Many of us on the right have come to believe & to say in louder & louder voices that it’s over: The (1)free market-(2)strong defense-(3)we’ll talk about maybe doing something about abortion, (3*)but no, we won’t! coalition of the Reagan era is over. Now, it’s change or become a minority party, with or without a massive organizational-ideological collapse. & it’s happening right before our eyes. 2016 is the most interesting year for conservatism since when? I think it’s been a generation since anything this troubling has happened…
So last year I was telling people on Ricochet & wherever I could get them to listen: If you think you’ve only got a messaging problem, you have no idea what a problem you really have! If you think, it’s mostly that you just haven’t figured out how to tell the American electorate what great things conservatism can bring to America, you’ll see the real anger & hysteria of an electoral year! Even at a broader level–people are not buying the notion that the free market is really good for everyone & that whatever’s wrong, more economic conservatism will fix it–there’s no victory ever coming your way.
This year, my fellow Ricochetti & others are starting to say, you know, you’ve got a lot to learn–we’ve got a lot to learn–from Mr. Trump’s supporters. Sure, we can’t turn the party over to anger or populism or what seem to be the cries of defense, punishment, & fighting. But this is no longer a question of a few constituencies with little money & less influence, do we deal with them or ignore’em? At this point, the party nomination is being taken over by means of populist electioneering. About a third of the delegates are counted & the only people who are dead certain to lose associated their names with the party on foreign policy, & to some extent on domestic policy. There is now no reason to believe the next third of the electorate will look radically different.
Some are still saying: These voters don’t matter really, either because we can take them for granted or because they’re unnecessary to our coalition. Psychologically, this comes down to saying the primary electorate is in a state of hysteria & the GOP electorate is bewildered by this disturbing show, but not really persuaded by the two candidates whose victories are preceded & succeeded by their telling the party establishment, Drop dead! At this point, if there were no party establishment, they have created it & persuaded the electorate it exists & has to be beaten badly. The electorate either agrees or really does not disagree–& no one else can bend their ear.
These are lone voices. Stronger are the voices that call Mr. Trump mad or worse & his success a harbinger of doom. These people are not simply wrong–they may be mostly right–but they do not seem to take into account that it’s either too late or too early to ascribe blame by claiming to describe what the world is like, as though they were not part of it & their opinions & actions did not affect it. (This is rather like conservative complaints about the culture: The complaints are often blind to whether they themselves are making things better or worse.) This is an election in a country where politics mostly seems to mean elections. & morality requires us to say: Elections have consequences.
So we have to deal with this electorate. I propose a psychological analysis, both because it fits with the problems of elections & because it allows us to avoid some moralistic tendencies. I don’t want to hear that the party’s gotta burn down! I don’t want to hear that the crazy people have to be ignored! I’m going to try & persuade you that it’s not the best thing we can do together right now. I propose to you to think of Mr. Trump’s electorate as people previously ignored & disrespected. I hope I can persuade you to think of ways in which the basically free-market opinions we mostly share can be put together with an electorate that’s really despairing over the future, or the lack of one.
I understand that this means that we have to say, we’re somewhat at fault. The last generation & the age of the GOP Congress & Presidency have not worked out for the people now voting their anger. So that anger is not irrational. We have to make sure it becomes even more rational than that by trying to see in what ways it can make sense–in what conservative ways. So let’s not dismiss it as class war, protectionism, & identity politics. That guarantees not only a Dem victory, but the collapse of the GOP coalition without liberals having to do anything to appeal to the voters we disrespect on principle. We have to find some agreement, not only disagreement & find a way to balance them that’s actually attractive to these voters.
I’ll go further: We have to say, the age of Reagan is over! I’m not trying to write history here or to tell people what their lives mean–only to think of a way to look at the political situation, to see if it makes sense. So this is just as a way to figure out what’s so wrong with the party, electorate, & chattering classes–they neither understand each other or really seem to like each other! There is deep psychological chaos being sown in the coalition. So time has passed & let’s think about how this generation after the Cold War conservatism is different! I’m going to say at some point, so we need to learn from Reagan how to build a coalition & strengthen, not doom a party. But I want upfront to say: Let’s not be using Reagan to prop up candidates & wishful thinking about the electorate. It’s too late!
Maybe my ideas don’t work out or aren’t persuasive–but I notice I’m getting far more attention & far fewer condescending remarks than last year. I’m not saying I told you so: I didn’t see Mr. Trump coming or any of these things. I’m not in the business of prophecy, I don’t believe success is its own justification, nor do I think people who ignored me were wrong to do so. All I’m saying is, it looks like I have another chance to persuade people & I want to make the best of it & my message is the same: Conservatism doesn’t suffer from a messaging problem: No rhetoric nor no advertising can help. They can only harm, inasmuch as they delude us further & farther! Conservatism suffers from a kind of arrogance typical of moral, decent people. I’m sorry to say unpleasant things. But I think we need to think about how what’s right about us may cause trouble for our understanding of politics.
Just think about whether you find it natural to suspect that prosperity & prosperity talk can be bad for America. When you hear conservatives saying, we need more growth, that’s the ticket!–do you find yourself saying, you’re lying!, or, would that it were doable, but you’re not the guy to do it!, or, sure, we need prosperity & growth, but we need other things, too, so let’s talk about more than GDP growth!, or maybe something else, but just as skeptical? I think more & more conservatives are in this position! But very few people look at these really counter-intuitive possibilities.
So also with the possibility that morality is blinding us. We’re pretty decent people–not me, especially, I’m more of an exception that proves the decency of folks who treat me decently even if I don’t exactly deserve it… But is it really so hard to believe, for example, that an innocent guy has no idea he should be looking for alibis nor no idea he might be accused of anything?–So he wouldn’t be prepared to deal with sudden shocks: Being decent mostly means not expecting bad things to happen. Well, do you think the primary results so far are a good thing? So we need to start thinking somewhat differently.
I would say, broadly, we need to think of the sort of stuff conservatives talk about endlessly as a terrible political education. We need to think that the things we hold to be good are only available to us as the tenuous & endangered conclusion of a long line of reasoning & action. In other words, it’s where we want to get, but it’s going to be really difficult to get there. Talking about those things now, as I believe I have predicted, but am at least always saying, is not doing anything good. It’s preventing us from thinking of other things & it’s not persuading others to join us.
So maybe it is time to say, drop dead, gorgeous! I think it’s time we consider it, at least: How about we think, It’s our problem, it’s our burden to bear, it’s our job to persuade people to vote GOP, to vote conservatism, & to do so by appealing to their actual experiences, not to our own! That is to say, not to take for granted everyone wants to be like us & will do it if only we tell them in the most principled or the most flattering way! Instead, to look for who these people are & what their opinions are–not to tell them our opinions are better & here’s a great argument proving it!, but in order to learn about their experiences & their own interpretations their experiences, so we can then talk to them about what common ground & what friendship we can build.
I believe conservatives need to lose the arrogant belief in the strength of arguments. I believe I’ve done a good job of arguing that, but I fear, as I say, arguments are not enough. Repeating them over a year seems to me necessary as well. Trying to make the case anew & to appeal to experiences we have shared & worries we share also seems to me necessary. I’m not sure all of this is enough. I certainly don’t think I’m the man for the job. It’s your country & I’m a foreigner, but, I hope, a friend. I’m only doing it because I don’t see anyone else doing it–I only take hope because I’ve see others, on Ricochet & elsewhere, doing at least similar things: Testifying to other experiences & opinions & encouraging us to change.