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The Challenge for Conservatism   November 4th, 2008
       

 
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The 2008 Election is over. And if this election has confirmed anything, it's that conservative ideology faces two primary challenges going forward:
  1. Effectively communicating the merits of our positions to the country.
  2. Overcoming a left-leaning mainstream media that effectively tries to impede our ability to accomplish exactly that.
In a nutshell our problem can be summed up in a single word: Communication.


Part of the problem is our own--we need to be able to articulate not only why liberal ideology is flawed but more importantly why conservative ideology is right. We really haven't communicated (or practiced) conservatism effectively since the era of the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan. The other part of the problem, though, is even more daunting: We face a news media that is decidedly biased in favor of liberal ideology and the Democratic party that most commonly represents it. So even when we find someone that can articulate conservative principles, we face an uphill battle getting that to the public.

The Liberal Mainstream Media

As incredible as it may seem, there are people that actually believe the media is biased to the right and favors the Republican party. How anyone can believe that--especially in light of the 2008 election cycle--is astonishing. I will not try to persuade those people they are wrong because they are clearly either so far to the left that they represent a small (though vocal) extremist minority, or are so blinded by eight years of hatred of Bush that they think that anyone that doesn't hate Bush with that same intensity is obviously biased to the right. In either case, those people can't be reasoned with.

But the none-extremist population of the United States recognizes that the media is biased in support of liberals in general and the Democratic party specifically. A Rasmussen Reports poll released on Election Day 2008 indicated that 51% of America believed reporters tried to help Obama while only 7% thought the media tried to help McCain. . Clearly the public is not blind.

That the public recognizes the media's liberal bias is comforting though not entirely surprising. The bias has been blatant.

Back in the 2004 election cycle, CBS and its anchorman Dan Rather ran with an absurdly unsubstantiated report on President Bush's Texas Air National Guard service . In 2008, a former Newsweek reporter admitted that he had no objectivity and imagined tearing down Rudy Giuliani so he wouldn't run for president . A report about Obama's comments on the redistribution of wealth during a radio talk show in 2001 was largely ignored by the mainstream media and only briefly appeared on Fox's main page . For weeks on end the media was reporting on Tina Fey's Palin-mocking comedy routines on Saturday Night Live, as if that were news, but there was virtually no mocking of the Democratic ticket . When "Joe the Plumber" asked Obama a very valid question, the media focused more on investigating and destroying the person that asked the question than pressing the candidate for a straight answer on the question that had been raised . When an Obama political ad suggested that McCain would cut Medicare, even though CBS stated it was "among the biggest whoppers of the whole campaign," it received little additional attention beyond a single-page article . In September Obama stated that a recession could delay an increase on taxes on the rich, but that statement was scarcely reported and he certainly was not pinned down on that by any reporters throughout the campaign or during the debates when he continued with his populist position of raising taxes on the wealthy . When the Obama campaign banished a Florida TV station after a reporter asked Senator Biden some very valid and direct, albeit harshly worded, questions, there was very little reporting of the terse response from the Obama campaign . When it was proven that Obama had indeed endorsed a book by Ayers as "searing and timely," the media did not take him to task in light of his constant downplaying of his relationship to and knowledge of Ayers . When an effigy of Sarah Palin was found hanging from a noose as a Halloween decoration in West Hollywood, the event was mostly ignored and laughed off; but when an Obama yard sign was vandalized with a racial slur, the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department were reported to be investigating the incident . And only Fox News bothered to report the story that the Los Angeles Times was sitting on a video potentially very harmful to Obama . The media spent several days reporting on--I kid you not--how much was spent on Palin's clothes . A study indicated that 57% of coverage of McCain was negative and 14% positive (overwhelming negative), while coverage of Obama was 36% positive and 29% negative (roughly neutral). And the absolutely massive fluctuations in the polls that in the weeks before the election cited Obama's lead varying between 1% all the way up to 13% were indicative of wild incompetence or clear bias .

That was a long paragraph, but it's just a cursory glance at some of the examples of blatant bias we've seen recently in the press. There can be no doubt that this election cycle has amounted to nothing less than an absolute and final abdication by the media of their once-sacred charter to relentlessly pursue the entire truth and report the news objectively. We can speculate as to the reasons why the media has renounced their time-honored traditions of following the truth wherever it leads but, in the end, their motives are largely irrelevant.

As conservatives we have to understand that it does no good to continue to complain about the lack of objectivity in the press. I'm guilty of it too, including in the paragraph above. But I'm going to try to move past this in the future. Yes, the media is biased. We know it and can take comfort in the fact that most of America knows it, too. But complaining won't change their bias and America already recognizes the bias--so constantly whining about it really achieves nothing. We must accept that a liberal media is simply part of the cards we've been dealt. We can dream of a world where the media is neutral and pursues and reports the truth energetically--but that's just as utopian a world as the utopia in which socialism works. Neither world exists.

The reality is that conservatives must transcend the media with a message so powerful that the media won't be able to ignore it nor aide liberals in mischaracterizing it. The media may be powerful but there's a limit to their power: Just as they couldn't get away with telling the country that the sky is green, the media won't be able to mischaracterize conservative ideology if we conservatives have articulated our message powerfully enough.

Which leads us to our second challenge...

