ENGINEERING VS. REVERSE-ENGINEERING – And Why the Democrats Always Lose

Can we start at the end? Because, I’m starting to think that’s where you have to start. After all, if you want to take someone on a ride with you, it’s a good idea to tell them where you’re going. Otherwise, it’s, like, kidnapping or something.

I’d like to picture an ending where the Democrats have become the party of the people. One where they’ve gained back a majority in the Senate, the House, and eventually, retaken the presidency. This ending also includes the Democrats realizing their true destiny – fully embracing themselves as the party that fights back against the corporate dismantling of our government and the way of life as we know it in America.

The time to achieve this end is now. Our country is in flux and ready for new ideas. There’s never been a better time for new leadership. But, to do so, the Democrats need to tell voters that their days of pragmatism are dead. That they won’t settle for good enough. That they’ve finally learned their lesson about valuing that p-word over the other p-word (progress). That they know pragmatism isn’t getting the job done, it’s not inspiring, and it certainly doesn’t sell.

To be fair, Barack Obama got away with it for 8 years. He was a pragmatist in practice, who couched his policy approaches in soaring rhetoric about a new America. I preferred the rhetoric. But, I was okay with the policy. I also had the luxury of being able to wait. Others who were hurting a lot more than me, weren’t able to stick around.

To be fairer, Obama benefitted from some personal luxuries that allowed him to thrive as a centrist. Despite facing unprecedented opposition from Republicans, he could still sell incremental progress to the vast majority of his constituents, because he had the luxury of being one of the 2-3 most charismatic politicians in U.S. history. That luxury, however, was not afforded to his counterparts who sat further down on the Democratic bench. (Or, who ran for president later). And, I don’t think it’s unfair to speculate that his pragmatic, patient approach might’ve cost some of them their jobs in time.

Perfect Example: Obama is charming enough to get away with taking $400,000 from a Wall St. firm for a speech. I don’t think it necessarily means anything, and I’m sure it’s the most pragmatic choice for him and his family. But, he should decide if that money is worth making the country even more cynical about the “hypocrisy” of Democrats.

The question now is whether or not this recent string of L’s will be enough to shake the talk of “pragmatism” from the Democratic tree. If so? Good riddance, I say. I get the feeling that Americans are tired of being told to stay in their lane and be patient. That they don’t care if progress is slow – they want to believe it can race past them in the blink of an eye. America is a NOW culture, after all. One built on getting what you want, how you want, when you want it. And, if you want to pass a bill these days, you better be able to sell us a bill of goods.*

*Not literally, of course. I’m not suggesting fraud. But, I am advocating for an all-out marketing blitz. One that’s as polished as a commercial for a shiny, new car. One that finds the Democrats selling people on their ideal version of America – not brow-beating them with policy details about what is and isn’t “feasible”. Maybe that sounds dishonest, but to me, there’s a difference between broken promises and dreams that come up short. There’s a difference between “Keep hope alive,” and “If you like your doctor you can keep it.”

REVERSE-ENGINEERING

I bring up that infamous quote, because the 2009 push for healthcare reform was the perfect example of why the Democrats always lose. Sure, during the policy push, the concept of a more ideal, “single-payer” system was tossed around. But, in my opinion, it was never given a real chance. It was viewed as a non-starter. As usual, the Democrats didn’t use much imagination when it came to fighting for what was obviously the right policy. They operated within the realm of “what was possible” – looking at polls that said a single-payer system wasn’t palatable to voters – and counting the votes of Republicans who would make passing it “impossible”.

But, you what they didn’t try in all of this? Taking their vision directly to the voters and selling them on the idea of universal healthcare. At least, not creatively. Instead, they pieced together their policy from information about what people already liked. This, without ever really offering them their shiny, new product – the kind that people don’t even know they want until they see it sitting there in the store window. They reverse-engineered it. Like a television studio putting together the worst kind of focus-grouped TV pilot.

This photo was actually taken at the Democratic National Convention.

The truth is people don’t know what they want. And, if Democrats truly believed that a single-payer system would’ve have been the best thing for the American people, then they should’ve fought for it tooth-and-nail. Too often, Democrats talk about what would be ideal for the country and then back away from it, as if that alone makes it impractical. To the point where, you almost have to wonder if they’re afraid to actually change the status quo at all. Please see: how their fear-first decision-making manifests itself in their candidates time-and-time again.

More often than not, Democrats end up favoring experienced and safe candidates over riskier, rising stars. Just look at how their biggest star in the last 4 decades was given a million different reasons as to why he shouldn’t run – that he was too young, he was too inexperienced, he from the Midwest, etc. Most “experts” said he couldn’t win for a bunch of reasons that turned out not to matter because people actually liked him. The others? Hillary, Kerry, Gore, Dukakis – a murderer’s row of experience (that will bore you to death) who all air-balled winnable elections against terrible candidates. Mainly, because all of them are extremely predictable, uninspiring, and suffer from the same curse of knowledge that gives them the personality of a standing lamp.

