The key to understanding the self-branding of the right: "American Honky-Tonk Bar Association"

I don’t have a problem with genuine conservatives and libertarians, although I disagree with them quite a bit. Mitch Daniels and Richard Lugar are two Republican politicians in Indiana I respect (and I voted for Mitch in the past election). I’m disgusted, however, with the right-wingers whose actions are not based on a rational assessment of what is good for the United Stated but instead on a brand.

What do I mean by “brand” in this case?

I was watching the 1967 movie The President’s Analyst recently (definitely in my Top 10 of all time), and William Daniels (probably most famous as the voice of K.I.T.T. on Knight Rider) plays a good, patriotic, gun-toting, suburban liberal who has this to say about his right-wing neighbors (I’m writing this from memory, but it’s close):

…Big American flag up all the time. You know, real fascists.

It’s common knowledge that there was a conservative movement in 1967, but the fact that the same brand was around (and recognized as such) back then was surprising to me.

The best, most succinct explication of this brand in popular culture is perhaps the song American Honky-Tonk Bar Association (lyrics), a hit song on the 1993 Garth Brooks album In Pieces (written by Kennedy/Rushing, according to This song doesn’t just hint at a political perspective; it’s a political manifesto in country song form!

Despite my political disagreement with the song, I love it, and it’s on my iPod. It’s just a great, twangy country song, and I can understand where the lyrics are coming from. I was a self-identifying conservative in 1994, when I voted Republican in the mid-term election that gave control of both houses to the GOP. I continued to so self-identify until the 2000 election, when I supported Al Gore but did not vote (I missed the 1992, 1996, and 2000 elections from being in Japan; it really isn’t easy to absentee vote when you live abroad). I voted for Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008.

There are a few reasons why I considered myself conservative until 2000:

  • I was raised in a self-identifying Republican household.
  • As a kid, I was told Reagan was good, he seemed good, and in fact I still think that, overall, he was good and the right president for the times (many, many caveats go along with this statement!).
  • Contrariwise, I really hated Bill Clinton. He always struck me as a smug, sleazy jackass, and this opinion hasn’t changed much over time (I now think he was an able administrator and his politics were mostly in the right direction).
  • I liked the conservative message of small government. I like order. Small and orderly sounds good. The “Contract with America” sounded good.
  • I was young and ignorant of many things.

I point out these things to emphasize that I despise the current right-wing brand not because I have always opposed conservatism or was raised a Democrat or a liberal.

A few lines from the song:

When Uncle Sam dips in your pocket
For most things you don’t mind
But when your dollar goes to all of those
Standing in a welfare line

Small government, personal responsibility, etc. Many would say that the racist dog whistle is in here, too.

It represents the hardhat
Gunrack, achin’-back
Over-taxed, flag-wavin’, fun-lovin’ crowd
Their heart is in the music
And they love to play it loud

The rest is all here. These are the Sarah Palin lovers, the real red-blooded Americans. Not the East Coast “elites.” By implication, the members of the Association are white and nominally Christian.

The brand is the same today as it was in 1993. The only problem is that the world is not the same.

  • In 1993, we’d just had two Republican presidents with genuine accomplishments: Reagan and Bush the Elder. In 2009, the last Republican president is widely acknowledged to be one of the worst in the country’s history, and his many failures were the direct effects of his right-wing worldview.
  • In 1994, the idea of small government still seemed plausible. The Contract with America, however, ended up a disaster, and G.W. Bush and his Republican Congress only increased the size of government. Finally, in 2008 and 2009, the government has had to step in and save the private sector from itself. The “small government” meme is now for suckers only.
  • The most recent Republican candidates–McCain and Palin–were freaks. McCain a freak by choice, Palin by inclination, it would seem.

In other words, you have a brand without a product. Lacking ideas and credibility, composed only of words and images itself, all the right can do to the left is expectorate negative words and images and hope they stick: calling Obama a Nazi, appealing to patriotic images at “tea parties,” shouting down Democrats with slogans at “town hells,” and painting a picture of national health care that includes “Death Panels.”

A brand without a product, however, can’t last. The American right, at least in its current form, is evaporating. Maybe intelligent Republicans like Mitch Daniels can regroup, rebrand, and rebuild before it’s too late.

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