Bringing Conservatism Back to the American People
By Steven M. Warshawsky
Conservatives are lousy proselytizers. True, conservatives dominate talk radio, write scores of best-selling books, and are well-represented in the ranks of the political commentariat in newspapers, magazines, and on the internet. But in almost all of these cases, conservatives are “preaching to the choir.” Very few liberals or “undecideds” listen to Rush Limbaugh or read Ann Coulter or watch Bill O’Reilly. Their audiences – like those for Laura Ingraham, Mark Steyn, National Review, et al. – are overwhelmingly conservative (or at least non-liberal) in their political orientation. As compelling as these conservative voices may be to you and me, they are not making many new converts to the conservative cause. And conservatives need more converts, because they are losing the ideological battle for the nation’s soul.
The Nation’s Political Center Has Moved Left.
Despite the Reagan Revolution of 1980 and the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, the country today appears less hospitable than at any time in recent memory to core conservative ideas of limited government, private property, free enterprise, personal responsibility, strong national defense, and patriotism. The avowedly liberal segment of our population rejects these values with increasing vehemence. Much more troublingly, the broad middle segment of our population – usually described as “moderate” or “independent” – has acquiesced in a cradle-to-grave welfare-regulatory state that is incompatible with these traditional American virtues.
For example, a Gallup poll from November 2006 reported that 69 percent of adults believe t is
“the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have health care coverage.”
A CBS News/New York Times poll from June 2005 reported that 80 percent of adults believe it is “the government’s responsibility to provide a decent standard of living for the elderly.” A USA Today/Gallup poll from April 2006 reported that 70 percent of adults favor “price controls on gasoline.” And a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll from July 2006 reported that 75 percent of adults believe that
“many businesses will cut corners and damage the environment unless strong government rules and regulations are in place.”
While the significance of these and similar poll results can be debated, it strikes me as undeniable that the nation’s political center has moved left. There certainly is little evidence for the contrary view, expressed by Wilfred McClay in the current edition of Commentary, about “the slow movement of the American electorate to the center-Right of the political spectrum.” Simply compare George W. Bush’s electoral struggles with the triumphant victories of previous Republican presidents. For most of my lifetime, every time a “conservative” Republican candidate squared off against a “liberal” Democratic candidate, the Republican candidate won, and won big. See here for 1968 (the combined popular and electoral vote totals for Nixon and Wallace far exceeded those for Humphrey), 1972, 1980, 1984, 1988. (The 1976 election was an obvious anomaly.) Even in 1992, when the “New Democrat” Bill Clinton was elected, the combined popular vote for George H. W. Bush and Ross Perot (who ran a mostly conservative campaign) was 56.4 percent compared to 43 percent for Clinton.
By the standards of the past 30+ years, in 2004 President Bush should have trounced John Kerry, who was one of the most liberal and uncharismatic candidates ever nominated by the Democratic Party. He didn’t. Despite a successful get-out-the-vote effort, a strong economy, and the Republican advantage in foreign affairs, Bush’s popular vote margin was 50.7 percent to 48.3 percent and his Electoral College margin was an equally slim 286 to 251. (By comparison, in 1972, also in the midst of an unpopular war, Nixon thrashed McGovern, garnering 60.7 percent of the popular vote and 520 electoral votes.) Moreover, in 2000 Bush lost the popular vote to the uninspiring Al Gore, 47.9 percent to 48.4 percent (plus another 2.7 percent for Ralph Nader), and only won the election due to the intervention of the U.S. Supreme Court (otherwise the Florida courts would have thrown the election to Gore). Frankly, conservatives are in denial if they fail to recognize that the “silent majority” that helped elect Republican presidents in the 1970s and 1980s has evaporated.
Now even a hard left politician like Hillary Clinton – whose grandiose scheme to “reform” the nation’s health care industry would have represented a great leap forward for socialism in this country (and still might) – is considered a good bet to make a serious run for the White House in 2008. If you doubt that Hillary is a radical leftist, that just shows how far the nation’s political center has shifted. Similarly, which Republican candidate probably has the best chance of beating her? Rudy Giuliani. I like Giuliani. As of today, I would support him for president over any of the other likely Republican candidates (for many of the reasons highlighted by Richard Brookhiser here and here). But I will be the first to admit that Giuliani is not a principled conservative. However, a principled conservative (from either a libertarian or social conservative perspective) cannot win the presidency in 2008. Query whether a candidate who ran on Ronald Reagan’s 1980 platform could win today? I am doubtful.