This is an actual photo of Michael Dukakis in 2008

The point is – reverse-engineering, crowd-sourcing, focus-testing, whatever you want to call it – is far less valuable than it’s given credit for in politics. Making choices about policies and candidates this way might produce the most reasonable decisions, but it’s clearly not producing the right ones. And, it’s become pretty clear that “reasonable” doesn’t have a lot to do with how people vote. Doesn’t it seem increasingly obvious at this point that it’s way more about emotion, connection, trust – the gut, the heart, the belief in something bigger?

Obama was so great at giving us “the feels” that he got away with some down-the-middle policy proposals that didn’t make us feel nearly as warm and fuzzy inside. (And, let’s be real, due to the color of his skin he probably could not have been more radical than he was.) But, for the rest of his squad, and to all the future Democrats out there – we need big ideas, we need the spine-tingle, and we need it now.

ENGINEERING

So, what’s the answer? Bernie Sanders is showing us. And the rest of the team would be smart to fall in line, instead of fighting the old-man with old ways that clearly aren’t working. The Democrats need to look in the mirror, admit their faults, and realize that they have to build something new. And when they do, they better be sure they engineer a sleeker, simpler, more emotional product (that emotion being anger).

During the primaries, Bernie had a lot of mantras, but one of his most consistent was, “Break up the banks.” Over-and-over again – he would say it. It became one of the cornerstones of his brand. Which made it a bit awkward when, in a New York Daily News editorial board interview, it was revealed that Bernie didn’t really have a specific plan on how to achieve that break-up. When pushed on the subject, he was basically forced to admit that he thought breaking up the banks should be done, but he didn’t really know how to do it. He was criticized for this. And, rightfully so. But, as the campaign went along, I started to realize that old-man Bernie might be a little craftier at the game than we thought. That maybe he wasn’t just some old socialist spouting off. He seemed to understand the value of shooting first and asking questions later.

Because, what do people really want to hear? A detailed policy on all it would take to reform Wall Street? No. In fact, the majority of voters (including myself) wouldn’t even be able to comprehend it. No, voters just want to hear that you’re going to do it, and in a language that makes them feel like you are serious about it.

Therein lies the link between Sanders and the soaring rhetoric that everyone loved most about Obama. And, therein lies the difference between Bernie and pretty much every other Democratic candidate of the last 40 years – Sanders doesn’t operate in the grey areas – he always takes the easy shot. Bernie is willing to be black-and-white about almost everything, because he understands it’s easier to engineer a message and a brand around absolutes. Black-and-white = easier to explain, easier to connect to emotion, and much, much easier to sell.

And, selling is the key word here. Because, Bernie not only uses these tacts because of the advantages they have for earning votes, but also because he seems to genuinely believe that a groundswell for his policies will be the thing that ultimately gets them passed. Not the other way around. More-and-more everyday, I’m beginning to believe that Bernie’s approach is correct. If for no reason other than I automatically trust a person who never combs his hair.

Bernie’s (hard) hat hair should tell you everything you need to know about the engineer’s brain underneath. To him, either it works, or it’s broken. Either you can drive on the bridge, or it collapses and kills an entire school bus full of children (oh my god!). Some centrist democrats find this maddening about him, and I can’t necessarily blame them, but I have come to admire him for it. He never apologizes for his idealism – he relishes it – as if believing in things can turn them into self-fulfilling prophecies. Some of his ideas might be crazy, but they’re crazy like a fox. And they’ve got the propaganda-style persuasion of FOX News.

Because, after all, isn’t FOX News’ brand of propaganda the Democrats’ real opponent here? It’s not like the Republicans have had any stars since Reagan. They have, however, been in sell-mode since his presidency. They’ve had to be. Some time ago, the Republican party realized that no working-class person would want their shitty ideas if they knew what they really were, so they had to shine them up and sell the shit out of them. They’ve been perfecting their pitch ever since. FOX News is just the most powerful/persuasive/pervasive manifestation of that pitch – selling us a Trump presidency that might be the final lemon (orange) we ever get to drive off the lot.

Watch FOX News for an hour and tell me if every message they share has not been specifically engineered to be as clear and as emotionally resonant as possible. There are no grey products on the Republican shelf. Everything they sell is black-and-white (sometimes literally), and very, very simple.

Taxes? Always bad no matter what. Guns? Obama will take all of them away immediately. Affordable Healthcare Act? Death panels. There are no margins in the (R) column. And, that’s because the Republicans continuous learning of how to convince people to like things they shouldn’t, has made them better for it. A higher degree of difficulty has made them stronger than their opponent.

Sometimes, people on the side of truth think that it’s enough. But, it’s not. If it were, the world would be a far better place than it is now. The Democrats need to learn this lesson, and learn it quick. They need to listen to Uncle Bern when he says there is no more room for grey areas. You’re either battling the status quo, or you’re giving us lip-service while you maintain it. You’re either fighting to protect us from our Wall Street overlords, or you’re getting paid $400,000 to speak for them. Don’t expect the voters to take the time to dig through the details and discern the difference. You’re either the party of the people 100%, or you’re going to be nothing at all.

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