The importance of “rebranding” politicians who betray progressive principles

This is a continuation of the series of posts on Effective Progressive Coalitions. Those posts include:

■ Goals of an Effective Progressive Coalition: Move the ball. Guard the progressive frontier.
Four rules for managing an Effective Progressive Coalition

This post deals with tactics, in particular use of “rebranding” to create incentives.

Focus on incentives, not just on making requests

Back in the frenzied lame duck days, when people like Nancy Pelosi were playing “Follow the NeoLiberal Leader” and caving to Obama on Chained CPI, I wrote the following to an email correspondent:

Side note: Back to boldness. How vulnerable is Nancy Pelosi to public rebranding by progressives based on this horrible follow-the-Obama record, especially in her district?

“Pelosi and Hoyer, sitting in a tree, killing Social Securit-ee.”

How willing would we be to attempt it? Scary thought, right? And that’s part of the source of their power, just as it’s a source of their power over their caucus.

Me, I’d find a faithless progressive — however well-meaning — and spending a year publicly kicking him or her off the island. Pelosi’s a candidate, but there are others and it needs thought. Not a substitute for our other work; a complement and force-enhancer.

I’m in earnest about this, but not for the reason you might think. This isn’t anger, revenge or getting even. It’s pure strategy — an incentive to produce a behavior change — and nothing more. The goal isn’t to punish the past, but to get a better future.

If you’ve raised or are raising children, you likely know that you can’t change a person’s thinking, but you can change behavior with incentives. And really, that’s all you want to do, since trying to change who a person fundamentally is gets close to boundary issues. Let them be what they are — but focus on their behavior when that behavior affects you.

Pelosi’s behavior (and the behavior of other electeds) affects us in important ways, and changing their behavior (not just their words, their behavior) is what we strive for. If education (or pleading) were the answer, we’d be winning right now. Since asking and teaching haven’t worked, the next step is incentives.

What do most elected office-holders want?

One of the most powerful incentives is taking away something they want. So what do electeds want? Mostly their job and the perks that come with it. This why they fear primaries.

But there’s more than one way to threaten a politician’s job. Politicians depend in large part on their reputation and their “brand” — the USP (unique selling point, in sales terms) — that allows them to fund-raise and stay in office. Their money may come in the back door, but they still have to sell their soap to the voters.

This is an area of great vulnerability. Take away the brand and you hobble them. Republicans use rebranding all the time to keep their electeds in line. On the D-side, self-branded “progressives” must maintain the illusion that they really are what they sell themselves as, even though they only play progressive on TV.

Cory Booker, for example, was a straight-up DLC pol who had successfully branded himself as “next black progressive” — this was back in 2009, remember, when WillIAm had successfully branded Obama as left-of-center. Then Booker stumbled and publicly pleaded “please be nice to Bain.” Brand gone, career on the skids, all within a week. If he can’t crawl back on the island, he’ll end up a lobbyist, a “consultant” or a think-tank rat. He’s probably kicking himself; he could have been a contender. [Update: The privatizing neoliberals let him back on the bus. Who says there are no second acts in American politics?]

Now imagine Nancy Pelosi publicly stripped of her “liberal” cred. Could she run as Steny Hoyer in San Francisco? Imagine Barack Obama branded “Destroyer of Lives” instead of “Well-Meaning But Failed Compromiser” (or worse, “Eager Drone Killer“). Reputations can turn on a dime, in a magic moment. Clint Eastwood’s reputation changed in one half hour.

What does a rebranding strategy look like?

So what strategy uses this vulnerability? Here’s how to play this card, if we have the courage, to achieve progressive results:

1. Identify the faithless progressive to target. This should be someone with a recent horrible vote or position — a betrayal — and the ability to vote or influence votes in the future. (This doesn’t just apply to politicians, by the way.)

