his political brand become so tainted by apparent criminality in the Watergate scandal that he resigned from office altogether.

But the industry category of government, so to speak, is still in good shape: government is still necessary for many things to be able to function, including roads, scientific research, consumer protections, education, and more.

Drivers also had trouble imagining themselves incinerating in rear-end collisions until Ralph Nader published his book -- but that episode didn't incite a whole ideology of opposition to cars themselves.

Drivers also had trouble imagining themselves incinerating in rear-end collisions until Ralph Nader published his book — but bad news for one brand didn’t turn into antipathy for the whole industry category.

Moreover, famous episodes of damage to commercial brands may have hurt the companies responsible without destroying their own categories. For example, the Chevy Corvair safety problems that Ralph Nader blew the lid off of in his seminal Unsafe at Any Speed may have hurt the Chevrolet brand, but it’s not like they incited an entire ideology of opposition to the very existence of cars.

Yet there is one factor so strong that it could be enough to create such an ideology around government: race.

Just a few months before his first inaugural address, in which President Reagan spoke those fateful words “government is the problem,” candidate Reagan had given a speech on “states’ rights” vis-a-vis the federal government. His venue was Philadelphia, Mississippi — a small town known mainly for the fact that three civil rights workers were murdered there by the local KKK and others a few years earlier. That speech has been widely interpreted as a ‘dog whistle,’ a coded appeal on racial lines. For Reagan, antipathy to government was clearly linked directly to racial resentments.

Well, not just for Reagan. The election returns attest to the popularity of that idea, but so does a lot of other evidence. In a controversial piece earlier this year (which I have some unrelated disagreements with), Jonathan Chait ended up addressing much the same question about where the ideology of government hatred on the American right wing comes from. After all, other countries have right wings, but no other developed country I’m aware of has a right-wing ideology so totally opposed to the basic functions of government itself.

As Chait writes,

Few industrialized economies provide as stingy aid to the poor as the United States; in none of them is the principle of universal health insurance even contested by a major conservative party. Conservatives have long celebrated America’s unique strand of anti-statism as the product of our religiosity, or the tradition of English liberty, or the searing experience of the tea tax. But the factor that stands above all the rest is slavery.

America’s slave-holding history is not only a huge moral blot on our nation’s past. (It’s often called our nation’s original sin.) Since I am someone who believes in the moral importance of government action for things like assisting the poor and guaranteeing health coverage for all, I can say that it appears to be helping cause morally bad outcomes to this very day. Chait again:

A few months ago, three University of Rochester political scientists — Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen — published an astonishing study. They discovered that a strong link exists between the proportion of slaves residing in a southern county in 1860 and the racial conservatism (and voting habits) of its white residents today. The more slave-intensive a southern county was 150 years ago, the more conservative and Republican its contemporary white residents. The authors tested their findings against every plausible control factor — for instance, whether the results could be explained simply by population density — but the correlation held. Higher levels of slave ownership in 1860 made white Southerners more opposed to affirmative action, score higher on the anti-black-affect scale, and more hostile to Democrats.

The scale of the effect they found is staggering. Whites from southern areas with very low rates of slave ownership exhibit attitudes similar to whites in the North — an enormous difference, given that Obama won only 27 percent of the white vote in the South in 2012, as opposed to 46 percent of the white vote outside the South.

So, while it may not be accurate to describe any given advocate of smaller government as racist, I find the linkage of right-wing attacks on government’s brand and racial resentments to be inextricable.

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Looking to the future, other studies confirm that the government brand is already much stronger among non-whites than it is among whites. As non-whites grow to make up a larger portion of our country, the character of the racial baggage Americans collectively carry will change. Therefore, the brand of government must also change, one way or another.

Either these non-whites will continue voting heavily Democratic, and the Republican Party will fade into irrelevance, or American conservatism will be reborn with less hostility to the very existence of government. No matter which path we take, it seems the heyday of one of American political branding’s most influential chapters is behind us.

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