Death-Defying Institutional Brands
I’m increasingly intrigued by the ability of certain brands to outlast the loss of their underlying substance. Facts are stubborn things, John Adams said, but sometimes, it seems, not as stubborn as brands. Let me offer a few examples, and then let’s see if we can identify any principles at work behind the phenomenon.
1. The GOP as the Party of Small Government. Republicans — not just Republican politicians, but ordinary Americans who are registered and vote Republican — still believe the GOP stands for small government. And yet the small government party created an additional $5 trillion in national debt during its last turn in office. When George W. Bush became president, the national debt was under $6 trillion; when he left, it was close to $11 trillion. I guess you could argue that Democrats are even worse, but even if that were true, an accurate description of what Republicans stand for would be something more along the lines of “slightly less big government.” But it’s not true: just look at this graph, or at this chart. To find a notably fiscally responsible Republican president, you have to go back to Eisenhower. So at this point, if fiscal responsibility is an important measure of one’s adherence to big or small government, the small government brand ought to attach to Democrats.
True, the national debt has continued to spike under Obama. We could argue about why — whether, for example, the economic meltdown that occurred during the Bush Administration, for which Bush created the initial $700 billion TARP program during his last months in office, requires further fiscal stimulus to avert another depression. But even if you think Obama is even worse than Bush, that’s a pretty thin basis on which to believe in the Republican small government brand.
Moreover, we’re focusing here only on fiscal matters. If a new party entered the fray on a platform of torture, federalization of end-of-life decisions, federalization of marriage, imprisonment of suspects without trial, use of the military for domestic law enforcement, prohibition of drugs and SWAT raids into family homes to catch people smoking pot, empowering the State Department to strip Americans of their citizenship, and a trillion-dollar-a-year, million-and-a-half-man, eight-hundred-overseas-bases military, would you naturally feel, “At last! A party of small government!”? Yet these are all Republican policies. Again, Obama’s record so far on war spending and civil liberties is as atrocious as (and in some ways worse than) Bush’s, but Obama doesn’t purport to be from the party of small government. Republicans do.
I suppose you could argue the Republican small government brand persists because the theory of the GOP is small government, with the problem being the corrupt way successive Republican administrations have implemented that theory. Maybe. But on that argument, shouldn’t Communism continue to enjoy a solid brand, too? After all, “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs” is a great theory, and was simply corrupted by Lenin, Stalin, and the various other heads of the Soviet Union. It’s still a great idea, no?
That the GOP is still known as being more effective on national security — the “daddy party” to the Democrats’ “mommy party’ — is also impressive. If a Democrat had been in office on 9/11, or in 2006 when North Korea became a nuclear power, or if a Democrat had bungled Iraq and Afghanistan or let bin Laden escape from Tora Bora the way the Bush Administration did, it all would have been perceived as evidence, even proof, of Democratic fecklessness on national security. Instead, all of these events happened on the GOP’s watch, with no apparent damage to the GOP’s brand.
The GOP’s reputation among the rank and file for sexual probity is also impressively resistant to contrary facts. There have been enough closeted Republican homophobes, outed Republican philanderers, and thrice-married matrimony traditionalists to form a parade, and yet the party still manages to wrap itself in a brand of “family values.” And yes, you can point to Elliot Spitzer and John Edwards as counterexamples, but again, we’re talking about brands — particularly the power of certain brands to stay afloat despite being riddled with holes through repeated contact with contrary reality. What makes Republican sexual behavior remarkable — in a way that Democratic sexual behavior isn’t — is that Republican behavior is contrary to the party’s brand, yet seems to have little or no effect on it. In other words, John Edwards’ scandal immolated his personal brand. But it wasn’t relevant to the party’s brand, because Democrats, unlike Republicans, don’t try to sell themselves in “family values” wrapping. Likewise, Mark Sanford’s own reputation for integrity was destroyed by revelations of his serial infidelity, but for some reason even an unending stream of Sanford-like sagas does nothing to diminish the GOP’s ability to present itself as the party of family values.
