The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Seven conservative mistakes

In the reaction to the Confederate flag controversy and Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage and Obamacare we saw some of the best and some of the worst rhetoric for conservatives. For someone who wants to be seen as capable of presidential leadership it isn’t acceptable to hide from touchy issues. But candidates should think carefully before they pop off. There are lessons to be learned here.

First, the intensity with which one utters disapproval is not a measure of one’s conservative bona fides.  Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s hysterical rhetoric suggesting we defund the Supreme Court does not make him more conservative or more anti-gay marriage than other conservatives who disagreed with the court. Former Texas governor Rick Perry said, “I’m a firm believer in traditional marriage, and I also believe the 10th Amendment leaves it to each state to decide this issue. I fundamentally disagree with the court rewriting the law and assaulting the 10th Amendment. Our founding fathers did not intend for the judicial branch to legislate from the bench.” The former version not only turns off people who disagree with Jindal on this issue but a great many others who think now think he’s reckless.

Second, disobeying the Supreme Court is not an option. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and other GOP governors recognized this. (“Like many Hoosiers, I believe marriage is the union between one man and one woman, and I am disappointed that the Supreme Court failed to recognize the historic role of the states in setting marriage policy in this country. Nevertheless, our Administration will continue to uphold the rule of law and abide by the ruling of the Court in this case. Under our system of government, our citizens are free to disagree with decisions of the Supreme Court, but we are not free to disobey them.”) Inciting people to disobey the law or actually refusing to obey the law is not conservative and not acceptable. If Jindal can’t follow the law he needs to resign as governor. Threatening lawlessness turns off both people who disagree and people who agree with you on the underlying issue.

Third, hyperbole can make you sound like a nut. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) on Friday made this pronouncement: “Today is some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history.” That is preposterous considering wars, stock market crashes, presidential assassinations, 9-11, natural disasters, riots and more. Speaking in such terms tells voters your priorities are screwy and your historical judgment is off-kilter.

Fourth, conservatives cannot rely on appeals to authority. In making the case against gay marriage conservatives consistently invoked history and religious precepts. But that is not enough. As Arthur Brooks argues, “citizens across the political spectrum place a great importance on taking care of those in need and avoiding harm to the weak. By contrast, moral values such as sexual purity and respect for authority — to which conservative politicians often give greater emphasis — resonate deeply with only a minority of the population. . . . Conservatives are fighting a losing battle of moral arithmetic. They hand an argument with virtually 100% public support — care for the vulnerable — to progressives, and focus instead on materialistic concerns and minority moral viewpoints.” There may not have been arguments other than moral and religious authority with respect to gay marriage (and hence a reason anti-gay marriage forces lost), but it should be a reminder in other contexts that “it’s the way we have always done it” is not going to win converts.

Fifth, playing victim is unattractive. When presented with an outcome they don’t like (e.g. gay marriage, getting rid of the Confederate flag) some conservatives reflexively adopt the badge of victimhood. It’s not African Americans who are the injured party when it comes to the flag, you see; it’s we who are victims of liberal hectoring. This is a loser on three counts: It sounds whiny; it’s an insult to real victims (of institutional or social discrimination, for example); and it’s not true. In the case of the Confederate battle flag, it wasn’t “liberals” but a great many people of all political persuasions who came to see the symbol as deeply hurtful and historically inappropriate (e.g. the flag came into use as a symbol of resistance to discrimination).

Sixth, avoid calls to run head long into a brick wall. This was the lesson of the government shutdown in 2013 and it should be a warning not to incite voters to take up Constitutional amendments (to redo Article III or to allow states to ban gay marriage). Conservatives don’t make ground losing unwise battles; they succeed by winning the fights that are winnable. Once again these self-destructive calls are not conservative in the least. If conservatism is preservation of the best in our history and institutions and skepticism of rash and extreme solutions, then these sorts of appeals are the antithesis of conservatism. Once again, conservatives who pursue these gimmicks only wind up convincing their fellow citizen that they (and even other conservatives) are bonkers.

Seventh, understand when you are in the minority and when you are in the majority. I don’t mean merely in legislative bodies, although it is important there, too. Inside the conservative bubble impassioned voices come to believe that a majority of Americans agree with them on shutting down the government, on gay marriage, on immigration and on many other topics. The polls say otherwise, and insisting there is a silent majority for extreme stances skews ones vision and prompts miscalculations.

Now it is possible that the pols who make these mistakes know they are counterproductive to the GOP, to the conservative movement and to the country. They may simply be cynically exploiting anger and fear and trying to make themselves stars in a sliver of the political universe. Everyone is entitled to make a buck or take their chance at fame, but the rest of us should not confuse hucksterism with leadership. Conservatives who want to win elections and promote conservative ideas should be able to separate political exploitation and entertainment from serious policy debates. That means making compelling and lively arguments, employing good humor and showing respect for fellow citizens’ intelligence. If they don’t, they will wind up in a permanent minority and see their ideas and their candidates marginalized.