The Progressive Income Tax



"FWIW, If the Democrats truly understood the information in this James Kroeger editorial, I have no doubt they would have taken both the White House and the Congress in 2004. 

Democrats will most likely not win again until they do understand it..."




December, 2004

When historians look back on the current era in American politics it will likely stand out as the period when Republican cunning & marketing savvy completely dominated the political landscape.  Obliging Democrats have thrown themselves into the fray with enthusiasm, armed with idealistic visions of civil 'discourse', only to be humbled repeatedly by their political masters.  Republican strategists have been able to blend their astute grasp of marketing principles, human nature, & social psychology into a formula that delivers almost guaranteed success at the polls.  While Democrats knock themselves out every election cycle trying to talk to Swing Voters about The Issues, Republicans have calmly focused their attention on winning The Image Campaign.  Quite simply: Democrats lose because they don't understand what moves their target audience.

The Issues might actually be important to many Swing Voters early on in a political campaign, but when both sides start to pick apart each other's facts and interpretations, the typical Swing Voter quickly becomes confused.  As the debate over The Issues drags on, Swing Voters realize that they don't understand the details well enough to make an informed decision, so they end up relying on their impressions of the candidates.  Republican strategists see this clearly.  That is why they continuously try to create doubts in the minds of the Swing Voters about the character of the Democratic candidate.  They know that it doesn't really matter if they can't find any real flaws in their Democratic opponents.  Accusations, insinuations, & innuendo will work just fine.  They hope to encourage voters to question the motivation and dependability of The Democrats.  They try to create the perception that Democrats are 'defective' in a disturbing way.  By accusing, the Republicans implicitly suggest to Swing Voters that they are not defective like the people they are looking down on.   What was the non-existent 'defect' in John Kerry's character that Republicans alerted Swing Voters to this year?  They claimed that he was an indecisive and shallow 'flip-flopper.'

Republican strategists know they would rarely win if election results were always determined by a logical discussion of The Issues and nothing more (they know that most voters would benefit more from Democratic economic policies than from Republican policies).  They know they must win the Image Campaign to have any chance of winning.  That is why they are committed, now and forever, to negative campaigning.  Republicans have never forgotten a key stratagem they perfected during the Reagan Era: DEMONIZING YOUR OPPONENTS WORKS.  It works because Swing Voters are essentially 'headline readers' and 'sound byte nibblers.'   When they see in the headlines that Candidate A accused Candidate B of having a certain personality defect, they tend to believe it.  (Unless it is effectively answered.)

The most important reason why negative campaigning has worked so well for the Republicans is because their negative attacks on the Democrats create a positive impression of Republican candidates, who appear---in contrast---to be individuals who do not possess the defects that they have accused others of having.  They define themselves [positively] by defining their Democratic opponents [negatively].

On a visceral level, what the Republicans actually 'stand for' in the minds of Swing Voters on election day is that they are not Democrats, those defective people who seem to have been born to ruin everything.  It's simple, really.  By bashing Democrats, Republicans present themselves as the desirable alternative.  The negative character attacks also provide the Republicans with one more benefit.  They know that the media will give priority coverage to their personal attacks and that it will distract attention away from any of the "substance" blather that Democrats always like to talk about. 

In order for Democrats to win back the Swing Voters they've lost to the Republicans through these tactics, they are going to have to "define back."  That doesn't mean that we need to simply bash the Republicans at every opportunity; that's something we already do.  But for all of our arguing and complaining about the Republicans, we still tend to subordinate it to the ideals of "civil discourse."  Unfortunately, that instinct is not enough to guide us; not when the other side has become a master of The Image Campaign.  What Democrats need to do now is create an image of The Republican Politician that is threatening to Swing Voters, one that they will not ultimately want to identify with.  That kind of campaign strategy takes some sophistication of thought.


