Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Problem With The America Right -- A Realistic View

In my last article, I took apart an article from The Economist which purported to outline the problems with the American right. Their arguments were of course, garbage. Basically, they concluded that the problem with the American right is that it doesn’t do the bidding of the left. Boo hoo. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems with the right. Here are the problems as I see them.

1. Poor Communication Skills.

The biggest problem with the right, and the one that has frustrated me to no end for decades, is that the right is very poor at communicating:

Conservative Politicians Don’t Understand The Principles
First, few of our politicians actually understand the principles for which they stand. The most obvious example is John McCain, who showed during the last election that he didn’t know the difference between an “earmark” and a deficit, didn’t understand how the Federal budget works, didn’t understand how or why free market principles work, didn’t understand when regulation is necessary and when it isn’t, and didn’t have a clue how tax cuts stimulate economic activity. Basically, he knew the buzzwords but doesn’t understand the principles.

What this means is that McCain and the rest are incapable of explaining those principles to the public in a way that is understandable and persuasive. It also means that McCain and the rest are incapable of coming up with conservative, free market solutions to the nation’s problems. More than anything, this is what keeps the public wary of Republicans -- they don’t know what we stand for, we can’t seem to explain it, and we often seem not to have any solutions to offer.

This is why sixty percent of the American public shares conservative views, but only forty percent are willing to identify themselves as “conservatives.”
Conservative “Thinkers” Don’t Understand Politics
Secondly, most of the “thinkers” on the right who understand the principles don’t understand politics. This harms our ability to reach the public. Indeed, for years now, it seems that conservatives have been incapable of speaking English. Whenever they speak about budget matters or tax policy, they speak in terms of line items and supplemental measures, and they use heavy economic and accounting lingo. This is the political equivalent of sleeping pills. The public wants to know what you stand for, they don’t want to have to take a masters course in accounting just to follow what you’re saying.

Moreover, these thinkers live too much in the land of pure theory. They never understand that politics is not played on a field of pure logic where all values are clearly defined. It is played on the field of emotional appeals where believability trumps fact and imagery trumps truth. By not getting this, these thinkers repeatedly prove themselves incapable of coming up with compelling arguments, and they routinely come up with arguments that only anger the public.

For example, it is absolutely true that increasing unemployment benefits will increase the incentive for people to stay unemployed. That’s undeniable. Yet using that argument to oppose an increase in unemployment benefits during a recession is political poison. But conservatives stupidly did this because they assumed the public would see the logic of their position. They didn’t. They saw conservatives being “uncaring.”

This same impulse causes these thinkers to fall into traps set by the left. For example, the left loves to frame capitalism as “survival of the fittest,” which scares the heck out of the unfit. But the right, rather than refuting this mischaracterization, almost revels in it. Indeed, they pound their chest and say, “absolutely, and that makes us great.” But in reality, capitalism is about reallocating resources to create better opportunities for everyone. Firms that sell things no one wants go under, and new firms put those resources to better uses, and everyone benefits. Capitalism doesn't abandon people. It is socialism that leaves people behind in perpetual ghettos of joblessness and shortages.

Sadly, the right never fights back on these mischaracterizations because it doesn’t understand the power that emotional appeals have. Instead, it sits around telling itself, “no one is going to believe that, because that’s wrong.” But that’s not how humans work. Of all the recent conservatives, only Reagan understood the need to fight back on this front.
Conservative Activists Live In A Bubble
A lot of people won't like this one, but it’s true: conservative activists are a problem.

Politics is about persuading the public that your goals are worthy of being put into law. But activists (left and right) rarely understand the public. Indeed, they tend to live in bubbles because they surround themselves with people who share their views. This causes them to become increasingly extremist in their thinking because there is no one to put the breaks on their “enthusiasm,” and it causes them to lose touch with the public because everyone they know agrees with them. This also causes them to wrongly assume that the public supports them.