The difference between individual brand vulnerability and institutional brand vulnerability is telling, I think, and I’ll return to it in my conclusions.
2. Pundits as Wise. Judging from the volume of his book sales, there are a lot of people who think the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman is a foreign policy expert, or at least a good writer (warning: the Matt Taibbi prose behind those last two links could cause dangerous convulsions of laughter). He’s even thought of as a liberal. Yet Friedman, a prominent cheerleader for the war in Iraq, has changed his mind about the causes and consequences of the Iraq war so many times you’d need a flow chart to keep track (was it WMDs? Gifting Arabs with Democracy? Making them “suck on our big stick“?). He’s written so many times over the course of years some version of “the next six months in Iraq will be make or break” that his ceaseless moving of the goalposts gave birth to the derisive term “Friedman Unit” to mean another six months in the future. I myself heard Friedman speak at Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park in 2006, at which time he explained that “we’re in the fourth quarter in Iraq.” Maybe today he’d claim we’re in overtime.
With this record, if Friedman weren’t some kind of self-perpetuating institution — if he were instead, say, a guy who popped into the neighborhood bar from time to time to talk politics — he would long ago have been dismissed as drunk or deranged. People would find it bizarre and vaguely embarrassing that he felt compelled (and worse, justified) in continuing to opine on subjects about which he’d repeatedly, demonstrably, been proven wrong. They’d get irritated at his inability or unwillingness to honestly account for his frequent errors or to try to learn from them. They might turn away, or humor him, or buy him another drink in the hope that he’d pass out and stop talking. What they wouldn’t do is take him seriously. And yet the Friedman Serious Foreign Policy brand seems largely untarnished by the actual performance that underlies it.
By the way, I’ve used Tom Friedman as a handy example, but there are countless others. In a hotel gym recently, I was forced to listen to Wolf Blitzer interview Michael Steele on CNN, and was struck by Blitzer’s unfamiliarity with even the most basic elements of health care reform and by his unwillingness to engage Steele on Arizona’s draconian “Walking While Latino” law in anything other than political horse race terms. I can’t think of anything — not an election, not a war, nothing — that Bill Kristol has ever been right about, and yet he’s still trotted out on the TV shows as some kind of political expert and has an op-ed column at the Washington Post. Karl “I’m entitled to THE math” Rove, whose strategies crushed the GOP in the 2006 midterms and lost the White House two years later, still appears on television as a political seer. Politico’s Mike Allen is still called a journalist and a reporter when he has repeatedly demonstrated instead that he’ Dick Cheney’s stenographer. And with the notable and impressive example of Andrew Sullivan, I can’t think of a single cheerleader for the Iraq war who has honestly grappled with the enormity of his error, or even just shown quiet evidence of having learned from it. They just go on bloviating as though nothing happened. I suppose it’s good that people with so much capacity for error, so little aptitude for learning, and so nonexistent a culture of accountability became pundits rather than, say, air traffic controllers.
3. Smart, Savvy Financiers. It wasn’t much more than a year ago that Wall Street’s Titans of Capital were exsanguinating from self-inflicted wounds, to be rescued only by a monster taxpayer-financed anti-hemorrhaging operation (in other, less apocalyptic contexts, this kind of thing is called “welfare” or “unemployment insurance.” But if the job being saved is that of a big, important banker, “TARP” just sounds so much better). Yet even a week ago, The Economist could say with all sincerity, “Writing [Goldman Sachs] off would be foolhardy. It has recovered from adversity many times. Its risk management is top-notch, its people super-smart…”
If AIG hadn’t been given a huge infusion of public money, and if AIG hadn’t paid $13 billion of that money directly to Goldman, Goldman would be dead now, done in by its own wrongheaded moves on subprime mortgages. Describing a bank that had to be saved via a taxpayer bailout from a greed- and stupidity-induced accidental death as “top-notch” at risk management and “super-smart” is a lot like describing as a “firearms safety paragon” a guy who drunkenly shot himself in the face and was saved only because a trauma surgeon with limitless quantities of spare hemoglobin happened to be standing right there when it happened.