The Emotional Element

What is it that the Republicans do that enables them to manipulate the images of Republican vs. Democrats in the minds of Swing Voters?  George Lakoff says that the Republicans are especially talented at choosing words & associations that work for them.  True as that may be, it becomes apparent with a little more reflection that it's not really the words or value-associations that matter so much; it's the emotions that are expressed when words are used.  How is it, after all, that the word liberal acquired the negative connotation that it has today?  The Republicans created that negative connotation by repeatedly expressing scorn and derision whenever they used the word to describe their Democratic opponents.  They expressed disgust for anyone who would be foolish enough to be such a person.  (Whenever politicians express strongly felt emotions, Swing Voters tend to grant them a greater measure of authenticity.  After all, why else would they be so upset?)  Think also of the times when Republicans laugh at Democrats.  They don't just laugh in a way that shows they have a good sense of humor; they laugh in a way that communicates their contempt for Democrats.

So it's not the words we use, Democrats; it's the emotions we show when we use particular words.  Consider the phony outrage that Lynne & Dick Cheney expressed after the third debate.  At a time when it was crucial for Kerry to continue to build momentum after a solid debate performance, his advisors ended up losing the post-debate spin.  They lost it because they didn't understand how crucial Kerry's response would be and they didn't understand how a candidate absolutely must respond to an Angry Outrage Performance if she wants to win.  The big story that Swing Voters saw on TV the next day (those who didn't watch the debate) was that the Cheneys were really angry that Kerry had called their daughter a lesbian on national TV.  What turned this into a home run for the Republicans was Kerry's unfortunate response; a written statement that sounded a lot like an apology.  The overall impression this gave to Swing Voters was that Kerry had apparently done some 'dirty politicking.'  Then, after the Cheneys apparently called him on it, he offered [what sounded like] a weak apology and then tried to change the subject.

Whenever Democratic candidates are the target of a Republican politician's expressed anger, it is crucial that they respond properly if they want to win The Image Campaign.  Impressions formed during such confrontations are usually remembered on voting day.  John Kerry should have responded emotionally by calling for a televised press conference, and then using the spotlight to laugh at the Cheneys' phony display of anger.  Laughter is the appropriate emotion for a candidate to feel and express when he is guilty of no wrongdoing whatsoever.  After laughing at the Cheneys, Kerry would then have been able to focus the media's attention on the real story, which was/is the clever manipulations and deceptions that the Republicans always use to mislead voters.  Anyone remember what Karen Hughes did to Al Gore in 2000 with the same kind of expressions of emotion (outrage, indignation)?

With this kind of response, Kerry would have told Swing Voters how they should respond to the reports they're hearing.  (Human Nature 101: people depend on you to tell them how to perceive you.)  Generating a 'rapid response' doesn't mean much if your response doesn't communicate a message that will help your campaign.  Additionally, holding a press conference would have given Kerry an opportunity to enjoy the humor of the situation with the members of the media who were present (it encourages the media to have a favorable impression of you as a candidate).  In his initial remarks to the press, he would have wanted to smile broadly, shake his head, and express mild but sincere amusement at the Cheneys' performance.  Then, he would have wanted to review with good-humored stabs of ridicule the many times that the Cheneys had, themselves, mentioned their daughter's lesbianism to the public.

After dismissing the phony outrage in this way, he should then have seized the opportunity to get on a soapbox and explain how this incident illustrates the great threat that The Cunning Republicans represent to the average American.  In a more serious tone, he could have taken the time to explain what the Cheneys were doing and why they were doing it (& how it was a classic example of the conniving sort-of-thing that the Republicans always do to win elections).  He could have turned the whole episode into a complete disaster for the Republicans by focusing attention---with first hand evidence---on the characteristic duplicity of Republican politicians.  Swing Voters would have perceived that John Kerry appeared to be innocent of wrongdoing because he showed no fear in the face of the Cheneys' anger.  They are then finally left with the image of Kerry earnestly warning them of a grave danger that they face.  Kerry & The Democrats would have once again been presented to Swing Voters as their protectors & defenders from something that seriously threatens them.  Kerry's advisors should have recognized that the overreaching Cheneys had actually given them a tremendous opportunity to further define the Republicans in the eyes of the Swing Voters as manipulative shysters whom they should fear.

