23 years ago Newt Gingrich laid the foundation for winning with the “Contract with America.” There were 8 government and operational reforms listed that no one actually remembers, but the message was that government would be reduced and austerity would cut wasteful spending. There was no resolute policy, but that didn’t matter. It said to Americans: “We understand that government works for YOU, and this is our pledge to fight for YOUR values.” It was dovetailed to the Reagan dictum: Government isn’t the solution, government is the problem.
It resonated by saying (and repeating over and over) that government is too big, too invasive, is taking your liberties and your money, and not enhancing your values. Values are never defined either, but patriotism was enveloped by Christianity, imperialist doctrine, a destiny of unbridled wealth, and it was cloaked in a spirit that embraced Americans’ cherished belief that we are the Shining City on the Hill. It inspired, and inspiration doesn’t need definition or even justification; it only needs to run through our veins. Democrats have forgotten that.
When Democrats lose, we get together to figure out what went wrong, and then issue a proclamation to say that “We’re going to learn how to listen so that we can serve you better.” That might even be the most genuinely intelligent way to get better and to do better things, but it doesn’t inspire, and that’s where we fail.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look critically at ourselves, and build new alliances, use polling and collect data (and everything liberals tend to do by nature) but we cannot keep missing the bigger picture- What do we offer to voters that says “We are holding America together with the values that can make your dreams possible”?
That is not specific and detailed policy and it isn’t the result of polling to tell us what Americans want the most so we can decide where to focus. We cannot avoid policy, because that is part and parcel with what makes us Democrats- but policies are the apples on the tree, not the root system that makes them come to fruition.
Easier said than done to grow stronger roots, but we can take a page out of the history of rental cars. No, seriously.
Avis could not overcome the size of Hertz and they developed one of the most enduring tag lines in history. Avis lost millions every year until they came up with “We’re Number Two; We Try Harder.” The industry said “That will fail! You can’t advertise that you’re not number one!!” But, lo and behold! It spoke to the public and they started making money for the first time in decades. It inspired people to believe that Avis was truthful and was, in fact, going to try harder.
That’s what people want. Not necessarily the policy-equation that shows them the math and science behind why one idea is better than another or where they have been failing, but the feeling that they can believe in something, or someone, who will try harder, so that their own hard work will pay off.
The take away here should not be that Democrats have to admit defeat or be self-deprecating; the take away is that we have to show what motivates us so that we can motivate voters.
We are motivated by making America stronger, more productive, safer, and more successful across the board so that everyone feels that they have a chance again.
Here’s my volley into the slogan arena: The Democratic Party: Building a stronger, healthier America.
Then, how do we turn that into a “contract”? That is what we should be exploring. We are Democrats in the 21st century; the progeny of the Age of Enlightenment to challenge the status quo and break the molds that confine us to our lesser selves. Our order is to expand society to a greater consciousness. Good stuff. But it doesn’t serve us well on a bumper sticker.
Republican/Conservatives have so engrained patriotism into their brand that to tell a Republican that they are voting against their own interests is like trying to convince a devout Christian that Christ wasn’t the Messiah. Or to a devout Muslim that he was. It is simply their identification to their core belief. As Democrats we have a long history of believing that we can use logic and facts to make our case; to show that person at the door that we are the better fit to match their goals and that they have, in fact, been voting against their interests. It isn’t convincing.
So, is there room for us at the door if “God and Country” have already been taken?
No party has ever actually cornered the American Dream. All we have is a vague, abstract, amorphous thought that contains feelings of security, experiencing happiness and freedom. Maybe it buys a house, puts the kids through college, takes a vacation every year; who knows what the American Dream really looks like?
Telling Americans that they are not serving their own interests is not how we can communicate our values. It will be found when our message marries better health with their dream; higher wages with that dream; safer communities with that dream; expanding opportunities for our kids and grandkids with that dream.
We must marry our policies to America’s preeminent value. The dream that gives a productive life to our elderly, the infirmed, children, our businesses, our military men and women, our working families, and those who have fallen into, or were born into, a legacy of poverty. And the continued prosperity of the wealthy and fortunate, as well. Every one of us falls, at one time or another, into one of those categories. The dream respects the health of every American. Our strength as a nation together, will always surpass the strength of the few who are at the top. That is a message for the real America.
Once again….The Democratic Party – Building a Stronger, Healthier America.