BRANDING IS FOR PRODUCTS, NOT POLITICIANS
How the Democratic Party May Yet Again Shoot Itself in Our Left Foot
When Cynthia Nixon announced on twitter that the Sanders’ spin-off “Our Revolution” had endorsed her bid for governor of New York she made sure to hitch her campaign to Bernie Sanders himself. If you didn’t know Nixon had been a Hillary supporter in the primaries, you sure couldn’t tell from her newly minted identity as a “bold progressive” who accused her opponent Andrew Cuomo of not being a “Real Democrat.” She described how “like so many others” she had been “inspired” by Bernie Sanders’ “revolutionary, people-powered” campaign. Her criticisms of Cuomo are stuffed with triggers like “ultra rich donors,” her platform reads like a Xerox of Sanders’ 2016 positions, and just in case you still were wondering about her revolutionary creds, she has sprinkled the p-word generously throughout her tweets, making sure that despite her earlier support of Hillary and her own wealth and fame, she doesn’t give off the deadly whiff of “establishment” BO.
With such aggressive self-branding, it’s no surprise that Bernie Bros adore Nixon (one describes having a “similar feeling” watching her speak as he had watching Bernie) and many Hillary-supporters felt betrayed (“I was going to vote for you, but not now! Never!”) The twitter-storm that followed the “Our Revolution” announcement was fiercely divisive, and for me, brought on a case of political PTSD. Again? Have the Democrats learned nothing?
Nixon’s tarring of Cuomo as “not a Real Democrat” was particularly chilling for me, as I got to thinking about that January day before the New Hampshire primary, and the speech in which Bernie Sanders charged Hillary Clinton, for the first (but hardly the last) time, of not being “a real progressive,” while hundreds of young people booed her and cheered him.
It was a pivotal moment. Most of the crowd didn’t even know what a “progressive” was — and in fact, who does? The label has been highly historically malleable, and even today gets defined in a variety of ways. Moreover, however you define it, no one is “progressive” in all areas. For Bernie, Hillary wasn’t a “real progressive” because of some speeches to Goldman Sachs and a $3 difference in their proposals for the minimum wage. For many feminist Democrats, no one willing to jettison reproductive rights can claim to be “progressive.”
But Bernie wasn’t just staking a claim to specific progressive positions; he was branding Hillary as the Platonic Form of “not.” Forget delving into the actual histories or policies of the two candidates. Over the course of the primary, as the difference between Hillary-hate and Sanders-support began to fade (and let’s face it — Sanders’ did nothing to stop this and much to foster it) only one thing became relevant to his fans: being “progressive” (Sanders) was good — and being “establishment” (Hillary) was not. It was not the first time the term “establishment” had been weaponized, but never so effectively, to just the right group of people at just the right time. And as “establishment” became the blood-sucking vampire, “progressive” became the magic talisman of defense.
Since then, despite all the talk of needing to “unify” and “heal divisions,” the branding of Democrats into “progressive” and “establishment” (or sometimes, “centrist”) has come to dominate how candidates are identified — and often self-identify — as with Cynthia Nixon.
I think it’s time to seriously ask ourselves: just what good is this relic of a disastrous election doing? Not only doesn’t it accurately represent the diversity among Democrats, but it clearly fosters fragmentation and resentment — and feeds a media that is always hungry to report strife among us. Nixon’s aggressively coded campaign is only alienating thousands of potential supporters who, rightly or wrongly, read her as yet another Democrat swatting Hillary off her shoulder. If she should win, she will face her Republican opponent with a brand that, while signifying her political purity to some, will weaken her chances among many others. And what if — as seems likely — Cuomo wins? Will it then be the case that young, self-defined “progressive” people, convinced that Cuomo is the lesser of two evils, stay away from the polls and let a Republican fill the vacuum? It happened with Clinton. It can happen again. Get smart, Democrats! Think ahead!
I’m not asking Nixon (or any of the other Democratic challengers emerging for these primaries) to change their actual positions, or to turn down the support of self-proclaimed “progressive” groups. I’m not asking her to elicit cheers or tears for Hillary Clinton at her campaign rallies. But surely Nixon could find a different way of appealing to “the left” (which, let’s face it, among Democrats is not that different than the “center”) than by conjuring the old magic incantations, the old revolutionary/sell-out discourse. Bernie did undeniable damage in the Democratic presidential primary by framing the contrast between him and Hillary as the “progressive” versus the “establishment.” And we just keep it going by framing future Democratic contests that way.
And Cynthia, as far as the endorsement of “Our Revolution” goes, perhaps just an “I’m thrilled, thank you so much! I look forward to working with you!” would have been good enough?
Susan Bordo is a media critic, cultural historian, and feminist scholar. Her latest book is The Destruction of Hillary Clinton: Untangling the Political Forces, Media Culture, and Assault on Fact that Decided the 2016 Election.