There are other Image Campaign lessons to be learned from the 2004 election.  Consider the “image bytes” that swing voters saw when they watched nightly news reports on the President’s campaign.  There was George Bush doing his standup comic routine, making jokes and laughing at Kerry & The Democrats, regaling his adoring fans.  This staging was intentional, meant to reinforce particular group images of The Democrats (pathetic) vs. The Republicans (good).  On a subtle but important level, the Republicans are asking Swing Voters which group they’d rather be associated with.  When people instinctively recognize that they have a choice of group affiliation, certain kinds of visuals begin to have an impact on them.  If they notice that one group is laughing at another group, their initial instinct is to disassociate themselves from the group that is being ridiculed.  The same kind of thing happens in politics.

Whenever Bush’s hand-picked crowd applauded his ridicule of Kerry, it created an image of The Democrats in the minds of swing voters that was never effectively answered by the Kerry Campaign (or by the Gore Campaign or by the Dukakis Campaign…).  In his own image-bytes, Kerry came across as something of a stern teacher.  This was actually not that bad of an idea, but it lacked some important emotional elements that would have established Kerry & The Democrats as the group that is superior to the Republican gang, the one that Swing Voters should want to be associated with.  Kerry could have presented himself as the wise teacher who has been forced to make fun of the smart-mouthed kid in front of the whole class because he proposed a truly foolish idea that, while superficially appealing,  would have ended up hurting everyone in the long run.


Respect and Fear

Like it or not, the only way Democrats can win against the modern Republican Party is by defining them as a group that is [morally] defective and threatening.  (When the Bad Guys do this, we can accurately describe it as "demonizing" your opponent.)  Swing Voters will vote for the Democrat if they end up with an image of The Republican Politician that they find threatening.  Unlike the Republicans, we Democrats do not need to fabricate any Republican character flaws out of thin air in order to "define" them effectively.  We simply need to point out the truth.  Our goal should be to define The Republican Politician as a shrewd, cunning, deceiving, manipulative, mean-spirited, Con-Artist who willfully and gleefully assassinates the character of any innocent victim who stands in his way.  We need to describe them in this way with palpable emotion.  In terms of basic, overall strategy, Democrats need to constantly remind themselves that it's not the economy, stupid!  It's the IMAGE CAMPAIGN!

Any time a Democratic candidate speaks out on an issue like the economy, or the environment, or foreign policy, final comments should be made that refer to the Republican politician as a scheming manipulator, a threatening deceiver.  We must make our logical points on the issues, but then we must always bring it back to the image of The Republicans that we are trying to establish, the scary image that reflects the truth of who they are.  From this perspective, we can see that Democrats have been showing far too much respect for Republican politicians.  If Democratic nominees always show respect for their Republican opponents, on some intuitive level voters will wonder why.  “Well, if they really believe that Republican ideas & actions are worthy of respect, then why are the Democrats even running against them?  Could it be that Democrats are actually not very authentic people?

Swing Voters who have been voting Republican recently have come to see the Republicans as deserving respect partly because of the respect that Democratic politicians have shown them.  Of course, if you are meeting your opponent face-to-face at a debate, you will want to be courteous to show that you were “brought up right.”  But as soon as you find yourself addressing others again, you need to make it very clear—in moderate but detectable ways—that you do not respect your opponent because you do not respect her agenda or her methods.  Yes, show graciousness but feel condescension.  Be sure that you intently communicate your fear of the damage that these people can do to America.

