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Rebuilding The Liberal Brand

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If you watched the Super Bowl, you probably noticed a bland McDonald's commercial, "I'm lovin' it." It was part of their campaign to strengthen their brand. Too bad liberals didn't run a commercial because they need to rebuild their brand.

While liberals' stock has been falling, MacDonald's continues to be in a strong position as the world's largest fast-food provider -- by far the largest hamburger purveyor -- with 35,000 restaurants and 1.5 million employees, making it the world's second largest private employer (behind Walmart). According to industry sources, MacDonald's has been rebranding to appeal to "new generations." They switched from Ronald McDonald to famous athletes (Michael Jordan and Larry Byrd) and now to "I'm lovin' it." "The new brand position indicates that [McDonald's] has been listening to their customers" The focus has changed from product to human value."

Liberals should consider a similar strategy, because over the last fifty years the liberal brand has weakened. "Liberal" and "conservative" once were held in equal esteem. Since the 70's the conservative brand has strengthened, while liberal brand identification has diminished. In 1992, started polling political ideology self-identification. In 2014, 38 percent of respondents identified as conservative, 34 percent as "moderate," and only 24 percent as liberal.

In the latest Pew Research Center political typology poll, "Solid Liberals" are 21 percent of the "politically engaged." They "express liberal attitudes across almost every realm -- government, the economy and business and foreign policy, as well as on race, homosexuality and abortion -- and are reliable and loyal Democratic voters." The Pew findings are similar to the Gallup findings; there is a 14-15 percent gap between those who identify a liberal and those who identify as conservative.

The sixties marked the zenith of the liberal brand. Leaders of the civil-rights, anti-war, and feminist movements were proud to call themselves liberals. The brand stood for peace and justice, a new egalitarian social order.

Then conservatives fought back. John Kennedy, Martin Luther King junior, and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. The Democratic Party split apart over civil rights and Vietnam. J. Edgar Hoover launched COINTELPRO. Richard Nixon was elected President.

Beginning with a 1971 strategy memorandum by Lewis Powell, conservatives systematically strengthened their brand and undermined the liberal. Feminists became "Femi-Nazis." Anti-war activists became "traitorous flag burners." Anyone who spoke against inequity was tarred as a socialist. Liberal became an epithet.

The conservative brand widened to include social values. Conservatives deplored what they described as liberal "sixties values" of rampant drug use and immorality. Conservatives became the defenders of "traditional" values: god, country, mom, and apple pie; patriots who believe "My country right or wrong."

Liberals were painted as agitators promoting inefficient, unnecessary social reforms: "big government," "tax and spend." Single women were characterized as sluts, blacks as dangerous freeloaders, and all those on welfare as shiftless. The desire to end US poverty was replaced by the conservative tomes of Reaganomics: "greed is good," "poverty is a choice," and "what benefits the rich ultimately benefits the entire economy."

In 1980, former Vice President Walter Mondale was the last true liberal to secure the Democratic nomination for President. Since then the Democratic candidates have been moderates who carefully avoided describing themselves as liberal: Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama. Of course, many of these candidates have advocated a few liberal policies, but they have not been comfortable embracing the liberal brand; they have been moderates or closet conservatives.

Now we are seeing an organic movement to re-establish the liberal brand. This showed up in the 2014 midterm election when, in many states, liberal issues prevailed -- raising the minimum wage and legalizing marijuana -- even though moderate Democrats were pummeled.

At this writing, it seems likely that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be the 2016 Democratic Presidential nominee. Clinton, like her husband, is a moderate. Many liberals hope that liberal Senator Elizabeth Warren will run for President. However, Warren has repeatedly said she will not run. (A recent USA Today poll found that 51 percent of Democrats favored Clinton for President, 31 percent were undecided, and 5 percent favored Warren.)

Once she secures the Democratic nomination in Philadelphia, Clinton will lead a Party that has a mushy identity: "We're not as crazy as the Republicans." Like MacDonald's, Democrats must recognize that for their brand to prevail it has to connect with "new generations." They must listen to their customers. Change their focus to human values. This is an opportunity for liberals.

If liberal values and policies dominate the Democratic convention, Clinton will have no choice but to adopt them. The appropriate role for Senator Warren is to lead the charge to strengthen the liberal brand. Warren's the right person to do this; she's a fighter in the best liberal tradition: "The game is rigged, and the Republicans rigged it... We're here to fight back" This is about democracy, about your future, and about the kind of country we want to build."

It's time for liberals to rebuild their brand and take back the Democratic Party.

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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