As a result of this, when activists open their mouths, they often advocate things that are genuinely shocking or scary to the public. And this is a problem. Indeed, moving public opinion is like steering an oil tanker: you need to nudge it inch by inch, winning its trust the entire way. That means taking only the steps the public will accept. When the public sees that the world hasn't ended, then you ask for the next step -- not before. But activists don’t want to hear this because they “know” that the public is "really” behind them, because that’s all they hear from their friends.

And of course, this leads to disaster because the public may share some of the activists' views, but they definitely haven't hit the same level of extremism. Thus, while the public may accept "limit this" or "regulate that," it freaks out when it starts hearing “ban this” or “ban that” or “eliminate that.” Nor does it understand whatever nuance the activists are using. For example, when activists say “eliminate the Department of Education,” the public hears “end public education,” not “free education from federal interference.” When activists whine about certain books or television shows, the public hears this as “ban books” or "ban films," and they wonder what restrictions the activists are planning to heap onto a culture that the public generally likes. It doesn't help that so many on the right proudly proclaim how they "never watch television" or something similar. This is also why the nostalgia that besets so many on the right is so fatal to public opinion: no one outside the bubble wants to return to 1950.

The key to effective persuasion is to offer the public steps that they consider acceptable. That means finding ways to make your goals seem like their goals. But the activists don’t get this because they assume that the public is secretly already with them -- and quite a few actually don’t care at all what the public thinks, they are so obsessively focused on their pet peeve that they want it ensconced in law no matter what the public thinks. This makes the activists a problem because they tend to turn off and scare the public a great deal.

What makes this worse is that the media ignores or downplays the fruitier activists on the left, but it highlights those on the right. Further, the thinkers and politicians mentioned above are very poor at handling the activists, thus the public tends to think that these activists speak for the right as a whole.

2. No Plan.

And that brings me to the second big problem. The right has no plan at the moment. The reason for this is a combination of the above factors. Conservative politicians have no plan because they don’t understand conservative principles. Conservative thinkers offer plans, but they aren’t politically feasibly. And the activists are screaming for things that sound insane.

This makes the right very easy to characterize as the “party of NO” and as the party of extremists. This is what makes it so difficult to convince the missing 20% who share conservative views that they should be on the side of the conservatives.

Conservatives need to draw up a short platform of maybe ten points, based on actual conservative principles, to brand themselves. This platform needs to be spelled out in easy to understand, highly visual, and emotionally-grabbing language. These principles should not be vague or generic (e.g. “we’re patriotic”), and they should not be a laundry list prepared by activists (e.g. "eliminate the Department of Education") or lobbyists (e.g. "increase insurance coverage for all"). They need to be real principles. And this platform must be written to reach the modern public, i.e. it should not be written by people who like to image themselves living in 1776.

3. Too Many Knee Jerk Reactions.

Finally, too many conservatives have become knee-jerk thinkers. Just because the other side advocates something, doesn’t mean it’s bad. Just because someone you like advocates something, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. And stop circling the wagons around rotten eggs. When someone is corrupt, they are bad for us all around. If someone is stupid, they aren’t going to represent us well. And just because the left attacks someone, doesn’t mean they are a good representatives for our side. I hear this all the time: “they are attacking X because they fear X.” Really? Is that why you poke fun at Biden? Because you fear him?

Ditto the blog world. I’m amazed at how shrill and hyperbolic the blogosphere is. I still remember clearly how we told you that Obama was a fool from day one. But at the same time, conservative bloggers everywhere else were lost in a world of fantasy paranoia where Obama was the fulfillment of a secret master plan by Muslims and long dead evil-genius leftists to convert us into the Soviet Union redux. Even today, reading most blogs is like listening to air raid sirens. . . “Wwwwwaaaaaaah!! Obama did ___ today! He’s Hitler! He’s a socialist! He’s planning to destroy the country! There has never been a graver threat to our country that what he did today. . . at least until tomorrow!” Many on talk radio are no better.

