For years, progressives have countered right wing nonsense with reason, hoping that rational debate would expose the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of their Republican opponents.  That hasn’t worked very well–over the past three decades, Democrats have only been able to win the White House after Republicans made such a mess of things that people became desperate for sanity.  Most of the time, Republicans have been able to carry the day at the presidential level (and, increasingly, in the House and Senate–notwithstanding Sen. Orrin Hatch’s recent historical revisionism, Republicans controlled both houses of Congress nearly the entire period from 1995-2006) .  The Republicans haven’t done it by winning any intellectual debates—they don’t play in that arena.  As I have discussed previously, the party stands for absolutely nothing other than the pursuit of power.

Fortunately for the right wing, and unfortunately for those of us who think, as Franklin Roosevelt did, that all Americans deserve basic rights necessary for a decent life, success in American politics in recent years does not depend on having good ideas.  One thing the Republican party has done very well is marketing.  Its slogans capture the media’s attention and often define the national discourse–"big government", "tax and spend liberal", "family values", "soft on crime", "war on terrorism".  They have taken the principles developed by Madison Avenue and applied them to political campaigns.  Unfortunately, right wing snake oil merchants aren’t just selling us a Snuggie or a Pet Rock–they’re selling us disastrous candidates who are utterly unqualified to govern.

For too long, progressives have ceded the rhetorical field to the right wing, relying on good substantive ideas to carry the day.  Countering the Republicans doesn’t mean joining them in their embrace of intellectual bankruptcy, but it does mean understanding the value of a good meme or a powerful anecdote.  There are some signs that elected progressives now understand this–I’m thinking of Rep. Alan Grayson in particular.  He gained attention when he responded to the idiotic "death panel" claim by pointing out that the current system Republicans are defending actually is allowing people to die, right now–or, as Grayson put it: the Republican plan for health care is don’t get sick, and if you do, die quickly. 

Grayson’s a brilliant guy who is much more than just a catchy sloganmaker–he can embarrass Republicans when they try to dabble in serious thinking.  But he clearly understands the value of a good meme, and he has suggested one that President Obama and other Democrats ought to repeat regularly: Republicans are simply obstructionists.  When it comes to health care, jobs, war, the environment, they have no real ideas, just empty slogans and nonsensical talking points.

In the current political wasteland, the Democrats are preferable to the Republicans only because the Republicans are not a serious political party.  However, it’s not clear that people who are spending their time raving about death panels, presidential birth certificates, and Communism can be counted out.  For those of us who favor sanity, it’s worth following Grayson’s lead and making sure the public understands that the Republican and right wing answer to the problems they created is to stand in the way of solutions.  President Obama and other Democrats would do well to adopt this approach as well.  Good ideas still matter, but they are not enough.  You have to be sure the right wing doesn’t, once again, succeed with its old marketing gimmicks.

Chris Edelson

Chris Edelson

Chris is a lawyer and professor at American University who writes frequently about current political and media issues. His writing has also been published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Metroland (Albany, NY), and at