The Liberal Propaganda Machine.
What has caused this leftward shift in the nation’s political center? In the absence of a more compelling explanation (perhaps based on demographic changes), I endorse the “ideas matter” view of history. According to this view, beginning in the 1960s, liberals steadily gained control over the “means of intellectual production” in this country – the news, education, entertainment, and legal professions. By the 1990s, these professions were filled with left-wing Democrats, who consciously wield their power over these industries to promote their ideological agenda. Thus, while conservatives were busy pursuing profitable careers in business, finance, engineering, medicine, and other “practical” professions, liberals were tightening their grip on the nation’s schools, courts, and newsrooms – and using these institutions to change the way ordinary Americans think and live. A line from Ayn Rand’s powerful novel Atlas Shrugged sums up the situation with stark clarity:
“We produced the wealth of the world – but we let our enemies write its moral code.”
As a result, today it is liberals, not conservatives, who set the cultural and political agenda for the American people. Conservatives merely react to this agenda, occasionally scoring successes (e.g., tax cuts, crime control, welfare reform) but leaving the underlying direction of our society – towards an ever larger welfare-regulatory state, the sine qua non of the liberal worldview – unchanged. The growing welfare-regulatory state, in turn, is leading to the breakdown of the nuclear family, the erosion of such traditional American values as hard work, thrift, and self-reliance, a burgeoning culture of dependency and victimization, and a palpable loss of individual freedom. Perversely, all of this is seen by liberals as “progress.” Through their hold over the news, education, and entertainment worlds, liberals are persuading more and more Americans to agree.
Granted, in recent years, conservatives have shattered the long-standing liberal monopoly over the news media, for which Fox News and Bill O’Reilly, in particular, have received withering scorn. This is a significant achievement, as we saw during the 2004 presidential campaign (e.g., the Swift Boat Veterans, Dan Rather’s phony memo). But the mainstream media remains the dominant source of news and opinion for most Americans. Consider, for example, that CBS News with Katie Couric, the lowest-rated network newscast, has an average of 7.8 million daily viewers, compared to only 2.1 million for Bill O’Reilly’s prime time broadcast. Similarly, despite declining circulation, the major liberal newspapers (e.g., New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times) have far larger market shares than their conservative counterparts (e.g., New York Sun, Washington Times, Orange County Register).
The clearest illustration of the still-enormous power of the “dinosaur” media is that a majority of Americans believe the nation’s economy is in bad shape – despite very low unemployment, historically high rates of home ownership, a rising stock market, and a consumer cornucopia that reaches down to the lowest levels of our society. For example, an American Research Group poll from December 2006 reported that 51 percent of adults rate the national economy as “bad,” “very bad,” or “terrible,” compared to 47 percent who rate it as “good,” “very good,” or “excellent.” Furthermore, 46 percent say the economy is getting worse, compared to only 7 percent who say it is getting better and 43 percent who say it is staying the same. At the same time, a whopping 76 percent of adults rate their own financial situation as good, very good, or excellent, compared to only 23 percent who rate it as bad, very bad, or terrible; and 25 percent say their financial situation is getting better, compared to 23 percent who say it is getting worse and 47 percent who say it is staying the same.
Perusing the above poll results brings to mind the famous Groucho Marx line: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” It is well chronicled that the liberal news media deliberately tells the public that the economy is bad whenever a Republican is in the White House, regardless of the facts. One of the most egregious examples is New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who has been predicting a recession for years (eventually, like a broken clock, he’ll be correct). This is pure propaganda, intended to undermine the American people’s support for free market economic policies – the very source of our country’s amazing prosperity. Yet even though an overwhelming majority of Americans recognize that their own financial situation is “good,” “very good,” or “excellent,” millions of people buy into this propaganda – and thereby become more likely to support collectivist policies – because this is what they are told day-in and day-out by the mainstream media.