Conservatives Must Effectively Articulate Their Ideology

Unlike conservative ideology, the ideology of liberalism is little more than populism--and that means it is, by definition, very easy to "sell" to the public. If someone is about to lose their house in foreclosure they are probably going to be hard pressed to turn down a handout from the government that keeps them in their house. If someone is struggling to pay their bills each month, it's easy for them to fall in love with a candidate that promises to take money from the rich and give it to them. Liberal ideology is inherently an emotional choice and voters are often emotional creatures--especially when they aren't feeling very secure.

Conservative ideology, on the other hand, is analytic, rational, and pragmatic in nature. Our ideology isn't based on feel-good emotions but on harsh worldly realities. It's not that conservatives don't have a heart, it's just that we realize that a heart cannot substitute the brain when it comes to matters of policy. Conservative ideology requires thought. It requires acceptance of reality. It recognizes the fact that there isn't any such thing as a free lunch. Conservatism isn't an emotional choice that can easily be presented to voters in a few feel-good sentences but rather a rational one that requires a voter to think about the long-term consequences of different policies. In this day and age of 30-second sound bites, a lack of in-depth political reporting on the nightly news, and a general trend towards attention deficit disorder, making the case for conservatism is a definite challenge.

We can have an ideological and technical debate on why conservatism works and liberalism is a failure, but it's entirely probable that even when we win that debate, we still lose. Why? Because the people that need to be convinced aren't going to be swayed by facts and boring economic theory. They're looking to see who provokes an emotional response. That's why, in the weeks before the election, we saw Obama rallies with tens and even a hundred thousand supporters in places like St. Louis and Denver. Those crowds weren't representative of some deep intellectual or analytical choice but rather the manifestation of all their emotions. Obama--as virtually every Democrat--appealed to emotions and it carried him to power.

What needs to be done, then, is to present conservatism in a way that can "click" with the available emotional swing voters in the middle. Forget about liberals voting for conservatives, it's not going to happen. The opportunity is with the emotional voters in the middle. We need those voters, but we're not going to get them by diluting our ideology and moving to the left. Rather we're going to get those voters by making the case for our ideology and getting those voters to move to the right: They've done it before and they'll do it again. To do that we're going to need to present our inherently-analytical ideology to people in a way that is simple and appeals to their emotions.

That requires a true conservative and one that can articulate conservative ideology in a way that will strike a nerve with emotional voters. That requires either great charisma or great communication skills... and preferably both.

Our problem in 2008 is that we had neither.

Like most Republicans, I was not at all excited by John McCain when it became clear he'd be the Republican nominee in Spring 2008. That changed when I saw him at Saddleback and it actually seemed like he was more conservative than I had been lead to believe. I was further encouraged by his choice of what appeared to be a solid conservative for vice-president. At that point I was actually quite excited about the Republican ticket. I even got a bumper sticker and a yard sign. That's also the same time McCain peaked in the polls--and it was a peak, not just a convention bump, because he maintained his lead far beyond a traditional bump and all the way until the financial crisis exploded.

Two things then happened:
  1. McCain failed to keep his promise on reducing government spending and vetoing pork-barrel bills and to name names, and instead went ahead and voted for one of the biggest barrels of pork ever to be considered by the U.S. Congress: The financial bailout that only 7% of Americans initially supported . I strongly believe if McCain had refused to vote for the bailout, had named the names of the lawmakers that added over a hundred billion dollars of pork to the Senate version and also named names of those that were complicit in the financial crisis itself, McCain could have won the election. McCain would have stayed true to conservative principles against government spending... he would have stayed true to his promise to vote against pork and name names... he would've been honoring and been voting with the sentiments of Main Street... he would have put Democrats complicit in the cause of the financial crisis on defense and tied them to the crisis itself... and he would have been voting against Bush while Obama would be voting for an unpopular position held by Bush. Not only would his vote have been right for America, it would have put the Democrats on the defensive and would have given McCain the edge on the emotional angle. McCain's decision to vote for the bailout baffles me to this day. Update 11/15/08: Nine days after I wrote this paragraph, Senator Jim DeMint said about the same thing: "And of course, his embrace of the bailout right before the election was probably the nail in our coffin this last election."

  2. The financial crisis scared the voters and put them in "emotion mode." And that's where populist liberals have an advantage. Once people switch off their brains and start making decisions based on fear and emotion, liberals are poised to do well.
McCain's defeat was all but sealed when he abandoned conservative principles and forfeited the emotional aspect of the campaign to Obama.

Moving Forward

As is always the case after a party suffers a major loss, the Republican party is now going to have to do some soul searching. And what was missing in 2008 was our soul. We didn't have a particularly articulate candidate and, even if he had been, he ultimately wasn't all that conservative.

As conservatives our challenge going forward is clear: We need an articulate and, preferably, charismatic candidate that believes conservative ideology with conviction, and can not only articulate the technical merits of the ideology when necessary, but also must be able to speak to the emotions of the voters in the middle that decide elections. Conservatives must not be fooled into thinking that we must move to the middle to win elections--2008 is proof to the contrary. Our conservative ideology is our strength. Not our weakness. The Republican party does worst in elections when it abandons conservative principles. That should never be forgotten. Ever.

I hope that conservatives will begin the search for such a candidate immediately. The power of the Republican party in government has been marginalized by this election. The Democrats run the show. The Republican party should take advantage of this time to get back to its conservative roots so that conservative ideology can sweep back in to power like it did after four years of Democratic President Carter and two years of Democrat President Clinton.

Historically, nothing reminds Americans why they should vote Republican better than a few years of Democratic rule.

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