2. Take away their USP, their “brand”, in response to the bad vote or position. Gather the largest group you can, decide on the new brand, and repaint them publicly and often. Don’t threaten, do. And continue to do until you have their attention. Remember, children remember actions, not threats that never materialize.

3. Let them react as badly as they want. The worse the reaction, the greater the indication that you have their full attention. This is good.

4. Then tell them you’ll keep doing this in response to future votes, starting with vote X. Tell the elected in question, “Act better and we’ll treat you better.” Don’t be vague — make sure to identify what action you want, and when.

5. Continue to engage the elected in question. This isn’t a one-off, it’s a campaign. Teach them that there will always be a bad result if there’s a bad vote. Show them with deeds that they can count on us to be this way into the unforeseeable future. (In other words, once you have their attention, keep it.)

Incentives are a lot more effective than just asking people with power to be nice. If they’re not being nice, there’s a reason. This addresses that, by taking the game to the next level.

Remember, they’re not running a university; their game is all about power. If we want to play in that game, we need to be willing to use power as well. If we don’t, we may as well go home.

Bottom line

By all means, we should do all the stuff we’re doing now — petition campaigns, phone campaigns, data analysis, all of it. But my strong recommendation is to add in a power move as well. It’s really scary, since it goes head-to-head. But in my view, it’s the only way to be more effective than we’ve been to this point.

Reputation and career — no one wants to end like this guy:

Mes centimes.

[This piece has been edited slightly since first published.]


To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius

Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

Share This Post

42 Responses to “The importance of “rebranding” politicians who betray progressive principles”

  1. GaiusPublius says:

    Gavin Newsom is DLC. Also a school-reformer à la Michelle Rhee. Not link — I’m moving quickly through these — but a google search will turn up both. He does some good things, but he’s a Clintonian with a decent paint job and some good acts.


  2. karmanot says:


  3. karmanot says:

    We need to get the freeway sign guys to gorilla flash Pelosi.

  4. Kim_Kaufman says:

    Genius article. Great strategy! And, yes, we must attack Obama’s Legacy as well. Norman Solomon has something similar here:

    The Progressive Caucus: Enabling Obama’s Rightward Moves?
    ByNorman Solomon

    OpEdNews Op Eds
    1/8/2013 at 22:32:53

  5. htfd says:

    Excellent! What should be done is vetting. A total recall of their voting record. Force-enhance the person with their bad record on bad votes. In the case of Pelosi her vote for NAFTA (a total US job destroyer) the repeal of Glass Steagall (very anti the New Deal financial reforms), her comments regarding the audit the Fed bill, her foreknowledge of torture and refusal to investigate, gutting SS with the chained CPI would enhance SS, is another. Show how she’s not for progressives only for making money for the Corporate DNC and twisting current true progressives arms. She’s been in Congress long enough to have amassed a large quantity of true non progressive votes and video back ups. Don’t only vet Pelosi, vet McConnell or odious right winger along side her or there non progressives. Show the odious self aggrandizing in a parallel between the two and how similar they really are. This is anger, revenge and getting even and it’s strategy two reputations & brand at the same time. Remer think tank rats are really lobbyists.

  6. Roget says:

    I completely agree. Branding Democrats who betray democratic principles has the added benefit of giving low-information voters a shot at realizing they should not automatically support every politician with a “D” next to his or her name.

    Does anyone maintain a “liberal scorecard” — the way the RTL groups score legislators on their anti-abortion votes? That would be a start.

  7. Butch1 says:

    Perhaps, that explains why their tongues are split like that of the serpent’s. ;-)

  8. Butch1 says:

    They are only democrats because they can get elected easier.

  9. Butch1 says:


  10. Ford Prefect says:

    Well, if you live up there, one starting point might be to start a guerilla marketing campaign to rebrand Pelosi along more accurate lines. That could create the space for a canvassing operation to reinforce it. That in turn, could create the space needed to recruit other candidates and so on. A year from now, public opinion could shift, just in time for filing deadlines.

