AFP, reality t.v., and Wisconsin GOP

I had an epiphany at the Americans For Prosperity Town Hall meeting here in Waukesha on Saturday morning. I realized that marketing, not facts, wins elections. In our collaborative post, Phil Scarr and I provided fancy charts and graphs to dispute many of the AFP’s factually inaccurate statements, and we made some jokes at their expense. But it would be disingenuous of me to exclude these findings: the AFP event was tight, I secretly coveted their marketing capabilities, and it would behoove liberals to utilize their methods.

Now, before some radio show host goes all knee-jerk reaction on me, I will clarify: I am NOT saying we should be more like the Wisconsin GOP. But taking a page from its strategic playbook would prove incredibly useful. Yes, we’re in the right, and we should be able to just talk about all of the horrible things Walker has done to our state in the last year (too numerous to list here) to get him out of office.

Unfortunately, though, it isn’t enough to be “right,” not in the age of reality television. Like reality t.v., what you get from the GOP isn’t always “real.” But it doesn’t matter because both have mastered the art of editing. With editing power, reality has become somewhat irrelevant, as it was at the AFP  Town Hall.

The entire event was carefully orchestrated and the true reality of what Walker has done to the middle-class in Wisconsin was scrubbed, sanitized, and handed back to the audience in an easily digestible format. From the nine minute video to the messaging that never once veered off track to the panel discussion that allowed the audience to feel included, the AFP had it going on.  It was executed with military precision; not a second was wasted. It felt less like a political event and more like a motivational seminar.

The AFP even told the audience up-front that they weren’t there to talk politics; they were there to spread the “good news” about the reality-that the Walker Way was working. The whole event was slightly evangelical in nature, but it was damn effective.  Eight hundred and fifty people left that Town Hall, free dvd in hand, invigorated, empowered, and eager to spread The Word of Walker.

I have attended many events in my thirteen-year career as an activist, some very well put-together and successful…but none quite like the AFP’s. I would encourage liberals to attend events like this one (if they can stomach it) to see for themselves what we’re up against, and what we could do to tighten our messaging and marketing techniques.

I don’t have all the answers, far from it. But I do know that if we assume we’re going to win the recall because the facts are on our side and obvious, we’ll all be in for a big shock come election time.

I recognize that the Democratic Party of Wisconsin has a messaging system already in place. I understand that the Wisconsin GOP has the funds to assist with its fancy marketing provided, in part, by the Koch brothers. But I’m also unwilling to accept the premise that we can’t amp up our own marketing, AFP-style, so that we can WIN.


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18 thoughts on “AFP, reality t.v., and Wisconsin GOP

  1. It makes me laugh every time I see some one reference the koch brothers…like only the gop has large corporations behind them…

  2. Walker stated on the News that he saved every person in Wisconsin $69 PER PERSON on home owners tax. REALLY? MINE WENT UP $30. Where was the savings? He stated that he has MADE 7,000 jobs in Wisconsin, meanwhile a person in the Doc’s office stated her son is being laid off now because his plant in Kewaunee is CLOSING. So him & 3,000 other people are OUT in the streets right before Christmas. So where is the jobs he promised? He promised that Mandatory Auto insurance is a crime & he would get rid of it. Still here we sit with Auto insurance costs rising & filling up our jails with innocent people who just couldn’t afford it while looking for a job. I am SO SICK of politics on BOTH sides because don’t forget it was Dickhead Doyle who took money from Bush & made this an insurance state to begin with. *sigh*

  3. I think it’s more than marketing. Not that marketing isn’t involved–it is. But there’s more. The right very often focuses on values rather than just issues, and values tend to grab listeners viscerally in a way that facts and issues can’t. With the help of George Lakoff, I’ve been thinking a lot about how progressives communicate their values. This article at Truthout is a good introduction. I’m currently reading Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision, which is an even better introduction. To make the most of whatever marketing Progressives do, we need to think more about effectively communicating our values–like social as well as personal responsibility, equal opportunity and fairness, true representative democracy, caring for and protecting each other, and preserving and protecting the environment for the benefit of all.

    1. Mary makes a good point here, although it’s important to not allow ourselves to get over-confident and delusional about “WE’RE the ones with the FACTS…”

      It kind of squiks me out to think about adopting AFP’s pomp-and-polish branding though.. I mean how beneficial is it to defeat the demon if you turn into it?

  4. Thank you – this is exactly the type of thinking we must be doing. We have so many intelligent people our side that could out-think them if we understood how unscrupulos they really are.

