How do you have serious discussions about important issues, when all you can see are snarky comebacks, comical memes, and one-line zingers?
So much of my feed is ‘politics by mosquito bite’ now; zingers that sting for a moment, then fade, and then occur again somewhere else, accomplishing nothing but making people uncomfortable. It’s a sign of how political discourse is changing, and I don’t know how you talk seriously about issues or consider tough questions when snark and memes and the political equivalent of ‘Yo Momma’ insults make up 90% of the discussion.
I mean, I DO know: you get off social media to do that.
But that’s also ceding ground in a way. Do you really want to see all the other people – folks who aren’t merely amusing themselves, or insane, or sycophants, or scoring shallow points – gone from social media? Doesn’t that just lead to a place where we say ‘Oh, nobody takes Twitter/Facebook/Instagram seriously.’ and ignore it? Meanwhile, a lot of people will still be there, peddling fake news and shallow takes; and worse, abandoning the platforms leaves all the apolitical users there almost wholly influenced by whatever trash is pushed at them.
Most people aren’t going to read white papers or long articles in conservative idea discussion forums. I get that. But maybe what we’re doing is allowing a widening gap between the idea-focused people and the general half-interested person. Maybe we aren’t translating these ideas as thoroughly as we ought to be for people who don’t follow politics much, if at all. I mean, for instance, I think I laugh at some Go Remy videos because I’m already informed enough to get the joke. And the Keynes v. Hayek rap battle videos are amazing, especially since I kind of understand the language and have read econ texts for fun.
What are we offering, though, to the half-interested, busy, regular person who wants to know what’s going on, but has only a little time?
They are worth talking to, worth going after, worth influencing. If you’re looking at it through the political lens, you know you need these people in an election, preferably with more than a passing allegiance. But the very sad thing about this cycle right now is that all the focus on Trump is going to eventually run its course. And then, what? The man can engender some loyalty and affinity, but he isn’t doing it on behalf of the Republican party or conservative ideals.
And we knew that. We knew electing him was not going to automatically turn his fans into ideological adherents to conservative values. For him, it makes sense to have people say ‘But He Fights!’ with both Democrats and Republicans. It supports the ‘Drain the Swamp’ narrative.
And while I do believe there’s a Swamp, there will one day be a Post Trump Era, in which we must still operate, regardless of the status of said Swamp. Sowing allegiance to the man gets you only so far. People are fickle. New personalities emerge all the time. And get knocked down, too. Nobody knows this better than Trump, who has lasted decades on the covers of magazines and the celebrity shows and his own show.
But people are less fickle when they have allegiances born of ideas and values and concepts that they can understand AND defend. That was always supposed to be the value of the political parties: to hew people to common goals and principles, form a team that outlasts themselves. We’ve been overlooking the stickiness of people who have been reached by ideas, ones they can grasp easily and defend thoroughly as their own.
In business they talk about the ‘elevator pitch’, the concise explanation of what you want to accomplish. We don’t do that much. American Enterprise Institute comes closest, with their videos covering an issue in 60 seconds, and Prager University has released topical videos in the five-minute range. And conservatives share those around a bit in agreement. But do we learn how to do it ourselves? Or you could say that the images and meme wars are the obvious equivalent, but it isn’t true, not remotely. Challenge one factually and see how quickly it can fall apart.
In the Christian mission field, they don’t send missionaries out without some thorough training in discussions about Christ. The goal is the same for Christianity as for conservatism: conversion. But in the political world, we focus on everything BUT the message on the conservative side. I can recount many Get Out The Vote and door-knocking trainings I’ve attended. All of them were based on ‘turning out our own side.’ But not one training have I ever encountered that spoke to persuasion, conversion, to talking to people in everyday situations about ideas.
I think, as a practical matter, it’s important to ask whether people are content to let a color, or an animal, or a man serve as the thing they will follow. Where does that actually get us? If that’s what people are identifying with when they vote Republican or vote for a ‘conservative’, how sticky are they to the cause?
