Ever since last November’s election, we’ve heard many talking heads in the mainstream media insist that the big problem with the Republican party is that it just isn’t enough like the Democratic party. They see President Obama’s re-election victory, as narrow as it was, as proof of a changing electorate that is moving away from conservatism and leaning more in favor of liberal ideas and progressive policies.
The pundits probably really do believe that the country (at least enough of it) has finally caught up to liberalism, and that those stubborn right-wingers who continue to cling to their hallmark beliefs of small government, the power of the individual, and free markets are on their way to extinction if they don’t evolve in the perceived direction of the electorate.
While I don’t buy for a minute that these people are actually interested in bettering the Republican party, I do think they are correct in that conservatives would be wise to learn something from the Democratic party. That ‘something’, however, has nothing to do with policies or ideas for the country. It has to do with marketing.
Conservative principles aren’t the problem with the Republican party. If they were, liberal politicians wouldn’t pretend to be more conservative than they are whenever they run for office. They wouldn’t pretend to be concerned with deficit spending. They wouldn’t talk about personal responsibility, and make promises of keeping taxes low for the vast majority of voters. They wouldn’t wait until they’re elected to their last term in office before laying out an openly liberal agenda. They certainly wouldn’t take pride in comparing themselves to Ronald Reagan – a man who stood for everything that they’re fundamentally against.
No, the biggest problem for conservatives is their ineffectiveness in conveying their principled message in the modern era. They simply haven’t adapted themselves to deal with today’s culture of microscopic attention spans and viral misinformation. They believe, much as Mitt Romney did during the presidential campaign, that commonsense concepts like fiscal responsibility, self reliance, small government, “peace through strength”, cheap energy, free enterprise, and even constitutionality speak for themselves. Thus, when they promote these ideas, their assumption is that their audience gets what they’re saying and is naturally receptive to their message.
What they don’t understand, much to their detriment, is that nothing ‘speaks for itself’ in today’s politics anymore. We no longer live in an era where commonsense is the prevailing wisdom. We live in an era where an amazing amount of information can be spread across the country at the touch of a button, even when that information is purposefully misleading, grossly exaggerated, or downright false. We live in an era where the only political-speak that a lot of people seem to grasp are the heavily-repeated catchphrases that play to their instincts. That’s why liberals have been successful in portraying commonsense ideas as radical, and radical ideas as commonsense.
The left gets it. It’s the reason why President Obama endlessly repeats phrases like “fair share” and “balanced approach”. Such terms strike a chord with voters because people instinctively believe in the concept of fairness. After all, what kind of person doesn’t want fairness, right? Unfortunately – and this goes back to the problem of short attention-spans – there’s a growing, intellectual laziness in people that won’t compel them search beyond their impulses. They aren’t motivated to use critical thinking to consider whether or not the policies being sold are actually fair. And with the Republican party’s challenges to the Obama administration’s interpretation of fairness requiring statistics and mathematical explanations, there’s just little patience for it.
Liberals have also gone through a successful process of transforming their language in recent years. They’ve been able to take terms that have long been political liabilities for the Democratic party, and replace them with terms that are political winners. To squelch the negative connotations that come with government “spending”, they now use the word “investing”. Instead of raising “taxes”, they talk about raising “revenue”. They describe the act of letting people keep more of their own money as a “tax giveaway” in order to alter the perception of who that money really belongs to.
These may seem like minor things, but over time, they absolutely make a difference in swaying public perception. This is evident in the way President Obama was able to make “tax fairness” a winning political issue. A couple of years ago, nobody was sitting around stressing about rich people’s tax rates. They were worried about their own situations in a tough economy. Yet, a successful, envy-stoking, class-warfare campaign of pitting the 99 percent against the one percent created false villains and a much needed distraction for the administration. It gave them a justification for pursuing nonsensical economic policies that they’re still getting mileage out of.
Between now and the 2014 election, Republican strategists will certainly be spending a lot of time working on broadening their appeal to voters. As they go through this process, they should start outlining their own form of language-branding to connect with a increasingly dense electorate.
Rather than denouncing “tax hikes” or “tax increases”, they should be denouncing “money grabs”. Using the term “money grab” for taxation infers that there is an injustice being committed – one motivated by greed. The Democrats do well in creating this kind of perception when it comes to corporations. Why can’t Republicans do it to assail big government, who is far more deserving of such a title?
Republicans should refer to debt reduction as “equal opportunity debt relief”, and sell it as an issue of “generational fairness”. Like I mentioned earlier, people are drawn to the concept of fairness.
Opening more government land for domestic oil-drilling should be sold as an “anti-discrimination” measure to put Americans on an “even-footing” with foreign sources of oil.
Rather than complaining that the Democrats are pursuing “socialism”, brand their economic initiatives as “chop shop economics” and explain that their policies take something with value that works great, and strips away its working parts for distribution until it’s essentially worthless.
Republicans should re-evaluate all of their commonly-used terms for discussing issues. For the ones that don’t draw an immediate, instinctive response from low-information voters, the party should come up with alternative phrasing that will. They certainly don’t have to use my ideas. They just need to understand that conservative principles are powerful and attractive – as long as people view them in a context that makes instant sense to them.
The party should work this new terminology into their regular vocabulary until it becomes commonplace in their speeches and political arguments. They can’t give up on it after a few weeks or months. It should be their new language. There will certainly be some push-back and perhaps a bit of mockery from media (much as conservatives do with Obama’s catchphrases), but the continued usage of this wordage will work its way down to the electorate nonetheless because a larger number of people will more easily tune into it.
Is this the answer to all of the Republicans’ problems? Absolutely not. But they would be wise not to underestimate the kind of traction they could get off of a simple rephrasing of conservatism.
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