Have you ever won or lost a political argument? Have you or an opponent ever said: “Your facts and logic are overpowering, I have to concede that you’re right.” It’s never happened, has it? It doesn’t happen because politics has little to do with facts and logic. It’s anchored in emotions that take root in infancy and are so deeply ingrained they are undoubtedly part of humanity’s evolutionary code. No bond is more enduring than that between parent and child, and none is more laden with psychological baggage. While political argument will always be a frustratingly fruitless endeavor, you can at least understand why this is so, and perhaps avoid wasting your time.
The first lesson infants learn, evolutionarily hardwired, is that mom provides. She supplies the physical basics, and psychological sustenance as well. She smiles and coos, delighted by almost everything her baby does. “Mom,” as in mom and the apple pies she cooks, has a sacred, unrivaled place in the human conscious and subconscious. Insulting someone’s mother is an invitation to a fight. Whether you realize or admit it or not, the person that bore, gave birth, and nurtured you through childhood has a outsize presence in your psyche.
“Branding” is a marketing buzzword, but one of some intellectual value in a field littered with useless emissions. If you’re trying to sell something, you want consumers to associate your product or service with a simple but psychologically powerful concept. Food companies and restaurant chains sell healthy and delicious, or tie eating into warm memories. Purveyors of athletic clothes and footwear link themselves with athletic excellence. The fat blob swilling beer on the couch gets winded going to the refrigerator, but wears Nike sweats. Cosmetic and fashion companies peddle hope to millions of women and men who will never look like the models who show off the merchandise. Insurance and home security companies sell fear.
The Democratic party is mom: it’s going to take care of you. It is not a coincidence that its ascendancy in the 1930s and 40s occurred after women got the vote. Mom is unconditional love. She may scold you after you mess up, even send you to your room without dinner, but she’ll never starve you. When the chips are really down, she’ll be there. Franklin Roosevelt rebranded the Democratic party and the federal government. He transformed the government into the ultimate provider and the Democratic party into mom, standing by her children as they face life’s brutal exigencies. Like him or hate him, he did a masterful job; the rebranding still works over eighty years after he first took office, an extraordinarily durable marketing theme.
The Republican party is dad. Its branding is not on internal, familial issues, but the external—working, protecting, and providing for the family as a whole. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have been most responsible for current Republican branding. Reagan’s peace through strength rhetoric and policies were directed towards the Soviet Union. Bush essentially redirected them towards Islamic extremism. On economic issues, the Republicans have conflated the well-being of large, multinational corporations with the well-being of the average working American. Thus, virtually open immigration and international trade agreements, misleadingly labeled “free trade,” have been sold as essential to the country’s economic health.
Donald Trump is not attempting to rebrand the Republican party, but to demonstrate that it has failed in its fatherly duties and to show he can restore it. The national security state is open to a myriad of criticisms, but the criticism that resonates, the one upon which Trump must constantly amplify, is that it has failed to protect Americans. Dead soldiers and trillions spent in far away lands are one thing, regrettable but mostly ignored in this country. When blowback terrorism reaches kissing cousin Europe, and more importantly, the United States, dad hasn’t done his job. One of Trump’s first big controversies was when he criticized George W. Bush for failing to protect us from 9/11. The howls of outrage from the traditional candidates and their punditry spoke volumes. It was, however, a masterstroke—linking the traditional Republican president to a massive security failure—and it worked.
Trump has linked immigration to terrorism, crime, and economic stagnation: again, dad falling down on the job, not protecting and providing. His criticisms of trade agreements have paternal resonance. Jobs and industry have left the US, preventing, through no fault of their own, men who worked in the vanished factories from providing for their families. They are not looking for sustenance from mom, but rather a chance to fulfill their role as fathers, and they’ve become Trump’s base. These Republicans are the kid who sees his dad drunk in a bar when he’s supposed to be on the job he hasn’t told the family he no longer has. The kid knows something is terribly wrong. Trump tells the kid that he can sober up dad, get him back to work, and keep the kid and his family safe.
Hillary Clinton is attempting political androgyny. She’s the single parent mom and dad, fitting for the party whose policies have created so many single parent families. She is appealing to those Republicans who believe that belligerent foreign intervention, open borders, and corporate managed trade will protect the family and bring home the bacon. Sixteen challengers thought those articles of faith still fit the Republican brand; they lost to the candidate who didn’t. Maybe enough of the daddy-traditionalists will overcome their intense loathing of all things Clinton to make a difference, maybe not. However, the strategy may well backfire with her own party.
If Bernie Sanders had been a candidate in the 1960s, his supporters would undoubtedly have been viscerally and vociferously opposed to the Vietnam War. Today, to they extent they show any concern about foreign and military affairs, Democrats worry that money spent on foreign interventions is money that should have been spent at home—dad taking money from mom. Sanders’ supporters are the ultimate mom voters, and they might have upended Clinton had the process not been rigged. So far, they haven’t warmed up to the candidate who’s trying to out-dad the Republicans, rigged the nomination, and only pays lip service to their “needs.” Satisfying needs is what moms do, and if Hillary doesn’t credibly address their psychology, many will sit on their hands or vote for Jill Stein.
What about those who don’t have mommy or daddy issues, who stand on their own two feet and don’t want to be bothered by the mommy-crats and daddy-crats? Their numbers are so small they’re politically irrelevant. Pathological psychological dependency feeds on itself, reinforced by tribalism. Crowds are stupid; wisdom is solitary. The individualists see the light, but only because they broke from the pack and thought for themselves. They owe their wisdom more to what they’ve read (mostly on the Internet), and thought about on their own, than what they’ve been told, and told to accept. The mommy and daddy analysis of politics offers them only the cold comfort of an explanation as to why they never win arguments, although they usually have history, facts, and logic on their side. Now, at least, they can avoid wasting their precious time.
NOBODY’S GOING TO READ A NOVEL ABOUT A BANKER