The crucial point is that, even in the news media, where conservatives have been most successful in establishing “fair and balanced” alternatives to the left-wing establishment, the liberal propaganda machine cranks on, with devastating results. The situation is just as dire in the realms of education and entertainment. These industries are even more monolithically (maniacally?) liberal than the news media, and have become more so, not less so, since the Reagan era. (Hillsdale College and The Passion of the Christ are lonely exceptions to the rule.) Indeed, it is the country’s “educators” and “entertainers” who are most outspoken in discrediting our nation’s history and turning the American people away from the bedrock conservative principles on which this country was built. I fear that a few more decades of the American people being force-fed liberal propaganda through the media, schools, television, movies, and courts, and the battle will be lost.
Conservatives Are Not Doing Enough To Influence Public Opinion.
So what is to be done? First, conservatives need to continue their campaign against the mainstream media. This has been their most successful arena of battle to date. But it is hardly enough. In the long run, conservatives must break the liberal monopoly over education. Schools are the most important institutions in our society for transmitting cultural and political values to the next generation (something liberals understand all too well). Where else are nearly all American children subjected to didactic instruction for several hours a day, free from the distractions of the media and entertainment worlds? Certainly not in the home.
Significantly, conservatives were able to break the liberal monopoly over the news media by establishing competing sources of news and opinion. As I previously argued, they need to pursue the same strategy in the realm of education, by establishing competing schools and colleges dedicated as institutions to conservative ideas. (For example, see Yorktown University.) But this strategy will take time, not to mention mountains of money and fundamental regulatory reforms to free the education marketplace from the control of liberal accrediting boards.
In the short-term, however, the problem that must be addressed is that unless a person actively seeks out conservative ideas, whether in books, magazines, or on the internet, he probably won’t be exposed to them. On the other hand, just about everywhere a person looks today, he will be inundated with liberal propaganda. Not just in schools, news, and entertainment, but in commercial advertising and “public service” announcements (most of which are by busybody public agencies and far left activist groups). Next time you are walking down the street or shopping at the local mall or leafing through a popular magazine, pay attention to the ubiquity of liberal images and messages. You will be astounded by how pervasive they are. Then look for conservative images and messages. You will be lucky to see any.
The cumulative effect of this “propaganda gap” on the consciousness of the average person must be to make that person more liberal. It certainly will not make him more conservative. Besides, most people nowadays do not even know what being “conservative” means unless someone else tells them. (I know, because I used to be one of those people.) Nevertheless, I am convinced that there are millions of Americans who have conservative instincts – Democrats and independents, as well as Republicans – but who do not act on them because they lack the ideas and vocabulary with which to express them in political terms. So, for example, many people who might otherwise support a limited government agenda, instead vote for big government liberalism because they simply cannot conceive of a better alternative (the superior fairness, not just efficiency, of the free market is something few people understand).
It is vitally important that conservatives do something immediately to close this “propaganda gap” and start spreading conservative ideas among the American people – and talk radio, cable news, political magazines, think tanks, and policy conferences, while extremely valuable, are just not enough. The blunt truth is that the vast majority of Americans go through their daily lives without ever encountering any of these sources of conservative opinion. Yet they constantly imbibe the liberal views spewed by schools, Hollywood, the media, and left-wing advocacy groups. The upshot is that conservatives are not getting their message out to the American people, while liberals are.
Furthermore, it is an unfortunate fact of political life that the liberal message, which is rooted in the universal human experience of authoritarianism and collectivism, is more readily understood than the conservative message, which is based on individualist principles that arose during a unique period of English and American history. Despite the demonstrated superiority of conservative principles for organizing human society, there is nothing “natural” or “intuitive” – let alone inevitable – about them. This does not mean that most people cannot understand conservative principles, or that most people will not support conservative principles. On the contrary, I completely reject Rick Santorum’s pessimistic view that “conservatism, of course, will never be the political disposition of a majority of Americans.” (After all, not too many years ago, it was.) But it does mean that conservatives must work even harder to get their message across to the public than liberals.
Needed: A Conservative Outreach Program.
This is why I firmly believe that conservatives need to start speaking directly to the American people – and not merely to each other – by buying advertising space on billboards, buses and subways, at movie theaters, in newspapers and magazines, on radio and television, and so on, just like in a “public service” campaign. The idea is to create a comprehensive, coordinated campaign to spread basic conservative ideas to people who are unlikely to encounter them in their everyday lives. Compared to reforming the media or universities, such a campaign, even on a national scale, is a very practical goal. The financial, organizational, and intellectual resources needed for such a campaign are no different from those that currently go into running think tanks, opinion magazines, and political campaigns. What is different is the mission.
