Rewriting the conservative narrative
“While I agree that it’s fairly pointless, as a tactical matter, for dissidents to attack the talk radio giants, this comes, I think, out of a deep frustration that people with little more than slogans and attitude have bigfooted discussion among conservatives, and have helped turn the GOP and the movement into something that’s extremely hostile to change (as distinct from skepticism of it, as all real conservatives should be), and almost fanatically opposed to dissent from within. A fairly conservative friend of mine and I were talking the other day about something Glenn Beck had said, and my friend looked disgusted, saying, “I’m sick of being associated with conservatives.” The impulse to take on the Becks and the Limbaughs comes from a sense that these guys are hurting us bad, and preventing the kind of clear thinking that we need to get back in the political game. I’d love to know how Mark and the League propose for dissident conservatives to “engage” the base when the kind of people the base trusts and takes its cues from demonize dissidents as RINOs, closet liberals, squishes, wets, suck-ups, and so forth. I’m asking seriously. I don’t know how to go about this in the current climate.” ~ Rod Dreher
There’s no easy answer to this question, of course. Dreher and other critics of Beckian talk-show conservatism are right: the talking heads do hurt the cause. Think of William F. Buckley back in the days leading up to the launch of National Review. Imagine if he’d had to compete with Fox News for the heart and soul of conservatism. It wouldn’t have been easy. Indeed, on the field of battle, Buckley with his more reasoned and polite approach to political discussion (which isn’t to say he always threw soft punches, the man could be rather straightforward after all) may very well have lost to the populists now manning the airwaves in defense of “true conservatism.” Buckley would be painted like every other East Coast Elite.
But I doubt very much that Buckley would have taken to that particular field. He was too canny to become embroiled in a fight he couldn’t win, and too immersed in ideas to need to resort to those measures – at least until he was sure of victory. What’s the point in taking on the Goliaths of the conservative movement anyways? They have a higher bully pulpit, a wider audience, a louder megaphone. And they’re okay fighting dirty, and dragging you down to whatever level they need to drag you in order to win. Wait until they’re marginal players. Wait until they’ve outworn their welcome.
Conservative dissidents these days have nowhere near enough patience. Impulsively, they attack the easiest and biggest targets they can find: the talking heads. As Dreher points out, the impulse for this fight is two-fold. On the one hand it’s the impulse to remove Rush and co. from the conversation, because they’re “preventing the kind of clear thinking we need to get back in the political game.” But much, much more importantly, I think, is the desire to simply not be associated with that particular brand of conservatism. Guilt by association. We’re not with them, we say. And to prove it, here’s post after post on just why this is so, on why we hate Limbaugh even more than you do.
And it works. Nobody who knows Conor or Rod would ever couple them with Limbaugh or Levin – right? Only, it has unintended consequences. Sure, you’ve blacklisted the pundits, but you’ve also been blacklisted, by a pretty significant portion of the conservative base.
Isn’t there a better way?
I think there is. Let’s call it the Trojan Horse strategy.
1. Quit attacking the talking heads.
If you want to not associate with them, that’s fine. Don’t. Pretend they don’t even exist if you want. It’s like dealing with hornets. Don’t mess with them, they probably won’t mess with you. This way you also don’t stir up the hornet’s nest: the base.
2. Try to understand why Rush and Levin resonate with the base.
Is it because people are angry, and the pundits tap into that anger? Is listening to these guys a way to let off steam? Try to get to the source of that anger and then find ways to speak to it that are smart and practical. Limbaugh may be able to foment rage but he leaves the door wide open for others to come up with good ideas, because he doesn’t operate in that sphere at all.
3. Realize that no matter how you spin it, you’re not going to get a “new” base.
Some commenters around these parts seem to think that the only way to reinvigorate conservatism is to ditch the base, which makes just about no sense whatsoever. Secular wisdom suggests that conservatism’s recent decline is all the fault of the “white-evangelical-Christians” or, in hip crowds, the WEC’s. Could it be that it’s actually the failure of two wars, massive spending, and further disenfranchisement of wide swaths of America that is to blame? What exactly about evangelical Christianity – other than the rhetoric of a handful of its leaders – caused the failures of the Bush administration? Was it the part where Bush outlawed abortion, maybe? Or the part where Bush signed DADT? Maybe it was Cheney’s stance on gay marriage.
4. Speak in tongues, so to speak.
Now that we’ve side-stepped alienating the base, and decided instead to engage them, we need to learn to speak to people in their own language. There is a natural tension between the individualistic impulses so often associated with conservatism and the more solidarity-driven Christian tradition. Part of the way forward for conservatism is to nudge the base away from the bootstraps individualism and make them realize that part of the reason they’re conservatives in the first place is because of their religion. Speak in Christian terms, but not in exclusively Christian terms.
