The conservative movement’s messaging problem

Reihan Salam, responding to this Bruce Bartlett interview over at The Economist’s Democracy in America blog, writes:


“My central disagreement with Bartlett is that I don't think it's very sensible to interpret political history as a series of psychodramas. One could present the same facts in a very different matter, e.g., noble congressional Republicans only passed the Medicare prescription drug benefit because they feared demagogic attacks from the left, which threatened a massive political defeat that would impair their ability to pursue pro-growth policies. This is a specious and self-serving narrative. But is it any less specious and self-serving than congressional Democrats who blame demagogic attacks from the right for their own failures on the fiscal policy front? For those who believe that we need to sharply increase taxes on middle income households, this view is a commonplace. Democrats would take precisely this step, the narrative goes, if only they didn't have to fear ferocious attacks from the Republican spin machine.

Because Bartlett is a public intellectual who intends to persuade others, it's worth asking about the effectiveness of his rhetorical strategy, e.g., referring to Tea Party activists as “dimwitted.” I've met a wide spectrum of people who identify with the Tea Party movement, and I can't say I've met anyone I would describe as “dimwitted.” As I understand it, the basic goal of the Tea Party movement is to restrain the growth of government.”

The only exchanges I’ve had with either Salam or Bartlett have been friendly ones, but I admit to coming down on Reihan’s side on this question. I understand that Bartlett is angry at the current crop of Republicans and feels betrayed by George W. Bush and dismayed by the Tea Parties, but at a certain point Bartlett’s rhetoric really begins to sound a lot like those he’s been critical of himself. Indeed, I would say that fiery rhetoric is a problem that Bartlett and many Republicans actually share.

I think Reihan stumbles not only on the problem with Bartlett’s interview, but also on the central messaging problem in today’s conservative movement, when he writes:

“I don't think it's very sensible to interpret political history as a series of psychodramas.”

I think politics should be more like sports and less like psychodrama. Competitive, interesting, and – at the end of the day – not quite so terribly important that you lose sleep because your guy lost the election.

Of course, the only way to do this is to make government less important to our day-to-day lives in the first place. And maybe that’s how Republicans can salvage their messaging problem: government isn’t the answer, it’s the problem. And not only that: politics itself isn’t the answer, it’s just part of the answer and not a very big part of it in the first place. Your family, your job, your vacation – these are all more important. And here’s how we can keep it that way…

Right now for conservatives, politics are an all-consuming thing. The rise of the Tea Parties is partly a response to this fear that government is growing inextricably bigger. There’s nothing wrong with this. Politics may be super important to Tea Partiers, but if they do achieve some of their goals, maybe politics will be less important to Americans in the future, because the movers and shakers in Washington, D.C. won’t be able to move and shake quite so much.

But the rhetoric on the right is all too often angry, bitter, even conspiratorial at times. The message is all too often that what happens in Washington will determine what happens everywhere else. The fate of ordinary Americans lies in the pockets of our politicians. And those politicians are wicked, socialists, anti-American. The message is divisive, when it ought to be one that unites that broad cross-section of America that doesn’t really want to care about politics so much. Indeed, I know plenty of people who are lifelong Republicans that hear some of the things diehard conservatives are saying and just don’t know what to make of it. They may not like the course of events in this country, but they like even less a sense that the proper response is perpetual anger.

If I had to craft a new message for the right, it would be that what happens in Washington should be of tertiary importance to our daily grind. It should sit right behind the sports page in our local newspaper. Congress should be a footnote in our daily meditations on life. Local affairs should be more important than the outcome of the day’s debate on Capital Hill.

Reagan is invoked too often in modern political discourse, and all too often as some exemplar of a pure conservative ideology. But we should invoke Reagan for his leadership regardless of his politics. He was a great unifier of people – a man who knew how to present the country with a positive message and point the country in a positive direction.

There’s no simple answer to the right’s messaging problem, of course. This is partly because the ‘right’ as it now exists is in a state of political flux. Different factions within the broader coalition are vying for political and media influence. It’s only natural that this results in a few ideological cage matches. But to truly move forward and lead the country toward a fiscally sound, limited government where politics is no more important than the outcome of the Cowboys game, we need conservative leaders who can unite us rather than divide us.

And that remains no easy task.

Bay Area NewsBruce BartlettConservativesReihan Salam

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