« I Bleg Of You | Main | Leader or President -- Circle One »

April 26, 2005

To Make 1 Definition, Mix 1 Cup Simplicity and Two Cups Specifics

Sorry Kos, but this is a wholly useless distillation of the Democratic party:

Democrats are the party for people who work for a living

We're also the party of puppies, smiles, things that light up, people who do good deeds, parents who comfort their children, and those cool brown things that you wrap around a cup so you can hold your hot coffee.

And that aside, I wonder what all those folks who work for a living and don't vote Democrat, or don't always vote Democrat, are going to think? And what about students, like me -- are Democrats not for me? After all the times we've shared? What changed? And who works for a living -- is that a swipe at professionals and academics, or just at heirs?

Kos, and everyone else, says you can stop a person on the street, ask them what the Republican party is all about, and they'll say:

smaller government and lower taxes, family values, and a strong national defense.

And while I dispute that most anyone on the street could rattle off that group of responses, there's a reason that we judge them powerful: they mean something. Those responses are policies. They're not code nor platitude, they simply say that, if you elect a Republican, your government will be smaller, your taxes lower, gays won't marry, and the army will kick ass. It's an agenda, and a quickly comprehensible one.

Kos's idea, conversely, isn't an agenda. It's the same sort of thing as Kerry's ill-fated "Stronger at Home, Respected in the World", or his short-lived "Let America Be America Again". It sounds like the sort of blob-like slogan that emerges from consultant meetings -- everybody's for working people! We'll be for working people! Think some Democrat is going to step up to the debate podium, say he's for working people, and get the Republican to say "Yes, well, unlike my opponent, I'm running to represent the rich and indolent"? It'll never happen. They'll run ads attacking our policies, talking about how our environmentalism forces manufacturing jobs overseas, and that's the end of our "definition", simply because it isn't a definition, it's a platitude. And so we won't be defined, we'll be exactly where we are now.

What Republicans have, and what we envy, are a set of agreed-upon policies that comprise the spine of their legislative agenda. If Democrats want to match them, we have to be the party of "guaranteed health care, regulated corporations, a livable wage, universal day care, and a crackdown on nuclear materials", or some such combo. Then, if we want, we can append "in service of the proletariat" onto the end. The important thing is the handful of words that let voters know what we'll make happen.

Campaign slogans don't work. They're nice enough when tacked onto a poster, but they don't define anyone. Nobody voted for Bush because they liked the idea of "turning a corner", and nobody voted for Kerry because they thought "stronger at home" sounded like something they were for. Americans aren't morons -- they recognize when a sentence has no coherent meaning. If we want to define ourselves, we'll have to attach ourselves to some specifics, just like the Republicans have. Nothing else will do. And until our party figures out how to agree on five policies they can, rain or shine, support, we'll never have the "definition" we so crave.

April 26, 2005 in Democrats | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference To Make 1 Definition, Mix 1 Cup Simplicity and Two Cups Specifics:

» Who could argue? from E Pluribus Unum
Kos suggests that Democrats are the party for people who work for a living. Lou Dobbs might agree. P.S. Ezra hates it.... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 27, 2005 12:10:37 AM

» Bad Kos from Nick Rogers
Ezra Klein takes Kos to task for suggesting the democratic party adopt the mantra that, [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 27, 2005 1:45:01 AM

» Economic Policy is a Moral Issue, Part III from Freiheit und Wissen
...I would certainly side with Digby here in that the mantra...does not give you an overt legislative agenda...But it does provide a way to unify a legislative agenda... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 27, 2005 6:45:22 PM

» Tag Lines from Grouchy's Liberaltopia
DKos is undergoing maintenance right now because instead of a slow down after the election... "As you may have noticed, the site has been slowing down over the past few weeks, and today it's not doing so hot. After the... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 28, 2005 2:44:53 AM

» Battlepanda's Elevator Manifesto for Democrats from Battlepanda
Well, I see I’m a little late to the party as usual. But since the Democrats needs all the help with framing they can get, here’s the Battlepanda’s Elevator Manifesto for Democrats: [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 29, 2005 11:24:16 AM


What do you think of Oliver Willis' "Brand Democrat" stuff?

Posted by: Hamilton Lovecraft | Apr 26, 2005 4:34:52 PM

I love it -- OW's a rock star.

Posted by: Ezra | Apr 26, 2005 4:40:40 PM

That's the problem with kos' theory is that the Republican "definition" is simply the five things they talk about and stand for, not a slogan. They push those issues so consistantly that it has become synonomous with Republican, even if it's bullshit.