5. Don’t be Bill Kristol.
Independents don’t require you to denounce the talking heads, however much many of them agree with the sentiment – they just want you to tell it to them like it is. Don’t bullshit. Come up with good ideas and be honest. Independents will come around. They’re often attracted to sensible governing ideas. Be the party of sensible, limited government again. This doesn’t go against the grain of any of the major tenets of conservatism – in fact, it’s the central principle of conservatism. In other words, don’t be Bill Kristol. Sure – he can avoid becoming a target of the base, but he’s an unprincipled hack in every other way. Do the first part without succumbing to the second.
6. Re-build the three-legged stool – don’t break it.
Along these lines, it’s good to remember what Mark has said about the three-legged stool of conservatism: social, fiscal, and defense conservatives have in the past united under one big tent. That stool seems to be tottering. I disagree with Mark’s conclusions though. He wants to knock out a leg, I think a two-legged stool is hardly seaworthy. In order to right the ship stool, conservatives can’t start knocking out legs. They need to find ways to create a narrative or a vision that incorporates all three. This is a project of unification, not further division. However galling it may seem, to reunify the movement, the internal warfare has to take place on the field of ideas, not in the field of personality politics. The populists out for their own gain will win at personality politics, because they won’t fight fair. Outlast them. Let your ideas and your project to unify eclipse their project to sew outrage. Outrage has its limits. If we can steer it in a new direction, it will taper out.
7. Co-opt defense.
Mark said it well:
But even here, there is no way to implement these core principles without consciously abandoning one or the other element of the infamous three-legged stool. While I think it completely plausible to de-emphasize tax cuts, any move to an emphasis on deficit hawkishness is meaningless without addressing the elephant in the room that is defense spending. Addressing that element requires abandoning nationalism (aka “defense” conservatism) as a fundamental tenet of conservatism.
Young conservatives should heed the failures of big government in terms of defense spending and foreign policy ambition. It’s time to start spinning defense as something best handled by limited government. Resurrect realism, but give it some shiny new exterior. This means you have to take both a solidly pro-defense stance and call for cuts in defense spending and overreach. Make this about “them vs. us” if need be. It’s time for Europe (them) to stand up so that America (us) can go back to the business of defending itself. Capture the narrative.
8. Social and fiscal conservatism need to be reconciled.
Defense is a tricky one and might take a long time, but reconciling the libertarian fiscal and economic positions of conservatism with the social conservatism of the modern movement will be just as tricky. It’s time to start drawing distinctions between the “nanny” or “welfare” state and the need for safety nets. Christian conservatism requires that we provide for each other. Safety nets are a good way to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves, or who find themselves down and out. They should be presented as Christian imperatives. The possibility of fiscally sound safety-nets is very real. It’s time to stop surrendering all welfare policy to big government liberals. Perpetual welfare leads to social decay; temporary safety nets give people a second chance. They also cost a great deal less.
(All of these reconciliations fall under what I’ve begun terming civilizational conservatism, which posits that the fundamental goal of conservative politics is to preserve our civilization against decay. This requires a stable society above all else. It requires a give and take – a civilizational tango. With wildly disparate levels of prosperity this is all but impossible unless people at the lower rungs of society have a chance similar to those at the top. Safety nets are part of this. See also Grand New Party for some of the ideas Douthat and Salam have for middle-class Americans, a population that rests at the heart of civilizational conservatism.)
The point is that we need to weave together a strategy which co-opts various points along the conservative spectrum. Co-opt the angry, largely Christian base. Nudge them toward a more reasonable socio-political position. Co-opt the language of defense. Nudge the very meaning of pro-defense toward something far more limited in scope. Reconcile fiscal and social conservatism. Create a new vision for conservatism which places the individual within his community. Show how limited government is the least likely sort of government to degrade our rights, our religion, our liberty. Make limited government central to all three pillars – defense and social conservatism as well as fiscal.
– Ditch the libertine language of libertarianism but not the fundamental libertarian views on civil liberties.
– Ditch the big tax-and-spend policies of the Democrats, but not the fundamental desire to help the poor and the middle class.
– Ditch the pro-business stance of the GOP, but not its pro-market, pro-free-trade economic policies.
– Ditch the personality politics, but not the desire to change the conversation.
And so forth.
But more essential to this project than anything else is this:
The most effective advocate for change in the momentum of the conservative movement will make that change from within. Rod and Conor and other dissidents who want change would do well to remember this. If they continue to be pushed further and further outside the circle of movement conservatism, eventually they’ll have nothing left to offer except stones on shut windowpanes. The door will be closed to them. Sure, the movement has a tendency to excommunicate – it happens time and again. Learn how to navigate this dilemma. Outsmart the inquisition. Again, the only way to kick this habit will be to influence the movement from within.
And like Pope Benedict and the Anglicans, bring the dissidents back into the loving arms of the larger movement.