(There are about 3 smirky libertarians reading this and about to go off on how *they* adhere to ideas just fine, thank you very much. To them: Are libertarians any better at selling what *they* believe in to regular people? Are the numbers of libertarian voters growing steadily? Honest questions.)
I know libertarians CAN be persuasive and inclusive. I went from a red meat right-winger to the Conservatarian Zone, all because a libertarian or two took time to patiently educate me and answer my questions, and talk through issues with me. But that doesn’t seem to be common, either among libertarians or conservatives. It usually involves a lot more insults and sneering. I speak from experience on both sides, when you leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth with your posturing, that impression lasts. And lasts.
Bad impressions and bad encounters with political people are REALLY sticky. Undoing those is almost impossible. I’ve got a front row seat to some local political messery that is causing some rifts that will affect state politics for a long time, and I think if I traced the origin of it back, it would land on the shoulders of some people who were ‘right’, but not kind about it.
That is nearly everything above the water in the political iceberg right now. People who think they are right, and are unkind in it. No need for engagement, they think. ‘The other guy should accept that I’m right, or accept that he’s stupid.’
As Andy from The Party Of Choice puts it, they don’t actually value other people. They value other people’s AGREEMENT. And devalue dissenters. And you should be aware, people will smell that on you; when you only want them around when they agree with you, and banish you when you don’t.
I think the right is good enough by now at getting out the vote of people who agree. The Rove models get you enough marginal wins to sit in the seats. But if you want to build a vast consensus and a constituency that agrees with you and KNOWS WHY they agree with you, you have to do far more than a mere GOTV effort.
There isn’t a persuasion game of any note on the right. The few who try aren’t shared or supported. Bring it up, and eyes glaze over.
I do get that talking about principles and values can wrong-foot you in relation to this president at times. But if that is as far ahead as we’re thinking, we aren’t actually supporting an ideology or even a party. We’re merely protecting our positions. That’s not a foundation for anything. It’s surrender, actually.
If you believe in what you say you believe in, you’ll study how to sell it. If you believe in what you say you believe in, you’ll be eager to explain it to others, and discuss it in detail, persuasively; instead of mocking and sneering at them for not getting it, and proclaiming that they’re stupid. You’ll listen to why they believe what they do, and thus learn better how you might address your differences.
There’s an opportunity right now that the right hasn’t had in a long time, if ever. Trump has fragged the political landscape. The media is talking about so many things that matter so little, and their eyes are trained on all things Trump. There’s an opening. While all eyes are watching the show, the right could be refining core values and training armies of sales people in supporting them.
Or we could do what we’ve always done; walk the same blocks, knock the same doors, robocall the same landlines. And hope it’s enough. But the math IS going to catch up to us if we stay the GOTV-only course. A day will come when there won’t be enough of ‘us’ to get out to vote. And if the local, state, and national GOP won’t take the lead, who will? Pundits? TV personalities? Radio hosts?
I think we’ve overdosed on outrage and gotchas and sick burns. Those aren’t things to be FOR. And if that’s all a person has in their quiver, they’re next to useless to the cause.
Fighting sometimes doesn’t look like fighting. Sometimes fighting looks like having a conversation with someone who doesn’t understand something very well. Sometimes fighting looks like proudly and clearly explaining a position you hold on an issue. Sometimes fighting just looks like listening to someone else, and trying to understand where they’re coming from. That’s a far more productive battle than snark and yelling, and harder than creating good walk lists and mail pieces.
If I had to guess which way party leadership on the right would go, I wouldn’t bet on selling and listening. And the thought leaders and influencers on the right are snarking up a storm because that, not actual thought leadership, is what gets hits, clicks, likes, book deals, and even TV gigs.
No, in the end it’s up to us, to reject the GOTV models, to refine our sales pitches, to expand our sales territory, and to begin to dominate our own local markets. And it’s up to us to sell not a logo or a man or a team color, but solutions to problems our country faces.