  11. karmanot says:

    That’s OK, just stay home.

  12. karmanot says:


  13. karmanot says:

    Yep, Ole’ helmet hair Feinstein has never been a friend of the GLTBQ community, but has made hay out of the deaths of Moscone and Milk

  14. karmanot says:

    I would get on board in a nano second.

  15. karmanot says:

    Bring them down and elect someone like Gavin Newsom.

  16. karmanot says:


  17. karmanot says:

    Even though Feinstein is a distant cousin in-law, I have never been able to stand the woman. When it gets down to basics, she always goes for arch conservative restrictions. It’s been that way since her Supervisor days. I certainly didn’t vote for her last time around, because she’s for slashing Social Security and Medicare. Coming from one of the Bay area’s wealthiest families, it’s certainly no skin off her back. Pelosi is even worse.

  18. Ford Prefect says:

    Yeah. Good points. It’s also true those two minority caucuses are routinely shat upon by leadership as well, which would be an added incentive to take action. The Latino caucus should be livid over the mass deportations to start with. Hell, everyone should.

    For the threat to be credible, they have to be willing to “pull the trigger” as needed. This is where I have some doubts. It would be great to see though.

  19. Ford Prefect says:

    What would they do if they couldn’t speak out of both sides of their mouths? Perhaps the rebranding should take the form of Duplicitous Basterds to start with.

  20. Ron Thompson says:

    You’ll notice that, with a few exceptions (Grijalva and Lee) they are people with little seniority, who wouldn’t worry that they’ll lose a committee chair anytime soon. Seven of the twelve I listed are African-American or Hispanic, from majority-minority districts, very likely beyond the reach of a serious DCCC-backed primary challenge.

    Maybe this particular gambit won’t be necessary. The presidential party has never gained control of the House in a mid-term election. Pelosi is 72 years old; Hoyer is 73. But the threat of it can be used today, to influence Pelosi’s actions (Hoyer is hopeless).

  21. Butch1 says:

    Well said.

  22. Butch1 says:

    Perhaps, this time it will after watching her once again go with Obama on slashing Social Security when she has lied on the Maddow interview saying she was going to protect it. She’s done this once before and we need to stop her.

  23. Ford Prefect says:

    Interesting take. I guess my question is, are there enough of them to be willing to bite the hand that feeds? Chances are that’s the way they would look at it, even though they’re mostly being fed table scraps. Still, I would love to see that.

  24. Indigo says:


  25. Ron Thompson says:

    I think we’ve seen just last week how it could be done, though the Teabaggers made a hash of it. You get enough progressives who are willing to refuse to vote for Pelosi or Hoyer, whatever the consequences. There are currently 68 voting members of the House who are members of the Progressive Caucus. The Democrats are unlikely to get 230 House seats this decade, so just a dozen good, solid progressives with nothing to fear from the national party–less than 20% of the Progressive Caucus–would suffice. People like Alan Grayson, Raul Grijalva, Mark Pocan (who took Tammy Baldwin’s House seat), Gwen Moore, Keith Ellison, Donna Edwards, Barbara Lee, Jim McGovern, Peter Welch, Yvette Clarke, Marcia Fudge, and Ben Lujan.

  26. Ford Prefect says:

    That’s a great way of putting it. I guess my question is, “Do we blame the electorate, or a Party that limits choices to only those it likes?” Perhaps some of both. But mostly, I see it as a crass political party that knows how to protect it’s own interests at the expense of the electorate.

  27. Naja pallida says:

    Re-branding… okay… the Democratic Party from now on will be known as the Republican-Wannabe Party. There are no real progressives left. If there are, they sure are quiet.

