I’m sure you have all seen and participated in those blind taste tests. I know that I have. But last night, I thought a bit more about the subject. About a year ago, I tried one of the ketchup tests that compared Heinz to Hunts. Unlike soft drinks which I think are easily distinguishable, (Coke and Pepsi don’t taste a thing alike); I haven’t been in the business of comparing ketchup and cannot readily identify them by taste. As a result of the test, I found that I preferred Hunts’ Ketchup to Heinz. When I looked into the fridge to see which ketchup I purchased last, I found out it was Heinz, not Hunts. How could this be? As stated, I discovered that I liked the taste of Hunts better and yet I did not buy it when I had the chance. Why? The answer is brand loyalty. When I think of ketchup, I picture in my mind’s eye the familiar Heinz bottle and then, if I don’t take time to think about it, I instinctively picked up the most familiar bottle. When I think of tissues, I think of Kleenex, paper towels Bounty, toothpaste Aquafresh, the list goes on. They may not be the best products, but if I buy these products without thinking, I assure you I will buy these brands each and every time. That’s nice, you might be thinking, but what does shopping has anything to do with politics, the primary topic of this blog? Believe it or not, I think the concept of brand loyalty unconsciously goes through your mind when it comes to both politics and religion.
First let’s tackle the issue of religion. Although I’m aware a significant portion of folks don’t go to church while on vacation, or when simply out of town, but chances are that if you do, you’ll be attending a church that’s a member of your regular denomination. I’ve noticed this trend most often with Catholic friends, but I think it holds true across the spectrum. For example, when I attended college I went to a PCUSA church. For those familiar with the Presbyterian denomination, you may ask incredulously, “the PCUSA? Aren’t they the liberal ones?” And yes, you would be correct, they are the liberals. So why would a conservative be a member of such a church? The answer again deals with brand loyalty. Sometime before my 11th birthday, my family became members of the local branch. Believe it or not, the hometown church was quite conservative and, as I knew little of the denomination, I assumed that all PCUSA churches were like the one in which I grew up. Like ketchup, you figure one bottle (or church) bearing the label is more or less the same as any other. After several conversations with the local clergy and members in Williamsburg, I found that indeed the assumptions I held about the PCUSA were in error and the denomination was far too liberal for my theological beliefs. And yet I still attended the church, although admittedly very sporadically, until the tail end of my senior year when I found a much more conservative church. It is interesting to note that as my hometown church colored my opinion of the brand, so too did this college church. It’s like what happens when you consume a heavily expired product. That unexpected and distasteful flavor dissuades you from trying the product in the future. To the best of my knowledge, with the exception of my hometown church, I haven’t ever gone to another PSUSA church since then. Unfortunately, the extreme liberalism of the denomination has tainted that brand.
Let’s move on to the topic of politics. Brand loyalty is extremely important here and I believe that both the Republicans and Democrats cultivate the notion in order to maintain their voter base. In fairly recent times (since FDR) Republicans have been viewed as small government conservatives and Democrats are big government liberals. Do these assumptions apply to all Republicans and Democrats? Certainly they do not, but it is far easier to stereotype the brand. Why do I have to research the candidates for any office? Who best represents my values? These questions nag us in the back of the mind. What answer comes to the rescue? Brand loyalty! It’s easy, it’s always the Republican, and they are the conservatives. Now I admit it, more than once I have voted for a candidate who branded an R beside his or her name even though I knew nothing of the particular person. The great danger with such brand labeling in politics is that you can get an uninformed electorate who are more devoted to party labels than principles. In such a case, a person may vote for a candidate who stands in stark contrast to the voter, or even the perceived image of the party itself. For example, there are regional differences. In general, a Republican from Virginia is far more conservative than a Republican from Vermont. In addition, parties do change over time. Consider the words of Barry Goldwater. “I don’t necessarily vote a straight ticket in my own state because there are sometimes Democrats out there who are better than Republicans. It is hard to believe but it is true.” (Jan. 8, 1964) Despite what you may think, the Republicans and the Democrats of the 1880s are not quite the same as the parties of today. Although some politicians like to draw a point of continuity between their principles and their supposed founders, one should not be drawn in by such simplistic rhetoric. The “party of Lincoln” and the “party of Jefferson” have routinely held viewpoints that are radically different than their namesakes. Did not Thomas Jefferson himself say, “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all” (Mar. 13, 1789)?
I suppose the take-home message from this article is that one should be a conscientious consumer whether making purchases in the store, choosing one’s church, and deciding for whom to vote. Don’t misunderstand me, I still plan to vote Republican in most elections, and if the PCUSA is your cup of tea, then by all means don’t let me stop you. But we must remain vigilant or else our brands can radically change under our noses. Regardless of your personal feelings toward President Bush, hasn’t the Republican Party significantly strayed from its conservative moorings lately? How many new government agencies have come into existence? How much has federal spending and the deficit grown? How many of our liberties have been sacrificed in the name of security? How has the Constitution been eroded? Is it no wonder that even a moderate like Representative Tom Davis recently stated, “The Republican brand is in the trash can. I’ve often observed that if we were dog food, they would take us off the shelf”? And could it be that the politics, policies, and theology of your denomination differ wildly from your own? Just wanted to give some food for thought. Trust your brands, but I encourage you to verify their contents. Sooner or later you might realize what you are eating and I certainly don’t want the next bite you take to leave a bitter taste in your mouth.