Coming up with a slogan first and then trying to position around it is never going to work. Set goals, state policies, and then fucking stand up for them. Then the American people will know what Democrats stand for.

Posted by: Mr Furious | Apr 26, 2005 4:47:48 PM

Count me in the apparent minority of dems (at least in blog land) who doesn't buy into the idea that people don't know what democrats stand for, or that they couldn't rattle off a few words or a slogan. Of course people are going to say lower taxes and a strong military for republicans, but you don't think those same people are going to say health care and jobs for the democrats?

Posted by: romey | Apr 26, 2005 4:54:02 PM

I think that slogan was certainly the best I've heard amongst all the internet pablum. They don't say they're for the rich and indolent, but they are nonetheless. Kos' slogan is not meant to end discussion of what Democrats should stand for; it's meant to summarize it, and that it does. They are not for work. That's a profound political benefit to us--we should make use of it.

Posted by: Marshall | Apr 26, 2005 4:59:59 PM

Clearly a big tent approach is necessary. How's about, "We're the party of working people, and the credit card industry!" If the Dems can capture the debtor and creditor blocs, they'll have every election all sewed up!

Posted by: sglover | Apr 26, 2005 5:03:34 PM

Damn, great post Ezra.


Aha, see, you just did it to! What about health care and jobs? Better care? More comprehensive? More jobs? More job security? All you have to do is put 'comprehensive' or 'better' in front of Health Care, 'more' and 'secure' in front of jobs. Being seen stronger on the token issues is great, but people knowing why we should be seen stronger is even better.

I agree, its not as bad as some would make it out to be. But mostly, the 'people [who] know what democrats stand for' tend to be in my social circles where I'd expect that. My run ins with people outside my social circles produce some pretty wild ideas about what the Dem party does and does not stand for. Then again, maybe its just the things we're known for that put people off, ultimately, raising taxes. "They terk r jerbs" and our money.

Posted by: Adrock | Apr 26, 2005 5:06:06 PM

Adrock, shit, you totally just blew my mind. I used "strong" and "lower" for republicans, but only mentioned the issue for democrats. Although that could just be splitting hairs, I'll have to think about it a little more. Because (at least to me) the words "affordable" and "more" were in my mind, but the fact that I didn't include them like I did with strong and lower is kinda interesting.

Posted by: romey | Apr 26, 2005 5:25:33 PM

I had the same reaction to Kos's post. How about this list of what Dems stand for?
1. Women's Health Care [or just "health care"]
2. Veterans' Benefits
3. Fiscal Responsibility
4. Relief at the Pump
5. Education
6. Jobs
7. Energy Markets
8. Corporate Taxation
9. Standing with our troops

All of these are from Sen. Harry Reid's press release:

As a matter of comity, the Minority in the Senate traditionally defers to the Majority in the setting of the agenda. If Bill Frist pulls the nuclear trigger, Democrats will show deference no longer.
Invoking a little-known Senate procedure called Rule XIV, last week Democrats put nine bills on the Senate calendar that seek to help America fulfill its promise.

If Republican's break the rules Democrats will use the rule to bring to the Senate floor an agenda that meets the needs of average Americans, such as lowering gas prices, reducing the cost of health care and helping veterans.

"Across the country, people are worried about things that matter to their families - the health of their loved ones, their child's performance in schools, and those sky high gas prices," said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid. "But what is the number one priority for Senate Republicans? Doing away with the last check on one-party rule in Washington to allow President Bush, Senator Frist and Tom Delay to stack the courts with radical judges. If Republicans proceed to pull the trigger on the nuclear option, Democrats will respond by employing existing Senate rules to push forward our agenda for America."

Democrats have introduced bills that address America's real challenges. (Details attached)

1. Women's Health Care (S. 844). ("The Prevention First Act of 2005" will reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions by increasing funding for family planning and ending health insurance discrimination against women.

2. Veterans' Benefits (S. 845). "The Retired Pay Restoration Act of 2005" will assist disabled veterans who, under current law, must choose to either receive their retirement pay or disability compensation.

3. Fiscal Responsibility (S. 851). Democrats will move to restore fiscal discipline to government spending and extend the pay-as-you-go requirement.

4. Relief at the Pump (S. 847). Democrats plan to halt the diversion of oil from the markets to the strategic petroleum reserve. By releasing oil from the reserve through a swap program, the plan will bring down prices at the pump.