  28. Ford Prefect says:

    Absolutely right about Feinstein. She was vaguely liberal, but was strong on reproductive rights and environmental policy–and Milk’s demise was instrumental in her advancement. She did, after all, help to protect millions of acres of Cali desert back in the ’90s. But I think 911 gave her and her colleagues the excuse they needed to shun all that liberal pretense in favor of more brazen self-dealing. Her fascistic defense of FISA would seem to confirm she: 1) believes we’re all frightened sheep, and 2), she clearly has no time for silly stuff like “democracy.”

    No Liberal would ever have offered a speech like that.

  29. usagi says:

    San Francisco always elects the most conservative person who can be elected here. That’s more liberal than most places, but let’s face it, that’s nowhere near as hard as it used to be. As Obama observed himself the other day, if this were the 80s, he’d be called a moderate Republican (which he is).

  30. Ford Prefect says:

    The only way to deprive of her position is to throw her out of office. Same goes for Hoyer and the rest of the Neo-Lib demolition crew.

    20 years ago, I walked most (if not all) of her district doing organizing. It ought to be possible to run someone against her. But he/she would have to be an independent and would have to raise a lot of money to be successful. But I do think it ought to be possible. Perhaps if progressives nationally decided she had to go and were willing to commit some resources to such an effort.

    Perhaps it’s necessary to target specific people for disgorgement from power to make a point.

  31. no, I meant a literal circle jerk. I’ve seen the circle jerks in concert but I don’t count that.

  32. Butch1 says:

    I never saw Feinstein as one; she fooled a lot of people only because she was near Harvey Milk during the time when he was assassinated, in my opinion and people associated her with him. I don’t know much about Hoyer only that he’s no friend of the people. Levin was always seen as a liberal when I lived in Michigan and he used to fight for them. What happened to him after all these years at the corporate trough slurping with those republicans really rubbed off on him. He seems just as slimy at times. We need new blood in Congress if anything is going to happen. I used to be a democrat when they were Democrats with a big “D.” I won’t give them the honor of capitalizing it anymore; they don’t deserve it as well as the republicans. They’ve all changed from what they used to be.

  33. mf_roe says:

    Americans are trained from birth to believe lies, those who question are almost always shunned by the majority. The lies are well crafted and to question them is not always easy but it must be done if we hope to change our circumstances. By far the biggest lie is that there is a perfect world for all IF…. There is no system that will make everyone happy, far there are too many who are interested in things that offend others. The best we can hope for is a system where change is possible if the problems become excessive, we don’t have it now–if we ever truly did is in doubt.

    GP has a valid point, progress is only possible when we are honest in our assessments of the motives of those that we empower with public office. Contests aren’t won with Pep Rallies they are decided by strategy and preparation.

  34. Butch1 says:

    If only there were a way to remove her from her Minority position as Speaker. I’ve watched her stab us too many times and that she gets away with it each time is frustrating. If we only had a real strong Third Party of Liberals to challenge her from the left that were in the House . . .

  35. Ford Prefect says:

    You’ve illustrated quite well why “safe seats” are a horribly bad idea. Feinstein and Boxer will remain for as long as they wish. So too, Pelosi, Hoyer and everyone else in a “safe seat.” Pelosi’s district is considered “Liberal,” but it’s also extremely wealthy, which explains why she can get away with the austerity talk. Her constituents are too busy being subsidized by the lower orders to give a rat’s ass about a little austerity. It won’t affect them and they don’t care.

    What’s even worse is the power these people have over newcomers to congress. They make sure anyone who gives a shit about anything besides shoveling money and power at corporations will toe the party line, as is their wont.

  36. Ford Prefect says:

    While I like the direction you’re heading in, GP, you seem to be pulling back from making a perfectly obvious observation: That most Democrats who call themselves “progressive” are in fact Neo-Liberal ideologues… which is to say they are so totally regressive as to be complete liars about their political philosophy.

    Booker is not now, nor ever has been a progressive. But that label worked for other Neo-LIberals like the Clintonoid clan, Pelosi and Barack Obama. None of these people are remotely progressive and that should be obvious by now. Hell, it was obvious to me back in 1992 that Clinton and his coterie of hacks weren’t progressive, but they knew most active Democrats at that time didn’t give a rat’s ass about doing their own research–this still seems to be the case with many these days.

