Yesterday I wrote that Republicans must recruit more voters since there are more D’s than R’s out there in presidential races, at least races in which Barack Obama is a candidate. Glum conservatives have been arguing that this is useless because the Republican message of hard work, achievement, limited government and the rule of law falls on deaf ears with a majority of the presidential electorate, which has lost its way culturally, is economically unsophisticated and lacks an understanding of constitutional principles. It is a nice way of saying the presidential electorate isn’t capable of rational self-government.
Well, I’m not ready to write off representative democracy quite yet. Nor am I convinced that Americans went to seed since 2004. I am willing to make the case, however, that when it comes to the broadest electorate that turns out in presidential races, the Republican message and the messenger must adapt.
To be blunt, it is easy to tell apolitical voters our fiscal problem stems from rich people not paying taxes. It isn’t true, but it’s a simplistic message. It is really, really hard to explain why capital-gains tax rates should be kept low or why Medicare needs to introduce competition. Yes, millions and millions of conservative and politically engaged independents get that, but the majority in a sufficient number of key electoral battlegrounds don’t.
What do Republicans do about this? Well, seriously, nothing is more important than educational reform to teach each generation of Americans some basic U.S. history, simple economics and even ethics. The long-term solution to the problem of a clueless electorate rests with clergy, teachers and parents. (Let’s not kid ourselves that the mainstream media will enlighten the public.)
Now since educating future generations is a long-term undertaking, what do conservatives do in the short run?
First, they must find candidates who are both intellectually sound conservatives and culturally adept. I don’t mean they can play the sax on TV or listen to rap music but rather that they are seen as in tune with modern America, not an idealized America from our childhood or our parents’ childhood. It is more than likability; it is a matter of relatability. If voters, especially in the presidential election year, can’t relate, they’re not going to listen.
Second, therefore, is the need to explain policies in everyday terms rather than in abstract, intellectual terms. “Limited government” appeals fall on deaf ears, but talking about how your take-home pay and job opportunities go down when each additional employee becomes too expensive due to a bevy of regulations and taxes may have some resonance. Any lawyer who has ever argued a case to a jury knows that you have to be clear and simple, drawing on everyday life experience to convince your audience.
Third, conservatives can’t talk about public policy only in 90-minute debates once every four years. Conservatives must develop the 21-century equivalent of “Firing Line” or “Free to Choose” programming, utilize popular culture and participate as active citizens to explain, advocate and interpret conservative ideas. Rather than running nonstop political outrage programming on talk radio, the popular hosts who have real communications skills could be teaching the basics of free-market capitalism and the constitutional government.
The enormous presidential electorate isn’t hopeless. Half have managed to retain traditional values and some basic economic and historical knowledge despite the avalanche of liberal pop culture, mainstream media and atrocious public schools. Give them credit. Before conservatives give up on the rest they should try talking with them, not at them, to explain their ideas and dispel the pervasive liberal tropes about conservatives and conservatism.
It is a laborious process that involves an entire movement, but the alternative is to hope the Democrats nominate Joe Biden in 2016 or that things get so bad that occasional voters will go for out-of-touch, boring white men who talk over their heads.