Brand Confusion: What Do Our Political Parties Stand For?

by Philip Kotler & Christian Sarkar

For many years, Americans held a clear idea of the differences between the Republican and Democratic parties. The Republicans were a party on the right, the Democrats a party on the left.

But now the distinctions aren’t so clear. What went wrong?

Neither party today is answering or supplying what the bottom 90% of our constituents need and want. The sad fact is that both parties are without the emerging leaders who are able to define where the country needs to go.

Republicans largely cared for the wealthy. They stood for freedom, ambition, military strength, and godliness. Abraham Lincoln was their iconic figure, followed by Teddy Roosevelt and later Ronald Reagan.

Democrats largely cared for the poor and working class. They stood for values like compassion and caring. Their iconic figure was Franklin D. Roosevelt, followed by Lyndon Johnson and more recently by William Clinton and Barack Obama.

Clearly both sides had some great presidents in their past.

Today, the clarity of what the two parties stand for and what they should stand for is lacking. Americans' opinions of the two major political parties are now similar after the Democratic Party's ratings slipped to 40% -- from 45% last November -- while the Republican Party's image is essentially unchanged at 39%. That’s what a recent Gallup poll shows – Americans are equally disgusted with both parties.

What happened? Let’s look at the Democrats first.


A warning. The Democrats need to be reminded of what Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote in July 18, 1940 in an unpublished letter:

In the century in which we live, the Democratic Party has received the support of the electorate only when the party, with absolute clarity, has been the champion of progressive and liberal policies and principles of government.

The party has failed consistently when through political trading and chicanery it has fallen into the control of those interests, personal and financial, which think in terms of dollars instead of in terms of human values.

The Republican Party has made its nominations this year at the dictation of those who, we all know, always place money ahead of human progress.

Until the Democratic Party through this convention makes overwhelmingly clear its stand in favor of social progress and liberalism, and shakes off all the shackles of control fastened upon it by the forces of conservatism, reaction, and appeasement, it will not continue its march of victory.

I wish to give the Democratic Party the opportunity to make its historic decision clearly and without equivocation. The party must go wholly one way or wholly the other. It cannot face in both directions at the same time.

In our opinion, the Democratic party must take a clear stand favoring progressive legislation. In the 2016 election, voters under 30 preferred Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump by a landslide margin. Many millennials who preferred Bernie didn’t vote. The turnout among millennials was only 49 percent last year, compared with 69 percent for baby boomers.

If Democrats are given a fresh, bolder message by the Democratic party, a great many more will be inspired to go to their voting stations and cast a vote.

What’s caused the Democrats to lose touch with their base?

The Democrats held the upper hand in the 2016 election process, as evidenced by the fact that Hillary Clinton won the popular election (not the Electoral College “election”) by three million votes. Yet the Democratic Party would have won even more votes but for three reasons.

  1. Many minority voters (African Americans and Latinos) did not show up to vote who would have voted Democratic.
  2. Some white Americans were convinced by the polls and new media that Hillary would be the winner and they didn’t need to take the time to vote.
  3. The Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, was a capable but a scarred candidate who was not able to present an exciting new vision. Those wage earners who lost their jobs in the coal and other disrupted industries received no message of relief. The Democratic party talked a good game about helping the poor but seemed to be less in contact with them in the field. The Democratic party failed to win the votes of three normally Democratic states…Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. The party was viewed as providing more of the same rather than real solutions.

The major exception to this was Bernie Sanders. Bernie, although a 74-year-old senator from the small state of Vermont, and a socialist and a Jew, became the darling of many people, especially the younger generation. He was the only one to fully address the major deficiencies of Capitalism. Bernie aired the full array of left issues: protecting the planet against climate change, high cost of college and college loans, rebuilding our decaying infrastructure, raising the minimum wage, equal pay for women, re-building unions and collective bargaining, breaking up big banks, establishing a single payer health care system, expanding social welfare programs of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and nutrition programs, fighting income inequality, wealth concentration, and taxing the wealthy more.

The Clintons held the power in the Democratic Party and preferred to represent a more corporate position. This was their downfall, as FDR would have certainly pointed out.