    As for incentives, it’s not just a matter of winning elections. Indeed, elections are only important for one or maybe two terms. After that, the private sector (meaning lobbying) is vastly more “perky.” Money, power, sleaze 24/7… and no accountability or responsibility whatsoever. The real legislators in this country are lobbyists. The legislators themselves are merely “Lobbyists In Training.” So if you want to deal with incentives, the first thing is to prevent them from being elected in the first place, since re-election is easy in a nation in which 95% of all congressional seats are effectively “safe.”

    To answer your rhetorical question about Pelosi running as Hoyer in SFO, the answer is, “Yes, she could run as Hoyer now, because the seat is hers for as long as she wishes to keep it.” She just won an election in an allegedly “liberal” district even after spouting “New Era of Austerity” all year. So this year, she did in fact run as Steny Hoyer.

    So while your logic is sound, you’re still behind the curve on the institutional problem. It’s too late to cause problems for people once elected–elected even once, the potential lobby-shop opportunities arise with doing only a few favors for the powerful. It must start before they attain office. The problem, of course, is that most people aren’t really inclined to do battle on this level until after they’ve already learned the hard way they just voted in a Neo-Lilberal crook and the damage has been done.

    Hell, there is still a sizable group of people who think Obama is some kind of “progressive” and will no doubt tout Clinton or a reasonable facsimile in 2016 as “progressive” as well. In addition, those who appear to be actual progressives (Grijalva et al) also seem quite content to be relegated to the back of the bus even though they have the largest caucus in the House. So there’s that wee problem as well.

  37. Ron Thompson says:

    All of these for a start, perhaps Pelosi less so, But were Feinstein and Hoyer ever seen as progressives? They’ve always been corporate Dems as far back as I can remember. I think what Gaius is going for here is somebody who is seen as “even the liberal (insert name) thinks we need to cut medicare, privatize education, keep the filibuster, increase drone strikes, etc”. Levin not just for this but also for filibuster reform. Andrew Cuomo. Dick Durbin (before he dicks you). Maybe some people think of Schumer as a progressive.

    If we’d done this six years ago, nobody would have thought of Obama as a progressive.

  38. nicho says:

    And that other circle jerk would have been what? The Democratic national convention?

  39. I’ve only been to one other circle jerk, and I wasn’t impressed with the subculture there either. If y’all have another one of these at the next nutroots let me know. I might fly out just for the satisfaction of making my impression felt.

  40. Butch1 says:

    There are democrats who have crossed that line numerous times and Pelosi has certainly been one of them. Somehow, her constituency continues to vote her back into office. Feinstein needs to go! This woman is absolutely horrible! Was she ever a democrat? Hoyer? Enough said, when they think it is okay to slash Social Security and Medicare; they are NOT our friends one bit. Then there is Sen. Levin from Michigan who co-wrote with Sen. McCain that horrible section in the NDAA bill regarding Indefinite detention. Can you believe a democrat would ever come up with stripping away our Constitutional Freedoms? These are traitors who would do this to us in the name of “protection.” This is an huge lie and hopefully, these people will be called on it eventually under oath to explain themselves why.

  41. ronbo says:

    But, but, but… the Republican is so much worse. Half-wit Democrats default to supporting Democrats – regardless of their votes. Just go to the Obama-bot sites to see the foolishness in action (baloonjuice, Democratic Underground, etc…)

  42. nicho says:

    The problem is that they don’t care what names you call them. All they care about is the corporate money flowing into their campaign funds. That’s what allows them to buy the ads to convince suckers to vote for them — and, better still, against the other guy. “Yes, I’m bad, but he’s worse. So vote for me.”

© 2021 AMERICAblog Media, LLC. All rights reserved. · Entries RSS