Maybe what the Economist meant is that Goldman has been top-notch and super-smart in cultivating the kinds of political connections that, say, Lehman Brothers lacked. Okay as far as it goes, as long as we can also salute that firearms safety paragon for getting drunk and playing with loaded guns only when he’s pretty sure a trauma surgeon is nearby.
I don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet if you took a poll today, a lot of people would agree with the statement that, say, Bob Rubin and Hank Paulson and Alan Greenspan are financial experts and competent economic stewards. They’re not. The one thing they were paid to not let happen, happened. They missed what others foresaw, and in doing so nearly destroyed the global economy. Logically, you can’t be Secretary of the Treasury or Chairman of the Federal Reserve, precipitate an economic catastrophe, and emerge with your reputation for competence intact. And yet, these men did.
(For more on this subject, I highly recommend Michael Lewis’s “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.” You won’t be able to put it down. Here’s an excerpt.)
4. The Church as Good. I’m not Catholic, nor even religious, so maybe I’m missing something… but I don’t understand how anyone can consider the crimes and coverups of the Vatican and still look at the organization as devoted primarily to the good of humanity. As a brand, Papal infallibility and the Indefectibility of the Church would also seem to have taken a solid hit. But my sense is that, for the most part, the Church is still thought of primarily as an instrument devoted to the glory of God rather than to the rather more earthly work of self-protection.
5. The Media as Liberal. Off the top of my head: Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Levin, Michael Savage. Quick, name their liberal counterparts — the talking heads who exert such control over the Democratic party they receive apologies for apostasy from the head of the DNC. The “liberal” New York Times uncritically offered up (I was going to say regurgitated, but there was no evidence of digestion at all) government propaganda in the runup to the Iraq War. Today the paper refuses to use the word “torture” except when Chinese or Iranians are doing it. For Americans — you guessed it — it’s just “enhanced interrogation,” or, when the Times is feeling particularly feisty, “brutal interrogation.” They hired Bill Kristol for the op-ed page (journalistic Stockholm Syndrome?), then replaced him with Ross Douthat, to write alongside David Brooks. CNN just hired Erick Erickson. The “liberal” Washington Post’s op-ed page features a phalanx of torture apologists — Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, Marc Thiessen — plus George Will and David Ignatius, a columnist whose pronouncements read like that of an official CIA spokesman.
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
|CNN Hires Erick Erickson|
In fact, as explained by one of the characters in my forthcoming novel Inside Out, a key function of any press organ unjustifiably branded “liberal” is to provide information laundering services to the government, converting what, if it came directly from the government, would be rightly understood to be propaganda, into apparently objective, disinterested “news” because it seems to be coming instead from, say, The New York Times. That the “liberal media” brand is useful to those in power might partly explain its durability. More on this below.
6. America as a Peace-Loving Country. I think my character Dox summed this up nicely in my book The Last Assassin:
“It’s like America,” he went on. “I mean look at us, we’re always telling ourselves how peace-loving we are. ‘We’re a peace-loving people, we love peace.’ I guess that’s why we spend more on our military than the rest of the world combined, why we have over eight hundred overseas military bases in a hundred and thirty countries, and why we’ve been at war pretty much continuously since we were just a bunch of colonies. Shoot, you think if a Martian visited Earth and tried to identify the most peace loving culture, he’d pick the U.S. of A.? I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it, mind you. We’re a warlike people, it’s obvious, we’re good at war and we like it. I just don’t know why we can’t admit it to ourselves. I bet sales of Prozac would go down if we could.”
Or, as another character of mine, Ben Treven, put it in Fault Line:
He thought about hate. America was hated overseas, true, but was pretty well understood, too. In fact, he thought foreigners understood Americans better than Americans understood themselves. Americans thought of themselves as a benevolent, peace-loving people. But benevolent, peace-loving peoples donâ•’t cross oceans to new continents, exterminate the natives, expel the other foreign powers, conquer sovereign territory, win world wars, and less than two centuries from their birth stand astride the planet. The benevolent peace-lovers were the ones all that shit happened to.