5. Education (S. 848). Democrats have a bill that will: strengthen head start and child care programs, improve elementary and secondary education, provide a roadmap for first generation and low-income college students, provide college tuition relief for students and their families, address the need for math, science and special education teachers, and make college affordable for all students.

6. Jobs (S. 846). Democrats will work in support of
legislation that guarantees overtime pay for workers and sets a fair minimum wage.

7. Energy Markets (S. 870). Democrats work to prevent Enron-style market manipulation of electricity.

8. Corporate Taxation (S. 872). Democrats make sure companies pay their fair share of taxes to the U.S. government instead of keeping profits overseas.

9. Standing with our troops (S. 11). Democrats believe that putting America's security first means standing up for our troops and their families

Posted by: K2 | Apr 26, 2005 5:37:38 PM

if you elect a Republican, your government will be smaller,



Posted by: blegh | Apr 26, 2005 5:51:02 PM

The slogan would only work in conjunction with ratcheting up the rhetoric concerning taxation, honestly.

Personally, I like the "Paris Hilton Untalented, Slutty Heiress Tax" for the estate tax. But I haven't read Lakoff and I'm not sure how this framing works -- I just like vitriol.

Posted by: Chris Rasmussen | Apr 26, 2005 5:52:06 PM

Lakoff was brilliant at pointing out what republicans have done with framing, but kind of horrible in regards to his own suggestions for democratic frames.

I too love the Paris Hilton frame that's been floating around the blogosphere the last couple of weeks. I hope somes dems pick it up.

What's difficult for democrats is that we're working against so much more than just another political party. We're working against entire myths that have been ingrained into american society as truths. And when you have democrats voting for things like the bankruptcy bill, it makes an already almost impossible fight, that much harder.

Posted by: romey | Apr 26, 2005 6:03:04 PM

how about: "bigger government and higher taxes, gay love, and the foreign policy predilictions of Neville Chamberlain."

It could use some tweaking, but I think it's maximizes the contrast.

Posted by: praktike | Apr 26, 2005 6:03:53 PM


Efficient government, fair taxes, personal freedom, and international respect.

Posted by: Mimir | Apr 26, 2005 7:49:04 PM

It's a floor wax, and a dessert topping!

Posted by: donna | Apr 26, 2005 9:09:26 PM

I think praktike's snark is about right for what 'mr and ms american' think of the dems.

Why guess what summary words people use to define us Dems? Our guesses will surely be wrong.

Spend some money on open-ended research to capture what people say. Make the study big enough so it can be sliced and diced to see what differences appear in geography, income level, religious affiliation, sex, orientation, age, etc.

If we don't know what people think of us, how can we redefine what we stand for?

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 26, 2005 9:35:20 PM

Sorry, Ezra, but you're dead wrong when it comes to "Let America be America again." I thought that was a fuckin' brilliant slogan, and I wish the Kerry people had used it more. Whatever party happened to be in charge, this nation used to stand for a lot of really good things. Equal justice under law springs immediately to mind. As does the idea that as a society we've agreed that nobody should be able to sink below a certain minimum level that we'll guarantee through our tax dollars. Clean air and water. The preservation of unique ecosystems and locales of great beauty, so that they can be enjoyed by those who will come long after us.

Everything the Bushoviki have done since usurping the presidency in 2000 has been antithetical to everything I just wrote, and a lot more. And I think a lot of people are upset at a lot of that agenda. Maybe not all the same parts of it, and probably very few people are pissed that they've screwed up everything on the list I just made. But I think that slogan had a damn good chance of resonating with an awful lot of people.

Posted by: Michael | Apr 26, 2005 10:26:19 PM

Lets start with some rules to help us develop good statements of what we stand for.

1. Short and easy - Keep them to two - three words each.

2. Define key concepts - no more than four or five statements.

3. Make them out of what we really stand for, not what simply sounds good.

Number three sounds tough because we encompass so may groups, but there are things that cross borders. The real tough one is the first one.

Posted by: Fr33d0m | Apr 26, 2005 10:29:48 PM

I've been sort of chewing on this whole idea lately, and I'm really curious as to why people cling to this idea that the Democratic party is the party of the working people.

The Democrats found the working class the way a drunk finds Jesus. Historically, the Democratic party has pretty much always been the party of corporate collusion - which distinguishes them from the Republican party, which has a historical bent toward free markets (in the absolute worst sense of that term). Was Andrew Jackson for the working class? Grover Cleveland - the guy who kept calling out the military to break up railroad union strikes? Was he for the workers?

