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.]

GP

To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius


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

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