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Branding, Political Tribes, Health Care and Holidays from Thinking

GOP health care plans make it plain that it’s time to break out of tribal political thinking and begin thinking for ourselves.

In marketing, the purpose of branding is to short-circuit consumer thinking or at least grant thinking a holiday. Forget the substantive benefits or dangers of what you’re buying. Let “brand loyalty” do your thinking for you. It’s like the old advice that if you always park your car in the same place in the garage you won’t have to bother your brain to remember where your car is. Branding is like that.

“Tribes” is a good word for a group of people loyal to one brand over another. There’s a Coca-Cola Tribe and a Pepsi Tribe, for instance. While each tribe might try to destabilize or raid the other, tribal loyalty is sticky. There’s apparent security in a tribe. And, as noted, tribal membership comes with reduced taxes on the brain. Generally, the consequences are few if brand loyalty involves laundry detergent. The consequences are dire if brand loyalty short-circuit’s thinking on matters of life or death.  Branding as a political practice is undermining popular democracy. When pundits bemoan the “polarized electorate,” they are really pointing to conflicts among tribes of brand loyalists. The weighing of substantive benefits no longer plays a significant role in political decision-making. Not that political thinking has ever been purely rational. It hasn’t. We think with our hearts as well.

Anyway, we can see this tribal loyalty at work today in the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with schemes all experts agree will leave millions of Americans uninsured, raise premiums on millions of others, and put at risk those with pre-existing conditions. Seventy-five million Americans, including millions of children, rely on Medicaid for their health care. Half of all Americans in nursing homes are there because of Medicaid. The just-revealed Senate bill would cut more than $800 billion from that program. The potential misery is immeasurable, and only the richest of the rich will see a benefit. Health care for the middle class and poor will be reduced to give a massive tax break to those lucky few at the top of our economic pyramid.

Polls consistently show a sizable majority of Americans oppose the GOP plans. The will of the citizens in this instance is being ignored. We should note that countries in which public preferences can’t be translated into policy are called “weak democracies” by political scientists. Shining City Upon a Hill? It would seem America has become a City Slipping Down the Hill. Republican leaders – as distinct from the people of good faith who believe in them as tribal elders – are counting on loyalty to their brand to help them avoid the consequences of destroying health care for many of their own voters. The same is true with GOP dismissal of the global climate crisis.

What of these tribes? A recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey of almost 1,700 Americans found that, “Nearly 7 in 10 rural residents say their values differ from those of people who live in big cities, including about 4 in 10 who say their values are ‘very different.’” The study found that our political polarization is based upon perceived cultural differences rather than pragmatic concerns for others or ourselves. There is no question that we are a nation of diverse backgrounds and cultural preferences. There are differences in values and those differences are the stuff of our political conflicts. That’s always been the case.

Still, the necessities of branding as a political practice have created false perceptions of those outside our own tribe. Texas is a great state to see and feel the exaggerated perceptions of different values among, say, rural and urban folks. A fellow from rural Wisconsin told the Washington Post, “Being from a rural area, everyone looks out for each other. People, in my experience, in cities are not as compassionate toward their neighbor as people in rural parts.”

Let’s think about this, because there is at least some superficial truth to it. I’ve often said that if your car breaks down outside San Angelo, it won’t be long before someone will pull over to help you. Help may not be as forthcoming on a Houston freeway. Of course, it’s harder and more dangerous to pull over on a freeway than a country highway. How do we square this rural fellow’s belief in his culture’s compassion with current tribal preferences?  By and large, it’s the locally compassionate folks of the Republican tribe who are least likely to support say, a health care system in which “everyone looks out for each other.”

Look, there’s a lot at work here. Racial concerns, differences in immediate local economic opportunities, perceptions of religious differences, inherited styles of family governance applied to politics, from the strict disciplinarian style to the more nurturant, egalitarian style. None of these factors are new to America. What is new, however, is the enhanced ability of political manipulators to exploit them for their own selfish purposes.

Our tribes are artificial. They are created and imposed upon us. Those who urge “country before party” are referring to the dangers of this phenomenon. Sophisticated tools of branding helped sort us into these artificial tribes. Their security is an illusion. It’s time we sacrificed tribal habits. In politics, we should come home from our holiday from thinking.