Knee jerk reactions and paranoia have been the domain of the left for decades now. Conservatives are thinkers. Our views require understanding and thought, and they need intelligent, capable salespeople. Leave the knee jerk stuff to the left.

That's what I see as wrong with the American right today. Thoughts?


MegaTroll said...

This is a much better list than the one "The Economist" had. I agree with your list. I don't know how to fix it, but we clearly need to find ways to improve our communications. Plus, I agree we need a platform, like a new Contract with America.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Mega. You'll note that the one thing I don't say is that we need to abandon our principles. That's horrible advice.

But what we really, truly need to do is to learn how to explain our principles, i.e. how to "advertise" ourselves, and we need to learn how to apply our principles to solve the problems that the nation encounters.

Unfortunately, we have these problems -- our politicians don't understand our principles, and the others don't understand how to reach the public. That needs to change if we want to retake the government and do something meaningful with it.

CrispyRice said...

Good article, Andrew.

I totally agree that communication is a HUGE problem. I don't know why our leadership can't communicate its principles and big picture. Well, let me edit that - having the media doing its best to thwart conservatives doesn't help, but still. We ought to be doing MUCH better at that.

I think the knee-jerk reactions and hysterics are a natural reaction, Andrew, and I think they will run their course.

But I know that personally, I'm still looking for someone to come out of the woodwork and be a true leader. It needs to happen before too long, and whoever it is needs to be able to communicate and inspire, not scare.

AndrewPrice said...

CrispyRice, I agree that it doesn't help to have the media attacking us. But I think it's a true testament to the value of our ideas that 60% of the public still shares those values, even though they are constantly ridiculed.

I think the bigger problem politically, is that none of our leaders seem to be able to enunciate conservative ideas. McCain is a good example. He spit out buzzwords, but it was obvious he didn't know what they meant. And I rarely see a Republican leader who is any more fluent in "conservatism." Paul Ryan is a notable exception.

Even our editorialists have gotten lazy and they rely on "outrage" and being "opposed to the Democrats" more than they talk about what they themselves believe -- we had a much stronger group of "thinkers" in the 1980s.

Plus, our side still doesn't understand the art of persuasion.

I too am waiting for a leader to emerge for 2012. I think several of the contenders have made a huge mistake by not getting out in front right now -- when people are looking for a credible alternative to Obama. Right now is the time that whoever wants to be the next President needs to stand up and stake out their claim.

Ponderosa said...

Andrew you are right on target. Excellent.

"If you know something but cannot communicate it, it’s as though you don’t know it." - Denis Calabrese

I recently completed an 18-hour course on the "Principles of Liberty" - I loved it and was fascinated but I kept thinking there must be a better way to communicate the concepts of freedom. On some level it is instinctive.

Where is the modern version of "No taxation without representation", where are our bumper stickers?

Guess I have to go to the master. I am starting to listen to and read RR's speeches.

"I'm from the government and I'm here to help".

AndrewPrice said...

Ponderosa, Thanks! And I think your Calabrese quote is absolutely perfect. How can you defend something you don't understand? And, more importantly, how can you convince others that they should believe it as well.

And your mention of Reagan is right on point too. He was the last conservative that comes to mind, who had the ability to tell you what he believed in truly simple and clear ways that were simply undeniable.

Take the "I'm from the government, I'm here to help" quote. That quote says in one easy sentence, what the public already knew -- the government is not good at helping people, it is not capable of doing things well. And the way he said it, got that point across in a way that anyone could understand.

Too many modern conservatives could never make a similar statement. Instead, they either bore you with ten minutes of theory or they try so hard to sound erudite and "profound" that they sound ridiculous. I see this all the time in blogs and with activist groups, who try to swing for the All-Time Quote Hall of Fame, or they try to mimic the language used by the Founders. But they end up just sounding strange and pretentious. (I see the same thing with young lawyers who want to sound like the things they read from the 1800s).

Reagan understood the old axiom, "keep it simple" and relevant to the listener. That is the key to persuasion in any field.

Unknown said...

