Thursday, January 31, 2013

Conservatives and messaging

An interesting and important essay by Bookworm:

Conservatives need to create powerful, “sticky” messages that lead the electorate to a tipping point

(HT: Neo-neocon)

It contains a lot of good sense and hard-headed analysis. OTOH, there are some glaring weaknesses in current conservative thought/messaging that Bookworm ignores or glosses over.

This is a point that the Obama administration hopes we will ignore:

What Obama did do successfully was vilify his opponent (“not one of us“) and make narrow, often fear-based appeals to particular interest groups. His campaign also demonstrated a mastery of technology for identifying voters and coaxing them to the polls….


The cultural bias the Democrats have created against conservativism reached its tipping point in November 2012 when a president with a disastrous economic record rather handily got reelected. Relying on decades of indoctrination and sophisticated modern social networking, Democrats spread a message that stuck: Republicans are evil. Everything else, whether from the Left or the Right, was just chatter that people ignored.
If President Obama won any mandate at all, it was a negative mandate: the voters rejected the Romney caricature that the Obama campaign created.

Another good point:

The Law of the Few says that studies show that there are specific people in society who are information, idea, and style vectors. Whether they have a vast network of contacts, a reputation for sharing useful wisdom, or the innate gift of salesmanship, these few people exercise a disproportionate effect when it comes to dispersing ideas. When they talk, other people lots of other people listen.

Do we have anybody like that articulating conservative ideas? I’m not so sure. Gladwell’s point is that these people spread their ideas because of their ability to connect directly with other people. All of our conservative talking heads are just that talking heads on TV or the radio. Conservatives, perhaps true to their commitment to individualism, do not have networks of people on the ground (i) who are themselves networkers, (ii) who are viewed as reliable information sources, or (iii) who can sell anything to anybody.
One of the big problems with conservative talking heads is that they make their money playing to the base. That is a great strategy for radio or cable news, but it does not do much to win over the low-information, swing voters. A few years ago I noted:

There is no doubt that a sizable minority of the population is opposed to bigger government. This minority is large enough to boost the ratings of talk radio. It drives readership for rightwing blogs and raises money for some candidates. But is it it enough to win election?

40% is an enormous share in radio ratings. It is also the bad end of a landslide election.
Still another good point:

In a way, the internet has made things even worse for conservatives. While it’s increased information dissemination, it’s also increased information ghettoization. We don’t talk to our neighbors about politics anymore. Instead, we go to a like-minded blog and enjoy the feeling that we’re not alone. But by doing so, we delude ourselves into believing that there are more like-minded people out there than a walk in the community and a talk in the park would reveal.
By definition, low-information voters aren’t reading Ace of Spades or Powerline. We can’t engage them if we don’t know them.

Plus, ghettoization isn’t healthy.

G.K. Chesterton:

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing that is really narrow is the clique....The men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment like that which exists in hell. [Heretics]
Now to my dissent.

I don’t think that the right has no “sticky” messages. Rather, part of the political problem is that a majority of the public views our sticky messages with suspicion.

For instance:

Key fact number one. As Obama moves toward "socialism", he does so at the behest of the "capitalists". It is not as if he is sending paramilitary gangs to take over successful, profitable businesses. Obama, like Bush before him, is compelled to act because the capitalists screwed the pooch, crapped the bed, and then muttered "maybe my bad" when their recklessness sent the financial system off a cliff.

The broad public knows this, and that makes it hard to win them over with cheap slogans about socialist bogeymen.
Let’s not forget the biggest, stickiest Republican/conservative message of all:

We {heart} W.
The 2012 campaign was not just Obama vs. catoon-Romney. It was also Obama vs. the ghost of George Bush.

Leaving ideology aside (as swing and low-information voters do), the Bush legacy is an anchor around the neck of the right. The short version goes something like this:

Tanked the economy (worse than LBJ)

Started two wars he could not win (worse than Carter)
Is that fair? Not entirely, but it is accurate.

Is the truth more complex than this stamp-sized report card? Sure, and there are plenty of right-wing pundits who are eager to explain why Bush deserves more credit than he gets.

Their explanations do more harm than good.

The first political professional I ever met had a ready answer when complex explanations were required:

If you’re explaining, you’re losing.
Or as Lee Atwater might say “if you can’t spin it, change the subject.”

So quick, what’s the spin on that Bush record? Remember, it has to be sound-bite length and fit on a bumper sticker?

Even worse is all the talk about the “47%” and “makers and takers”. It reflects a vicious and simplistic worldview that equates income with virtue and reduces the value of a citizen to his effective tax rate. It is a worldview that elevates the hedge fund manager over a retired fireman or Mayor Mike Bloomberg over a disabled combat veteran.

No wonder it is not an electoral winner. Especially when the wealthy vote liberal despite their high taxes. It's hard to build a majority when you exclude nearly half the electorate out of "principle."

No comments: