Rephrasing Conservatism For a Dense Electorate

cupearEver 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.

Author Bio:

John Daly couldn't have cared less about world events and politics until the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks changed his perspective. Since then, he's been deeply engaged in the news of the day with a particular interest in how that news is presented. Realizing the importance of the media in a free, democratic society, John has long felt compelled to identify media injustices when he sees them. With a B.S. in Business Administration (Computer Information Systems), and a 16 year background in software and web development, John has found that his real passion is for writing. He is the author of the Sean Coleman Thriller series, which is available through all major retailers. John lives in Northern Colorado with his wife and two children. Like John on Facebook. Follow John on Twitter.
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  • CharlieFromMass

    Having studied marketing and branding a little bit, I cannot emphasize how right Mr. Daly is.

    There are ways to change words without changing the truth and making the statements dishonest. Conservatives and libretarians need to band together on this issue, particularly the financial and governmental sizing issues we fundamentally agree on, and the issues that pose the greatest threat to our national structurally.

    We need to do these things or we’ll soon bloat ourselves to explosion in Washington and destroy the national (and possibly global) economy along with it.

  • nancy weaver

    I will be promoting this to everyone and changing my own words when I comment and talk with others. This is clearly a main issue the Repub must change.

  • fritzilou1

    This article contains some good advice, unlike much of the drivel that is coming out of some Republicans that emphasizes tactics rather than skilled ways of reaching those with little attention to politics. We should be teaching the value conservatism with little quotations that can be remembered and when heard again be associated to us and our desire to protect individual liberty.

  • DOOM161

    The GOP is conservatives’ biggest enemy. Why would they think that the most effective way to defeat Obamacare is by nominating the guy that wrote Obamacare? Why did they not notice that Romney was the only candidate against whom Obama didn’t campaign during the primaries? You might have noticed that there have been zero sexual harassment charges filed against Herman Cain.

  • Ken Heyl

    Here’s a perfect example…the stock market’s doing OK so the economy must be improving…reflect on Obama’s “the private sector is OK” comments. American Business has figured out how to make a profit in tough times, and the stock market reflects that fact. Obama has determined that he needs to tax those profits at a higher level. All couched in “popular” terms.
    The economy won’t start to sing until the government gets out of the way. But American Business will continue to thrive.
    Now the big question: How do Republicans couch all these facts in rhetoric that makes the American People vote for them?

  • Kathie Ampela

    Why does the liberal message have to be disguised and the electorate misled if the country has now embraced liberal values? Why, as you say, do democrats try to play word games if the nation has now accepted liberalism en masse? Whenever I hear the dems say “invest” I want to scream!! Messaging is 75% of the problem with the GOP. Remember Hope and Change? Change We Can Believe In? The GOP has to take back the Hope and Change theme and make it their own and stop apologizing for their message.

    • John Daly

      Agreed. I don’t believe the country has embraced liberal values. I think they’ve embraced Obama and haven’t paid much attention to what he’s done.

  • DanB_Tiffin

    John Daly?

    He!!, I impulsively read the article because I though that good looking female at the top wrote it! Oh, well. It was a good article.

    “a growing, intellectual laziness in people that won’t compel them search beyond their impulses” – definitely!

    • John Daly

      It was part of my plan to get people to read my column. Glad it worked! 😉

  • Epy

    Life is a people game. Hopefully Republican strategists figure that out sooner than later.

  • Johnny Deadline

    Excellent point,John; well said! Most everything today revolves around branding and perception. I might add that consistent repetition of the new terminology would also be helpful. If conservatives would trumpet the new terminology in different media channels at every opportunity – print, broadcast, digital, social media, etc. , both as a party and individually, that would compound the effectiveness of their message.

  • Wheels55

    It seems that most people, no matter what party, have A.D.D. when it comes to politics. So catch phrases like “fair share” are easy to remember and to put one’s own definitions on them.
    What the Republicans probably will never have is the huge marketing help from the media. I have to hand it to Obama’s media managers, they get the puppet press to jump when commanded.

  • Bob Weber

    I was thinking along similar lines today concerning the gun debate. Guns have been branded as scary ‘Assault Weapons’, semi-automatics as ‘automatic weapons’ and have used the term the ‘Wild West’ to describe a society with the freedom to own a firearm. Do you know what they called the most famous handgun 120 years ago, in the ‘Wild West’? The Peacemaker. The Colt 45 was considered a tool to bring Peace to the ‘Wild West’, not an instrument of chaos and blood in the streets. It was an equalizing that allowed families do defend their homes and belongings, not a source of crime and fear.

    You are right on in this article. The Democrats have taken all the terms that they were ridiculed for during the 70’s and 80’s and put a new spin on them so they are now embraced and loved by the common man in 2012.

    • John Daly

      The gun angle is a perfect example. Great point!

    • Johnny Deadline

      Great analogy Bob! Names and phrases like “The Peacemaker” and “peace through strength” wrap preferred outcomes around the reality of positive deterrents. Compare those with similar examples from the left – “We have to pass it to know what’s in it” or “tax fairness” – where fairness is achieved by making someone else pay more because they earn more. My favorite: Hillary taking responsibility for Benghazi without anyone being accountable. Only the left could conceive of responsibility with no accountability.