Andrew: The most exciting thing about conservatism is that it inherently incorporates the grand ideas of the Founding Fathers. But as you said, it ain't 1776. The ideas remain exciting, but we have to implement them in 21st century ways. To do otherwise is not conservative, it's reactionary.

What is largely missing from the battlefront is what we used to call "movement" conservatives. Those are the people who understand the bedrock principles, honor the Declaration and the Constitution, but recognize that trying to implement or explain those principles in 18th century language or jargon loses a massive portion of the population which would otherwise support a conservative candidate and a conservative agenda.

Let's hope and pray that someone in a position of responsible leadership figures that out--and soon. Your unemployment benefits example was pitch-perfect. It is an issue we could be killing the Democrats with right now, and instead we have accountant-officials who are stomping on the very people who would otherwise be listening. Hard-working people who find themselves without a job couldn't care less about philosophical reasons why unemployment benefits should not be continued during a serious recession, or whether the benefits should be paid out of current revenue or future income. They just want to know they'll still have a home to live in and food to eat next month. Reagan understood that, and I hope we have someone of nearly the same stature who can do the same thing.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I think that's right on point -- we need people who understand the bedrock principles, but who also understand that they need to be applied to the modern world and need to be explained in ways that modern audiences understand.

It seems that this is a huge problem for conservatives. Some want it to be 1776 again, and everything they say and do just turns off modern audiences. Others like the idea of conservatism, but don't really understand it. They can't come up with conservative solutions and keep presenting us either as "the party of No" or "the party of me too."

The sad thing is that there are conservatives solutions to all of our country's worst problems -- brilliant, elegant, simple solutions. . . and no one is out there explaining those or trying to implement them.

That needs to change. And if it does, then conservatism will easily sweep aside liberalism as it always has in this country. And most of the "pressing problems" of today can be solved.

Anonymous said...

Andrew, it's as if you wrote this article just for me. :-) While I don't intend on changing my status from Independent anytime soon, I guess I fall into that "Interested in what conservatives have to say" category (as evidenced by my presence here).

And I must admit, when I read this:

...conservative bloggers everywhere else were lost in a world of fantasy paranoia where Obama was the fulfillment of a secret master plan by Muslims and long dead evil-genius leftists to convert us into the Soviet Union redux.

I immediately thought of Victoria Jackson's articles on BH. I'm sure she's a nice lady but she also exemplifies everything you wrote in the above paragraph.

And some folks on the right need to stop using "Saul Alinsky" as some kind of catch-all. I'm not saying he's irrelevant but he's not the cause of everything that's wrong with the world either. And if he never existed, someone else would've filled the gap.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I figured you'd like this article, but it's really aimed at the idea that conservatives need to learn to explain themselves better.

If conservatives were better at understanding the things conservatives believe, better at applying their own values, better at explaining those beliefs, and better at following their own values, then I think a great many of the missing 20% (like yourself) would shift over into that "conservative" category.

Unfortunately, our message and our politics is confused at the moment. And there are too many opportunists who have used that confusion to try to steer conservatism in the wrong directions or who have tried to use the mantle of conservatism to advance political careers that are in no way conservative.

Don't get me started on Alinsky. Alinsky was an insignificant little man who just summarized what was already the strategy leftists had been using since the communists began infiltrating organized labor in the 1920s. His strategies are nothing new, and frankly, they aren't effective either. The left has been putting "his" ideas into place since at least the 1960s and yet they've made zero in-roads with the American people. All they've done is to splinter existing leftist groups. That's a failure in my book.

But paranoids need a boogey man. And he became it because someone pointed out that Obama read the guy's book. I suspect that if the only book Obama ever read was "The Cat In The Hat," we would probably have heard about Seussian Radicalism.

I don't want to name names of other bloggers or talk radio people, because that would turn this into a "they're not really like that" kind of fight, but many of these people are hopelessly paranoid. And many of the rest, especially the talk radio guys, are pure opportunists, who have learned that outrage sells better than analysis and angry is easier than talent.

Anonymous said...

If this country needs anything, it's more "Seussian Radicalism"!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, They didn't do too well in Whoville when they had the chance! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Andrew, since we're talking about politics... I know this probably belongs in an open thread but ever since it premiered on Showtime last month, I've been watching this British war satire called In the Loop. I'd love to get your take on it one of these days.

Trailer here.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I haven't seen it before, but I'll check it out and let you know.

Ed said...

Good analysis. I think you're on to something here. I wonder if someone could set up a course to teach Republicans about conservative principles and how to use them?

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I think that would be a great idea. The problem is that most politicians don't seem to be too smart these days and I don't know many who are interested in learning anything.

Of course, we'd be happy to run the class! :-)

Ed said...

I would absolutely recommend that the Republicans send their party through the AndrewPrice school.

Tennessee Jed said...

The unanswered question, I suppose, is why? One answer might be that the media has tilted left so long, consevative politicians have usually not defined the definition of the debate. More Republicans go on the networks and all cable stations that liberals go on Fox.

Also, the leftist argument has always sounded good on a very basic level; e.g. who can be against helping the poor? It's like those tug at your heart strings to give to any number of causes. As Jesus once said, it is easier to go through the eye of a needle . . .

Once you peel back the onion layers you realize the basic conservative message is 1) individual responsibility and individual freedom go hand in hand. 2) Free market capitalism is better at raising the standard of living for all than central planning even if some people become much more wealthy than others. The question to ask is "would you prefer to have everyone in society have roughly the same wealth even if the overall quality of living for everyone is less? I am not an ideolog. I believe we do need to have taxes, provide safety nets for the truly impoverished, and fund public libraries. However the old line about the government which governs best governs least holds a lot of truth.

Lastly, of all the guys out there on the conservative side, I believe Newt Gingrich best understands politics and the idea of having a basic plan. The so called "contract with America" gave Republicans control of Congress for thefirsttime in a long time. That is not to say Newt is without baggage or that he would be the best candidate, but he does "get" that critical piece better than most others I have seen.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I'd happily teach that class, no doubt about it. Put in a good word for me with your Congresscritter!

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I am a conservative because I understand that conservative principles work the best, both philosophically and practically. I don't think of myself as an ideolog, because I don't consider myself bound to believe anything until and unless it is proven true, and I'm always reconsidering my views in light of new evidence.

So when I put together articles at this site, I aim to be as truthful and accurate as possible in my analysis. I have some fun with it, obviously, but I will never promote something that I think is wrong merely because my side believes it. Sadly, too many others will, either because they are blinded by ideology or because they just don't know what they are talking about.

I also don't drink the Kool Aid that so many others drink because I keep a historical perspective and because I try to look beyond all the bubbles to see the real world beyond.

In fact, if I couldn't do that, then I wouldn't have been a very good lawyer. Because being an effective litigator is all about understanding strangers and finding ways to get them to believe that you are correct.

In terms of why Republicans are so bad at explaining/understanding conservatism, I don't know. It wasn't always this way. I suspect that conservatives have gotten lazy in the last 20 years, thinking that the public was on their side.

You're right that leftist ideas have a compelling "emotion" to them -- "I just want to help people." That's why it takes a really good mind and a good deal of training to learn to turn those arguments around so that people see the fraudulent basis that underpins those arguments.

As for Newt, I give him a lot of credit for coming up with the Contract With America. It was a brilliant stroke to basically condense the useless platform into something people could follow. However, I am leery of Newt because of how he governed after the contract. It struck me at the time that he fell in love with the idea of being liked, which is the biggest flaw a politician can have.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, It looks interesting, so I've set the DVR to tape it.

StanH said...

Too be a good salesman, you should have a basic understanding of your product, too be a great salesman, you have to believe in your product. In my mind what we have with the Republican political class, is they don’t really believe in conservative principles, they’re catch phrases when election time comes around (see McCain). They continually allow themselves to be defined by the left, more specifically the MSM as, bible thumping, knuckle-dragging, doctrinaire, authoritarians, who want to control your life, when in truth - - the opposite is true.

