Liberal ‘Mad Men’ in an unbranded era

Brad Todd Founding Partner, OnMessage Inc.
Font Size:

Washington’s pundits have been united this spring. They’ve concluded that a single shift in culture on gay marriage has marooned one of America’s political ideologies from the public majorities of tomorrow.

The pundits are right that one political philosophy is being left behind but wrong about which one. It is liberals, not conservatives, who are chained to an ideology built for yesterday’s culture. The proof of this realignment is not on cable news, but on cable television’s hippest drama, “Mad Men,” which this week kicked off its final season to great fanfare.

The easy news peg of a Supreme Court case and lazy analysis of top-line polling on gay marriage has provided the latest, but not first, excuse for coastal elites to write off conservatism as a dead ideology with a literally dying cohort. The smarter read would project the future of modern liberal statism by examining the health of its complementary institutions in society.

Today’s American liberalism is little changed from the incarnation best expressed in the New Deal and its larger successor, the Great Society. So static is this left-wing template that the liberal gold standard in the debate over Barack Obama’s health care reform proposals was “Medicare for all.”

The left’s unflinching confidence in singly designed, government-mandated policy solutions is rooted not in centuries-old theory, but in the collective emotional DNA of the post-war era. When President Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Great Society programs in the 1960s, every decision-maker had lived through two searing national crises, the Depression and World War II, which, along with new broadcast communications technology, had turned a regionalized country into a common culture. Don Draper’s America was a customer base primed to accept nationalized solutions to every problem in sight.

LBJ sold that audience national retirement pensions as easily as the age’s Mad Men built national brands of soap and beer. Similarly, the rest of society’s institutions nationalized as well — the American Legion, the Moose Lodge and the Methodist Church saw their ranks explode as the parents of Baby Boomers equated quality with conformity.

Fifty years later, Budweiser now disguises its products as pseudo-craft brands and the Methodist Church is withering in plain sight. The dominant brands of this age are not purveyors of conformed consumption but enablers of individualization — Apple, Google and Facebook.

The Great Society voters relied on centrally distilled news products delivered by either Chet Huntley or Walter Cronkite, with no alternatives. Today, with infinite blogs, tweets and a zillion channels of cable, it’d be hard to find any two Americans whose news consumption habits are exactly the same.

Every American today takes it upon herself to solve virtually every problem in her life with a self-customized, individually unique, bottom-up solution. The angles on the best-selling golf clubs are now adjusted after they’re purchased. Workplace software is focused on dashboards, designed by the user, unique from one cubicle to the next. Customers at the decade’s most ubiquitous national food merchant, Starbucks, have developed an entire language to express their half-caf, soy-no-whip, double-shot individual solutions.

So why, in the era of individualization, is the American political left still selling top-down mandatory standardization in everything from health insurance to local electricity generation? When nearly every thriving national brand succeeds by empowering Americans to seek and achieve different results, only the Democratic Party is peddling redistribution and a system that on its best day generates only mushy mediocrity.

Liberal statism is not only detached from the individualist ethic that drives this century’s Americans, it is locked into its detachment by incurable pessimism. Democrats cannot abandon redistributionist policies without accepting that Americans, working hard by their own damn selves with tools they’ve been given by a power far greater than a federal agency, can cross class lines and become financially secure. The left not only needs pessimism, it is defined by pessimism.

There will be times when pessimism, and its nasty cousin envy, will be enough of a tag team to win national elections even in this age of individual innovation — especially when we as Republicans fumble as we did in 2012 and present ourselves as the economic class that demands to be envied.

Those exceptions notwithstanding, the trajectories of the two political movements relative to the arc of our culture are clear. The top-down national policy party bears more resemblance to the Oldsmobile while the bottom-up individual freedom party has a chance to ably represent the App Generation.

Brad Todd is a Republican ad-maker, strategist and founding partner of the advertising and opinion research agency OnMessage Inc.