Brand Aids
The elephant can’t forget, even if it wanted to.

Attendees at the 2012 GOP convention in Tampa Bay


Daniel Foster

All this talk about the need for a GOP “rebranding” sounds a bit funny when you reflect on the origin of the word “brand.” Per Merriam-Webster, it dates back to around the twelfth century (so long ago that Popes were still resigning their commissions) and comes from the Old English bærnan, meaning to burn or torch. For nigh a millennium, the dominant sense of “brand” was probably “a mark made by burning with a hot iron to designate ownership” of, say, livestock. Or, more darkly still, “a mark put on criminals with a hot iron; a mark of disgrace.” Then dawned the Mad Men era, neutralizing and reappropriating the literal meaning for figurative purposes. (Nobody talks about Apple Inc.’s iconic “mark of disgrace.”)

But one semantic feature that “brand” retained in the interval is its sense of permanence. The interaction of red-hot iron with epidermis tends to leave a lasting impression — physical and psychological — on the brandee, and it’s worth thinking about this when Eric Cantor gives a speech about Republicans’ needing to project policies that “make life work,” or David Brooks calls for a “Second GOP” of moderate Republicans to soft-sell coastal suburbanites. New vocabularies and some show candidates are nice, and might improve the GOP’s performance around the margins, but they are not by themselves going to dramatically change the dynamics. Brooks himself concedes that the Republican party in its current incarnation is not maneuverable enough to turn on a dime, which is why he advocates stapling a kind of de novo adjunct to it.

Still, the fact remains that brands — like all third-degree burns — fade slowly. (Consider that in 1936, Democratic newspapers were reminding Republican-leaning African-American readers that “Abraham Lincoln is not a candidate in the presidential election.”) This is why I doubt much will come of these misnamed rebranding efforts in the near term. There is simply too much scar tissue constricting the movement of the party. Here are five examples.

Compromise is a vector

In physics, some measurable quantities, such as speed, are scalars, expressible in terms of magnitude alone. Others, like velocity, are vectors, which have both a magnitude and a direction. So “500 miles per hour” is a scalar, but “500 miles per hour, heading south-by-southwest” is a vector. The confusion between scalars and vectors explains just about every clash between the Republican and Democratic parties in their current forms.

When Democrats protest — as the president did in his recent New Republic interview, and a thousand other times — that Democrats are more willing to “compromise” than Republicans, he is sort of right. He is sort of right because Democrats tend to assume that the direction component of a given policy vector is fixed — every maneuver sets a course toward more government, and “compromise” just means quibbling over speed.

This is why in Washington, the solution to a problem like health care is assumed from the get-go to entail more intervention, not less, and why a “spending cut” usually means a mere slowing of the growth of expenditures that are nevertheless vectored out toward infinity. By contrast, the current Republican party is more or less defined by its desire to have both components of the vector on the table in any given policy debate.

This is the essence of the party, not some accidental feature that can be buffed out or covered up. Conceding the direction part of the vector might make Republicans more popular with certain demographics or in certain locales, but it would also make them, as it were, pointless. To stretch the physics metaphor to its breaking point, it would make American politics one-dimensional. This is the deep truth that, e.g., Bobby Jindal is getting at when he warns that “America already has one liberal party; she doesn’t need another.”

The Granularity of the House

This overarching, almost Manichean dynamic between the Forces of More and the Forces of Less requires something like the current Republican party to exist. In other words, it means that even if there weren’t the current GOP, you’d have to invent it. Lest you think this is a wholly abstract argument, consider how this dynamic plays out on the ground. Namely, in the House of Representatives. When we pundits and operatives make holistic arguments about what “the party” needs to do, we tend to forget that the provincial congressman is still more or less the atomic unit of Washington, D.C. Transforming the Republican party (or the Democratic party, for that matter) thus means transforming (or replacing) a couple hundred former zoning-board members in safe seats, who combined have a total of zero incentive to listen to what David Brooks or Matt Lewis has to say about the national party. The granularity of the House, along with a healthy dose of gerrymandering that will subsidize Republican majorities for the next decade, means that there are precious few levers that would-be rebranders can pull that will make a difference at the macro level.