Too your point about Reagan, he simply went over the press, and by taking his conservative message straight to the people, flummoxed the left at every turn. And while we’re on the subject of Reagan, let’s not forget his 11th Commandment, “Thou shall not speak ill of a any other Republican!” The point is democrats never, ever say they’re sorry. When a republican says something stupid (this is subjective) the RNC and Republican leaders trip over themselves to say “I’m sorry,” further feeding the liberal narrative.

We have much work to do.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I agree entirely. Great salesmen need to understand and believe in their products. Too many Republicans don't understand and don't believe.

And that brings up the famous quote: "he who doesn't believe in something will fall for anything." That very well outlines how many Republicans act.

I agree too about letting themselves be mischaracterized. In fact, I'm stunned how many times they just meekly accept being called "bible thumping, heartless, authoritarians" without a single word of protest.

You're right about the 11th commandment too. It's one thing to purge your ranks of bad eggs, which I think is a bad idea -- even if the left doesn't do it. But it quite another the way the RNC and various others pile on anyone in the party who says anything controversial. There is a huge difference between apologizing or being kicked out for graft and forcing someone to apologize (or not defending them) for standing up for our principles.

CrispyRice said...

Andrew, I agree. I keep waiting for someone to step forward and lead the party, but no one seems to want to step up. It’s going to be hard to see someone as a leader if they were hiding out before the November elections and only tried to claim to become leaders after they saw the way the public was going.

CrispyRice said...

And another thing! (Now you've got me started, hee hee.)

Every time any conservative gets any positive publicity - like Nikki Haley who just won in SC - suddenly all the pundits and media say, "Yeah, this is the new Republican saviour!!" Then the media goes on an immediate destroy mission, and the pundits are depressed when the person doesn't pan out.

It's like we don't even give anyone a chance to grow, either. Ugh! And I'm not surprised that people don't volunteer to go through the process. Who wants to be torn to bits?

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I agree. Leaders step up when people need leadership, not after the public has shown them the way forward. That's called following from the front, and those aren't the kind of people we need as leaders.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I think that comes from the desperate state of our leadership. If we had a strong leadership from top to bottom, then people like Haley or a McDonnell could get the experience they need without having to bear the burden of wearing the mantle (and the bulls eye) of being the next savior.

Hopefully, this next primary season will give us several leaders and our capturing many more governorships will give us a stronger farm team, so that the pressure of everyone becoming the savior gets lifted.

In the meantime, the only thing these people can do is to keep their noses clean and hope they can be the perfect politicians. I would also suggest they learn to quickly develop a sense of humor because humor is the only thing that beats the kinds of savage personal attacks the media makes.

Anonymous said...

Okay Andrew, you've convinced me. When do you plan to run for President? In 2012 perhaps? ;-)

AndrewPrice said...

TJ, I can neither confirm nor deny that I am a candidate in 2012! LOL!

Seriously, I am glad that you liked the article. I just wish that our side was better at these things. In many ways, it really does amaze me that we're so bad at this today because we used to be so good at it at one point.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you 100%. I'm an independent and I would totally become a Republican if they would get their act together. But right now it's just embarasing to call myself a Republican and to need to defend the stupidity they keep doing.

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, I suspect that there are million more like yourself who would happily call themselves "conservative" if we got better at crafting our message (and living up to it).

Still, we need folks like you to help fix the party, so try joining and help us! :-)

StanH said...

Reagan also had Lee Atwater, a take no prisoner political operative. He made the great man better.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I'll tell you what. Lee Atwater seems to have been the one guy who held it all together in terms of communicating with the public. The Republicans were never the same after he died.

I remember in particular one day he said that he used to read The National Enquirer so that he could keep track of what average Americans are thinking. That's actually kind of brilliant. But you certainly don't hear that kind of creative thinking today.

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