It didn’t seem likely that I’d want to write about politics for a month or so. But in the week between the U.S. Presidential Election and now, I’ve derived heaps of guilty pleasure watching Republicans wallow in a smelly brew of blame-placing, quick fixery, and superficial self-scrutiny. Add to this aromatic spectacle the fact that I’m still tied for the lead in my fantasy football league . . . whatta week!
The portion of the GOP commentariat that isn’t absolutely insane has settled into what at first appears to be useful clear-eyedness based on actual fact: we lost, and there must be a reason why we lost, and it’s really not Superstorm Sandy or left-wing media and polling bias. (So far, so good.) Sooooo . . . it must be the newly discovered demographic of “the Latino,” and/or our unfriendly “tone’” toward “the Latino” (and maybe toward women, who apparently didn’t care for crazy, stupid, and misogynistic men making repulsive comments about rape . . . and maybe toward young voters, who tend to have a ‘live-and-let-live’ attitude toward marriage equality and even, gasp, toward recreational marijuana).
But forget gays and gals. Demographically based Republican ‘real arithmetic’ (that writes off African Americans, even though this voting sector doesn’t necessarily have to be one billion-to-one pro-Democratic) rules the airwaves. Therefore:
Let’s Party! Fiesta! Marco Rubio! He’s Latino, right? 2016, amigos y compañeros! And while we’re at it, let’s stop reflexively prefacing the word ‘immigrant’ with the word ‘illegal.’ Even Sean Hannity converted (in the space of two days) from a rabid ‘anti-immigrant’ blatherer to someone who instantly ‘evolved’ into a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform.
Plus, if we absolutely have to look at the gender gap that we’d erroneously claimed we’d closed: let’s stop talking about rape. Period. Even if it takes generously applied full-mouth duct tape.
And if we do that (say the ostensibly non-crazy Republicans), we’ll re-brand ourselves into success. We embrace Latinos and we love women (gracias, Ann Romney).
The problem with all of this, it seems to me, is that today’s Republican Party does not understand ‘branding.’ Nor does it understand situational irony.
‘Rebranding’ (the word has been bandied about frequently by Republican politicians and pundits this past week) does not mean botoxing a logo or slogan. It means reconsidering the value of the product or service or industry in question, a reconsideration usually undertaken when the said product/service/industry has lost market share (or sometimes when it’s taken an out-of-left-field hit, like the Tylenol sabotage situation). A company analyzes why its product is underperforming and often tries to figure out a way to improve the product, thus making it more attractive to its target consumer group.
A company also considers marketing strategy. Perhaps marketing has been directed at the wrong or at an ill-defined audience and – with the help of an improved product – could be sold successfully to a newly defined audience. Then and only then does a rebranding initiative deal with tweaking the graphics, the immediate face of the product/service/industry, in order to suggest, explain, or reinforce enhanced value, and to best convey this re-crafted image to a more precisely designated audience. What successful rebranding does not do is put lipstick on a pig.
Much of last week’s Republican ‘why-did-we-lose-when-we-were-sure-we’d win’ breast-beating has involved ‘messaging.’ Latinos took offense at phrases like ‘illegal aliens’ and ‘self-deportation.’ Women were upset by insensitive comments about their reproductive rights and their capacity to make decisions about them. Not-rich people didn’t like being referred to as folks who had no ‘personal responsibility’ and simply wanted to mooch off the ‘makers.’ True enough.
But the remedy is not just to change the wording – to refer to ‘illegal immigrants’ rather than to ‘illegal aliens,’ for instance (a minor rhetorical swerve that Mitt Romney was able to make). Nor is it to renounce, belatedly, the Todd Akins and Richard Mourdocks of the party (doesn’t matter anyway, as they’ve been defeated, and the electorate seems to have figured out that they weren’t really anomalies). Nor to windily proclaim that Republicans are inclusive, with no evidence to back up the claim (unless you count Allen West [African-American Republican wingnut loser] or Michele Bachmann [Female Republican wingnut winner]). The point is the product, not the messaging.
The product is seriously flawed.
Just read the 2012 Republican platform, which clearly stakes out reactionary positions on all sorts of issues (abortion, immigration, marriage equality, government assistance, etc. etc.), that – if anyone bothered to look at it – would annoy or outrage large segments of the U.S. electorate. Further, the driving raison d’être of the last Republican Congress – to defeat President Obama on each and every issue – was repudiated and exposed as cravenly self-serving by last week’s election. No amount of cosmetic ‘rebranding’ can fix the current Republican cluelessness about and tone-deafness toward what the majority of American voters actually considers to be fair, normal, and desirable.
Which is where irony comes in. In Western literary criticism and theory, irony is a notoriously slippery concept, rooted in the Socratic irony of the Platonic dialogues and understood mainly as a rhetorical device, in which what is said is contrary to what is meant. Such a definition presupposes that either the speaker is aware of this disjunction or the author manipulates a speaking character into this disjunctive position.
In the case of the Republican Party’s ongoing self-recriminatory flagellations, there are some instances of this sort of verbal irony (as when Party operatives talk about needing to modulate language referring to ‘illegal aliens’ so as not to upset ‘Latinos,’ not really getting that the phrase ‘illegal immigrants,’ while less infuriating than ‘illegal aliens,’ still couples ‘illegal’ with ‘immigrants’ and suggests an existential state [immigrants as human beings are or can be illegal] rather than an activity-related status [one can do something illegal; one is not ‘illegal’ per se]). Such instances reinforce the basic definition of irony: stating something contrary to what is meant or, by stating what one thinks one’s new message is, actually reinforcing the old message.
But for irony to be recognized – to operate in the literary or political universe – there must be a double audience: those who are the primary targets of a given utterance and those who are removed enough/informed enough to ‘get’ the irony. This is the realm of situational or dramatic irony, where the secondary audience sees the irony that the characters/speakers – or the author/dramatist/spinmeister/pundit, or the primary intended audience – do not see.
Those of us who aren’t Rush-Bo ditto-heads or Fox News mouth-breathers get to be the theater of irony’s secondary, situational audience. That would be: the majority of United States citizens. We can see and assess the chasm between rhetoric and policy. We can judge which spokespeople are seriously reconsidering the relevance and rightness of the Republican Party, version 2012, and which are hoping that cheap rebranding can save the coming day. We can ponder the ironic disconnect between an often thoughtful Republican like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s statements yesterday – that his party has to stop being the ‘stupid party’ – and the Ivy League-educated Jindal’s continuing support for teaching Creationism. We can weigh the sincerity of people like Bill Krystol who, after years of supporting the Republican party line that bans tax hikes on everyone everywhere, now blithely asserts that tax raises on the wealthiest Americans would be no big deal. We can savor the irony of Grover Norquist calling someone else a ‘poopy-head.’
I truly hope that the Republican Party rebrands itself in a significant rather than a superficial way, that it cuts through its un-self-aware verbal irony and deals with the situational irony it has generated. I believe that our country benefits from having a strong two-party system (who knows, a strong three-party system may work, but it hasn’t so far . . . and a one-party system doesn’t seem to me a very good idea). I think that the GOP can offer creative and helpful ideas about fiscal policy (and I wish that in its paroxysms of rebranding, it puts these ideas at the forefront). Even though I’ve been a Democrat all my adult life, I do remember times when there were a lot of Republicans I admired and might have voted for. I’d like those times to return . . . and return in a way that deals with our current challenges, concerns, and demographics – with our United States – honestly and usefully.