In other words, Democratic nominees need to learn how to be openly “two-faced.”  It is a tactic that has worked well for the Republicans, one that we need to master, as well.  It is important that we model the disrespect that Swing Voters should be showing & feeling for Republican politicians.  Be superficially polite, but make sure that your fundamental lack of respect shows through.  Show your disrespect more conspicuously whenever you have an opportunity to address The Audience directly.  Yes, it’s true that Swing Voters are likely to be turned off by a continuous exchange of angry charges and countercharges between the two parties, but the only other alternative for Democrats is to allow the Republicans to constantly savage them with impunity.

Democrats need to understand the importance of showing Swing Voters that they fear Republican rule.  The more apparent it is to Swing Voters that a lot of Americans are truly scared of George Bush & The Republicans, the more they’re going to wonder if maybe they should also be afraid of him.  (Typically, we first learn to fear things that we didn’t fear previously after seeing fear in the faces of others.)  Some Democrats might think it would be better for us to emphasize our anger, but we need to be aware of the ways that this can backfire.  We do not want to be characterized as “Angry People” who are always angry [in a threatening sort of way].  Voters need to see that behind our anger is a real fear for the well-being of the American People and for America’s reputation around the world.  We should never be reluctant to show our fear of Bush, but we need to make it clear in our tone that our fear is appropriate and that our anger is controlled & justified.

Think of the many times when Republicans have accused Democrats of “hating America” or of “hating George Bush.”  They make this charge to evoke an image of people who are imagined to be inherently angry and who are therefore a threat to 'us normal people.'  Now think of how that image changes if—when we are accused of hating—we point out that people only hate that which they fear Whenever we are accused of hating the Republicans, we need to keep repeating to the media that no, it is fear that we feel.  It’s our best defense.  We want the Swing Voters to see us as people who fear the Republicans, but we also want them to see that we are also brave enough to take on the threat.  Like the sergeant said to the private in the foxhole, “Everyone’s afraid, son.  But we can’t let that fear stop us.  We still have a mission to carry out.”  We are afraid and angry.  We just know that we must oppose evil when we see it.  Verbalize fear.  Show courage.

In the final weeks of the 2004 campaign, many Democrats complained that the Republicans were using fear tactics to win the election.  It was kind of an odd criticism to be voicing, given that political campaigns have always been a contest between competing sets of fears throughout history.  Even when we are motivated by hope, the key emotion that inspires us to act with a sense of urgency is our fear of losing the thing we are hoping for.  Indeed, people are optimally motivated to support a political campaign when they are inspired by fear of a lost opportunity.  Yes, fear is the one emotion that is strong enough to motivate people to go out and vote who have never voted before.  (If your big thing is getting out the vote, keep this in mind.)  The ultimate truth of political competition is that Swing Voters always choose a particular candidate or party because they fear the consequences of having the other candidate/party in office, the one they didn’t vote for. 

The problem with fear is not that politicians use it to inspire voters; the problem is that some politicians create fears that are irrational or unjustified or exaggerated.  When such fears are used to intentionally mislead citizens into voting against their own best interests, then the use of fear is unethical.  In contrast, if the fear that politicians inspire is legitimate—and their intention is to alert voters to a danger that they can protect themselves from—then the use of fear is virtuous.  What Democrats need to understand clearly is that Swing Voters can be persuaded to fear either party.  Right now, too many of them fear The Democrats more than they fear The Republicans.  They will return to their identification with the Democratic Party only after they have been persuaded that it is The Republicans whom they ought to fear, not the Democrats.  It is the Republicans who are not like them, who are simply looking for yet another opportunity to play them for fools.

James J. Kroeger



More political analysis by James Kroeger:

Middle East Peace Talks: Will Israel Bring Lasting Peace To The Region?

Reclaim the Moral High Ground

Democrat Image Makeover

When the Republicans steal an election

Our Soldiers Are Victims

Are You Proud To Be An American?


Economic Analysis...

Unemployment: Our Greatest Enemy


Trade Policy and Jobs


Universal Health Care


Government Bureaucratic Waste vs. Private Sector Efficiency


The Relationship Between Savings & Investment


Do Tax Cuts Stimulate The Economy?