They claimed that American citizens weren’t ready to vote for a leftist agenda. They did not support a single payer health care system or the other Bernie issues. The environment was barely mentioned at all. They had no message for the workers displaced by globalization.

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama favored centrist policies. They have, as journalist Robert Gibson says, “failed to stand for anything other than a watered-down version of what Republicans are proposing.”

This has now left Bernie and his following with two choices. Either stay with the Democratic party or bolt and organize a third party.

Having lost the election, the Democrats needed to decide whether they should remain centrist or move back to their leftist roots. Much depends on what happens to Trump’s policies and their impact on voters. If Trump fails to deliver on his promises to create jobs and “Make America Great Again,” the Democrats best move is to move left and adopt Bernie’s agenda. Bernie’s agenda is clear, powerful and very much a Franklin D. Roosevelt approach to the nation’s problems.

Finally, as we just witnessed, Jeremy Cobyn, the head of the Labour Party in Britain, has brought his party back by using Bernie Sanders’s playbook.


The Republicans have gone along with the autocratic Wall Street-friendly policies of the Trump administration. On the social side, they have embraced the dark side of populism – an anti-immigrant “Build-the-Wall” agenda that defies our founding traditions.

Trump’s GOP has alienated all of our former allies in Europe by refusing to support the Paris Climate Agreement. We have abandoned our leadership position and allowed Germany and France to become the leaders of Western values. Trump has also alienated our continental neighbors, Mexico and Canada.

Trump has backed away from China, giving them the ability to dominate Asia.

Our climate will worsen and our coastal cities will drown in 30 years. The coal mining industry will die regardless of Trump’s effort to revive it, as the cost of solar and wind energy continue to decline. Our deficits will deepen with Trump’s boosting military expenditures and talk about building a wall with Mexico.

The Republicans always had some wage earners and farmers voting for them, besides those who were well off. President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to pass civil rights legislation gave the Republicans a whole new constituency. Until this legislation was passed, the South managed to deprive African Americans from having full freedom. Schools and public facilities were segregated. The civil rights legislation established, at least in principle, freedom and equality for African Americans. This had the effect of turning many Southern Democrats into Republicans. Democrats lost a large bloc of voters - Southern low wage earners, many poor people and many religious people. Suddenly the Republicans had captured a new constituency. They now pretend to represent the interests of poor and working class people, along with the wealthy.

Yet the Republicans continued to worry that the Democrats had potentially more voters than Republicans. There are far more poor citizens and wage earners than middle class and rich citizens. If all of the Democrats voted, the Democratic party would capture the majority of votes.

The GOP’s future vision looks bleak. It is based on isolationism and staying in power using gerrymandering and voter suppression.

Republicans want to make it harder for poor and minority wage earners to vote. They have engaged in a blatant strategy of voter suppression. The Republicans started to press for stricter voter registration laws on the alleged grounds of voter fraud that was never proven. Furthermore, Republicans gerrymandered the congressional districts to make sure that Republican incumbents would be voted back in each election. More recently, President Trump and his team actively attacked the press – lied to the public that their plan to replace Obamacare would bring down medical costs.

The Republicans took a further step to protect their future by advocating that the Supreme Court should pass Citizen’s United. They pushed the idea that a corporation is a person and therefore has a right to spend more money to influence the choice of political candidates to run the country. This Supreme Court decision unleashed huge amounts of money from corporations and wealthy individuals to influence the election process.

It can be argued that our government today is by and for the corporations. The corporations and the wealthy use their money to determine who will be elected. Those who are elected owe their allegiance to their donors and are not likely to cross their donors.

Stand for Something: The Case for Political Branding

We need both parties to give us a better definition of their respective brands. The brand ambivalence may be deliberate in that the two parties prefer to let citizens project their own image of each party’s brand that may or may not be a true view of what they can expect from each party. It also opens the way for authoritarianism and nepotism – which we are now seeing with the Trump presidency.

And there is a real threat of a third party led by a “Berniecrat,” a political movement that rejects corporate domination of our parties and our lives.

A People’s Party, anyone?

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