It was the combination of the gentle self-image and the brutal truth that made Americans so dangerous. Because if you aggressed against such a people, who could see themselves only as innocent, the embodiment of all that was good in the world, they would react not just with anger, but with Old Testament style moral wrath. Anyone depraved enough to attack such angels forfeited claims to adjudication, proportionality, even elemental mercy itself.
Yeah, foreigners hated that American hypocrisy. That was okay, as long as they also feared it. Odurint dum metutant.
7. The Pentagon as Trustworthy. Let’s not even go back to Vietnam; we’ll confine our examples just to our current wars, instead. So:
Have you ever known someone who lied even about small things? You immediately knew that person wasn’t trustworthy, didn’t you? And you didn’t trust him thereafter, right? So what’s different about the military?
8. Conclusions. What I see as the common element in all the gravity-defying brands described thus far is this: they all belong to institutions. The military, a party, the government, Wall Street, the Church, the media, the nation itself. We could quibble over the margins — for brand purposes, is someone like Tom Friedman, so long associated with The New York Times and part of an entire class of foreign policy mandarins — an individual, or an institution? The guideline that seems to be emerging, though, is this: the brands of institutions are relatively resilient.
We can test this proposition by comparing institutional brand vulnerability to individual brand vulnerability. Mark Sanford’s prostitution scandal damaged his own moral brand, but seems to have done little damage to the moral brand of his party. You could argue that, well, of course Sanford’s scandal would be relatively harmless to the party as a whole because its impact to the party is diluted: Sanford is his whole brand, and only a small part of the GOP. But remember, Sanford was no aberration. There have been many, many Republican sex scandals, a stream of Republican sexual hypocrisy, and not even taken together has it significantly impaired the GOP’s ability to present itself as the party of Family Values.
I think celebrities provide another useful counterexample to the apparent durability of institutional brands. Tiger Woods’ reputation for integrity — a reputation worth millions in promotional contracts for companies like Accenture (which has taken to inane animal ads in Tiger’s wake) — was shattered by revelations of serial sexual infidelities. Lindsay Lohan gets drunk, or Britney Spears shaves her head, and their sweetheart images are destroyed.
The question, then, seems to be: Why are individual brands so fragile, and institutional ones so bullet-proof?
I think the answer lies in the relative importance of institutional brands to our overall worldview. It’s possible to imagine a fan so attached to Tiger Woods’ wholesome image that he would be devastated to learn the brand was a lie. But because a celebrity occupies a pretty peripheral place in the worldview of most people, for most people, a celebrity’s fall from grace causes nothing more severe than morbid curiosity. With a celebrity, accepting the facts, realizing the brand was a lie, and getting on with things is easy.
Institutional brands, on the other hand, are much more tightly integrated with our worldview, and therefore our sense of self. So we’re far, far more reluctant to change our minds about the real nature of our religious institutions, the protectors of our financial system, the pundits who reassure us they know what’s going on, the political parties who are supposed to have America’s interests at heart, the government that’s supposed to be making sure the levees are sound, the oil rigs are safe, the financial system is stable, the nuclear stockpile is secure…
Gives you a headache, doesn’t it? Almost makes you want to throw up your hands and hide under the couch. It can’t be true. It can’t be that bad. And so we find ways to believe it isn’t. It would be a lot harder to get out of bed otherwise.
It’s one thing to accept that a politician is trying to screw you. It’s quite another to realize the screwing is being done by the entire party. It’s one thing to accept that an administration is corrupt and incompetent. It’s quite another to realize corruption and incompetence is endemic in the system itself. And it’s one thing to imagine in some vague way that the country is steered by a benign establishment. It’s quite another to accept that, as Simon Johnson of MIT argues and as Inside Out dramatizes, the benign establishment is in fact a rapacious oligarchy.
We’re possessed of a built-in reluctance to accept the rotten substance behind the shiny surface of institutional brands. We hesitate to understand the ugly reality behind the pretty facade. I don’t think this disinclination serves us well. Denial, as Dave Grossman has famously observed, has no survival value. If we want to survive our institutions, a good start would be seeing them for what they really are.