When the economy overreached itself and hit the skids in the twenties, all of the sudden the Democrats realized that if workers couldn't buy the crap their cronies made in their factories and shipped on their railroads, the whole shebang would just seize up. The Democrats found the working class just long enough to stabilize things, and now that a good sized war or two has gotten the global economy back on a solid footing, the Democratic party is free to go back off on another bender and forget all about the enablers who made it possible.

Don't get me wrong - I'd love it if the Democratic party actually were the "party of the working class" - which would make it the party of universal health care, decent working conditions, a living wage, social security, and affordable education for all - but it's never been that. I'd even agree that the Democratic party is the "At least we're not the Republican party" party, which is enough to get me to vote Democratic most of the time...but that's probably because I'm a gen-Xer, and so a platform that's so inherently slackerish and underachieving as that is sort of what I'm used to in life.

I'm discouraged, I guess. I just harbor less and less hope each day that the Democrats will pull their collective head out of their collective ass and actually do something worthwhile for the poor schlubs that serve as grist for the millstones of commerce that those guys are getting rich off of.

Posted by: Jillian | Apr 26, 2005 11:19:13 PM

Michael Walzer, co-editor of Dissent magazine, has some very good things to say about the left must respond to substantial changes in political context. His essay All God's Children Have Values, strikes me as pursuing the kind of dialogue that could reach the American voter with a more positive view of the Democratic party:

The experts have apparently agreed that it wasn't values that lost us the last election. It was passion, and above all, it was the passion of fear. But maybe frightened people look for strong leaders, whose strength is revealed in their firm commitment to a set of values. Fear politics and value politics may turn out to be closely related. So what is wrong with the liberal-left? Do we really look weak, uncommitted, value-free-tacking to the wind, whichever way it blows? And is this just a matter of appearance, a failure of public relations; so that what we need is a little rhetorical uplift, cosmetic surgery, some improvement in our posture? Stand straighter! Talk tough!

Well, no. We had better tell ourselves a more interesting story than that. Something big has happened in American politics over the last several decades, a basic shift in perspective, a strange crossover of left and right traits that we need to understand.

I recommend the full article whole-heartedly.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 27, 2005 12:54:41 AM

I think long term, healthcare alone will do it. The baby boomers are aging, and aging people tend to grow more conservative. I'd guess that's as big a part of decreasing liberalism as any othet factor. But the baby boomers are also getting hit with affordable healthcare issues right when they're starting to run into the onset of routine problems of the aging. And new drugs are slated to come out over the next few years that are truly revolutionary and will be expensive as hell. If thy start getting pissed about that, the GOP is going to be in real hot water.

Posted by: ~DS~ | Apr 27, 2005 6:33:55 AM


Really interesting post and some good comments from everyone.

Didn't Tony Blair in the UK come up with a few catchy statments before coming to power? Does anyone know what they were as they could well be the thing you're looking for.

I expect the ideas you want include free healthcare for all, living wage for all workers, dignity for all the old, improving education for the young and something about ending poverty in the third world.

IMO though the Dem stand for:

Race baiting, electoral fraud, government incompetance, higher taxes, weak on crime and surrending to third world dictators.

Pretty good eh ;-)

Posted by: Boethius | Apr 27, 2005 9:13:46 AM

Although that could just be splitting hairs,

You're probably right, but I thought it worth mentioning! ;)

Posted by: Adrock | Apr 27, 2005 9:39:27 AM

Here is something I wish Dems would pounce on. Not sure how/if the recent Bankruptcy bill relates here or not. But either way, a company denying benefits to employees so their top execs can reap windfalls in the sale of a company that not 3 years ago declared bankruptcy, well, something is definitely wrong there.


Talk about being the party for working people. DO something about this and we'll see.

Posted by: Adrock | Apr 27, 2005 9:55:05 AM

I really can't see why Ezra is so upset with this particular idea (the slogan that the Democratic party is the party of working people). I mean I pretty much think it's a no-brainer and a minimal description of the party's platform and accords with its history in modern times. My grandfather god rest his soul passed away at age 86 in 1976 and this formulation would have been perfectly understandable to him and it remains understandable and franklt y powerful to me today. Maybe the fomulation should be "The democrats are the party for people who have to work for a living," or something like that. Any attempt to define or distill a complex set of policies, etc is bound to fail and oversimplify, but I think this particular one works just fine.

Posted by: michael ryan | Apr 27, 2005 10:18:42 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.