  5. Another area in which WI-GOP puts WisDems to shame (with notable exceptions of course) is the cultivation of young talent. WI-GOP closely monitors the college Young Repulicans circuit — both in public and private colleges and universities — identifies and grooms potential talent and moves graduates into paying gigs in the various conservative branded organizations around the state. WisDems would be wise to steal that page from its opponents’ playbook.

    1. You’re exactly right Jim. Only they start before college, my daughter was solicited in her junior year of high school.

    2. The problem with that is that there isn’t a wide range of liberal branded organizations in Wisconsin like there is for conservatives.

      1. They do have scores of them, don’t they? And they pop up, usually with similar names and mix-and-match staffs, to pay for a commercial or two then fade away. They’re like geranimals.

        1. And until we can match that infrastructure with something of our own, we won’t be able to match their ability to push a specific message and recruit/groom quality candidates.

  6. One thing that is forgotten here, is that they arent really that good at “marketing” but are masterful at manipulating language (as well as truth). I suppose in a way that is marketing, but a large part of why the GOP is so good at fooling people is that they co-op phrases and words to suit their message, and the masses swallow it up whole, like so many lemmings. I probably dont have to remind everyone who the best manipulators of language and truth were during the 20th century.

  7. Thank you, Lisa, for a thoughtful and inciteful piece. It initiated a productive thread. I am not sure how I can add to it, although I was surprised that you experienced an “epiphany” that marketing wins elections.

    There are many more Republicans who are involved in advertising and evangelism (an eerie combination described by Lisa) than there are Democrats. “We” may have good language skills, but not many Libs have learned how to use them to appeal at a viseral level. Perhaps we think we are “above” that, or that we can/should use logic. I agree with Lisa we need to win.

    I was very interested in Mary Ray’s comments. I believe we have solid values that would be better for people and communities. We need to learn to communicate without sounding superior or self righteous. Mary, thank you for your input, I must follow up on it

  8. You nailed most of the fundamentals: The GOP and their enablers preach values, just as if they were religious leaders rather than policy makers. They are military-like in their execution. Soul-less, too, of course. But the single biggest reason they succeed? Money, and huge gobs of it. Bucks are what they throw at problems, even public problems after they win control in elections; they just won’t own up to that. Also, they are extremely well connected to a business community that can draw on considerable marketing, PR and advertising expertise.

    The old SF series “Babylon 5” made reference to this obliquely in one episode. The chief advisor to the emperor of an alien race wants to be in charge, so he secretly works to undermine the boss. He plans an assassination, but he wants to ensure he and his pals will be positioned to take over without trouble. So he sets up an event where the emperor will give a hugely stirring and ambiguous speech which, after the man is dispatched, will be re-interpreted to mean the government should be authoritarian and nasty — just like we were after 9/11, although this show aired before that. Anyway, the advisor is talking to one of his minions and says (I paraphrase): “We’ve developed a speech that will stir hearts and make people believe as you and I do. Our staff has been working on it for months. It’s perfect.”

    That, in a capsule, is how the GOP and conservatism in general operates as a matter of course. Karl Rove plots out his attacks months and years in advance. He doesn’t react, he plots pro-actively. It’s a marketing scheme and also a chess game. And like I said, it’s soul-less and exceedingly cold, mercenary stuff. To these guys, politics is war by other means.

  9. I agree that the way we communicate our ideas and goals is key. GOP’s may be BS’ing people and lying their asses off, but they don’t apologize for the BS they sell, and they don’t care what we in the decency community think. We’re too often “well, on this hand, but on the other hand…” with our responses, and waste time trying to be civil and respectful to a group hell-bent on destroying us.

    In that regard we can be more like them – we need to HAMMER HOME the points of fairness in taxation and increasing opportunity for the average person, and stop crouching in the corner worrying about what a paid hacks from WTMJ or WISN or WPRI think. If we battle their heat with some fire of our own, we can’t lose, because we have the facts and the reality of the last 80 years on our side. As double-down Trent in “Swingers” might say: “Politeness my a$$. What voters want is honesty…don’t apologize for it.”

    Jim’s point about a lack of bench is true, but it’s also harder to do that on the left because we don’t have many Koch/ Bradley-funded think tanks and monopoly on talk radio like the tightie righties do. So it should fire us up to work harder and be more active in getting our message out, and if it steps on a few toes, so what?

  10. I think the other thing you’ll notice about the righties is that when they have power they use it.

    It was a health care reform uprising that played a huge role in bringing Dems to power in Madison and DC in 2008. And it was the failure to respond adequately to that demand, ( Healthy Wisconsin, Public Option) that played a huge role in our shellacking in 2010.

  11. Thank you for your comments and a great discussion, everyone! Just because I don’t always respond to the comments doesn’t mean I don’t read them and appreciate them-I do.

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