Here’s the first lesson of salesmanship, whether in the corporate world or in politics:
It’s not what you sell, but how you sell it.
In other words, you can have the greatest idea since sliced bread, but if you can’t figure out how to market it, well, it won’t sell. Marketing is everything. That’s why most laptops and desktops run Windows instead of Apple today. The crappiest product on the planet will sell like hotcakes if properly marketed.
In April 1975, in a bar with a friend, Gary Dahl listened to his friends complain about their pets; this gave him the idea for the perfect “pet”: a rock. A rock would not need to be fed, walked, bathed, or groomed, and it would not die, become sick, or be disobedient…Dahl’s biggest expense was the die-cutting and manufacture of the boxes. The rocks only cost one cent each, and the straw was nearly free.
The same thing applies to politics. Yes, we all hate the Nazis, but here’s a quote by Hermann Goering that we should always bear in mind:
“Why of course the people don’t want war…[but] the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peace makers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
Sound familiar? It’s been the marketing strategy of the Republican Party, Fox News, and every right-wing pundit for the past forty years. But guess what? It works. And it will continue to work. Why? Because all people, from Progressives to Nazis and everyone in between, are human and as such are subject to human psychology, emotional warts and all.
How Progressives Shot Themselves In The Foot, Part 1
The past year has been filled with nationwide protests over the killings — the murders — of unarmed Black men and women. Our law enforcement, judicial, and prison systems are rife with institutional racism, and every American not addicted to racist right-wing Kool-Aid knows it. Most of us also realize that the police have been militarized to the point where the motto “To Serve And Protect” has become meaningless. Local and state governments have been pouring an ever-greater amount of money into police coffers with no concomitant decrease in crime. Even worse, the FBI and DHS have known for years that white supremacists have been infiltrating state and local law enforcement agencies across the nation and have have done little to stop it.
So just after the murder of George Floyd, one of the groups organizing the protests submitted a petition to defund the Minneapolis Police Department. They never said to cut all the funding, but to just get the spending under control. The idea struck a chord. The petition stated:
“TELL MINNEAPOLIS CITY COUNCIL TO DEFUND THE POLICE,” the headline on the petition read. Within a week, protests had sprung up in all 50 states, all defined by support of black lives and opposition to police violence.
By doing so, the Progressives handed the Republicans a pot of rhetorical gold, and the Fox News pundits were off to the races. Why? Because to most people “defund” means “get rid of all the funding”, as in “get rid of all the police”. Suddenly the right-wing media was filled with “Democrats want to defund the police!” with the outright — and false — claim that the Democratic party wanted to get rid of all the police.
Two of the most respected Democratic politicians in the nation knew this was a disaster. House Majority Whip James Clyburn and Representative John Lewis saw it coming:
“John and I sat on the House floor and talked about that ‘defund the police’ slogan and both of us concluded that it had the possibilities of doing to the Black Lives Matter movement, and current movements across the country, what ‘burn, baby, burn’ did to us back in 1960,” he told Jake Tapper Sunday.
“We lost that movement over that slogan,” he said of the rallying cry that took hold during the Watts riots.
“We saw the same thing happening here,” he said of people turning against BLM over the radical approach to police funding taking the focus away from the core principles of the movement.
“We can’t pick up these things just because they make a good headline,” he said. “We need to work on what makes headway, rather than what makes headlines.” (boldface mine)
“We lost members who shouldn’t have lost,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a moderate who narrowly won her race in Virginia, said in a heated speech, confirmed a source on the call. “We need to not ever use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again because while people think it doesn’t matter, it does matter. And we lost good members because of that.”
She specifically pointed to the defund the police movement and said it hurt her and other moderates who were in tight races.
Spanberger raised her voice, telling fellow Democrats they needed to learn a lesson from this cycle or “we will be f — king torn apart in 2022.”
In other words, America needs the Progressive agenda, but votes matter. The Progressive agenda will never get enacted if we don’t win elections. Democrats in general and Progressives in particular need to stop giving Republicans rhetorical gifts they can use in just the way Hermann Goering described above to sway people who otherwise pay little attention to politics.
Where Progressives Shot Themselves In The Foot, Part II
In the 1980’s, the Republicans by and large embraced the “Eleventh Commandment”: Thou shalt not speak ill of any Republican. As a direct result, instead of criticizing each other, Republicans began to find ways of publicly excusing each other’s every word and deed, no matter how egregious, as long as it didn’t fall afoul of right-wing preachers and pundits. Instead, Republican politics became a never-ending game of “I’m more conservative than the other guy” to the point where modern-day “conservatives” would heap scorn and ridicule upon any Republican who dared propose otherwise-sensible policies like those championed by Nixon, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. That’s how the GOP eventually wound up embracing a demagogue like Trump who personifies everything that the “Father of Conservatism” Barry Goldwater was against.
The Progressive movement is in danger of embracing that same dynamic. If a moderate Democrat dares to speak up, to even infer that something that Bernie Sanders or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (or any of the other three in the Squad) was wrong, stand by for heavy artillery from loyal Progressives. The problem is, when criticism of the most popular Progressives is silenced, thanks to human psychology, they will tend to propose ever more-progressive policies, all with the best of intentions, and run the risk of being unable to realize when they are going too far.
This is why, while the progressive goals of today are good and noble and right, we must prevent the Democratic party from becoming a never-ending game of “I’m more liberal than the other person”, lest we eventually wind up with a demagogue who does to the Democratic party what Trump has done to the GOP.
Forty years ago, if you’d said that one of the greatest presidents in American history would be a Black man whose middle name was Hussein, that marijuana (and harder drugs in Oregon) would be legal for recreational use in several states, and that marriage equality would be the law of the land, even inside the military, you’d have been laughed out of the office. But the fact is, compared to what America was in the 1980’s, we’ve come a long, long way.
It really is like alpine climbing, which is usually a long, slow, sweaty, and sometimes dangerous slog up the mountainside. But when one takes a break for a moment and looks back, one realizes just how breathtakingly far up the mountain one has already climbed.
Yes, we’ve still got a long way to go, but we must not forget how far we’ve already come. That, and we must not make it harder on ourselves by giving the other side rhetorical ammunition or by discouraging criticism of our own best and brightest. Remember, we need to work on what makes headway, rather than what makes headlines.