Although the details of such a campaign are beyond the scope of this article, I envision simple, attractive, upbeat ads that quote from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the writings of great Americans; that celebrate important people and events in American history; that present the real facts about big picture issues, like the economy, the family, and immigration; and that reveal the truth behind common liberal rhetoric (e.g., “government spending” = taxpayer dollars). These ads should not focus on narrow policy debates or highly controversial issues (e.g., capital gains tax cuts, abortion), but should be aimed at promoting core conservative values of limited government, private property, free enterprise, personal responsibility, strong national defense, and patriotism. And the ads must be rigorously nonpartisan. Any open party affiliation will undermine the integrity of the message. Cultural and political transformation, not partisan point scoring, must be the touchstone.
Importantly, the ads must include a web address where people can go for more information and links to additional sources (more than 75 percent of Americans have access to the internet). The ads thus not only will serve to convey conservative images and messages to the public, but also to attract interested individuals to the website, which in turn will serve as both a knowledge center and a gateway to further learning about conservative ideas. Although the ads and website would be the centerpiece of the campaign, other outreach methods (e.g., public symposia, charity events, canvassing) should be included as the campaign grows and develops. These techniques are not new. They are what many special interest groups (mostly liberal) already are doing. What’s new is the focus of the campaign: to (re)educate the American people about the fundamental principles of conservatism.
The Republican Party Cannot Save Conservatism.
Before concluding, let me make a few observations about the role of the Republican Party in the conservative movement.
First, I think far too many conservatives expect the Republican Party to be the engine of conservatism in this country. This is a consequence of the enormous influence of Ronald Reagan and, to a lesser extent, Newt Gingrich. With such high expectations, however, comes deep disappointment whenever the Republican Party fails to play this role. Hence, today there is widespread dissatisfaction among conservatives, libertarians and social conservatives alike, with the failure of President Bush and the Republican Congress to enact a more conservative agenda. I share this dissatisfaction. But this dissatisfaction can become self-defeating if it drives conservatives away from politics, leaving the field to the Democrats. Conservatives may not be happy with all of President Bush’s policies (I certainly am not), but they are much better on balance than the alternative.
Second, conservatives’ expectations for the Republican Party are based on an unrealistic assessment of the current political situation. Frankly, as a “50-50” nation, there is a lack of broad public support for many conservative policies (e.g., entitlement reform), and far too many liberal legislators in both parties to allow even popular conservative policies to be implemented (e.g., stricter immigration controls). Does this mean that, with better leadership, conservatives cannot be more successful politically? Of course not. But it does mean that there are real limits to what conservatives can accomplish in today’s political environment. If conservatives want to see more conservative policies enacted, then they have to find a way to move public opinion back to the right, which is what my proposed “conservative outreach program” aims to accomplish.
Finally, I think conservatives do not always appreciate that the purpose of the Republican Party is to win elections. This means that the Republican Party must respond to changes in public opinion, even if those changes are in tension with the party’s longstanding positions. Thus, as the country moves left, the Republican Party will become more liberal (albeit less liberal than the Democratic Party), if it wants to remain politically competitive. This is the genesis of “compassionate conservatism.” Compassionate conservatism is a political program intended to enhance the electoral chances of the Republican Party by reconciling the goals of the modern welfare-regulatory state (e.g., poverty alleviation, environmental protection) – which are taken as politically sacrosanct – with certain “conservative” (i.e., free market and faith-based) means. Even assuming that a compassionate conservative agenda is necessary for the Republican Party to be competitive in national or state-wide elections, the long-term effect of compassionate conservatism is to strengthen, not weaken, the liberal welfare-regulatory state, which in the end will overpower such conservative half-measures.
The bottom line is that, as a political party, the Republican Party can play only a limited role in any project to spread conservatism among the American people. At best, the Republican Party can act as a brake on the worst excesses of the Democratic Party. But in the absence of a transcendental leader like Ronald Reagan, it has little ability to move public opinion back towards the conservative side of the political spectrum.
Significantly, liberals invest much less of their ideological energy in the Democratic Party than conservatives do in the Republican Party. For liberals, their ideological work is being done every day by reporters, teachers, movie stars, activist judges, and left-wing interest groups like the ACLU. A presidential campaign once every four years in which the Republican candidate mouths some conservative platitudes is hardly sufficient to counter these forces. Conservatives need to develop other vehicles, besides the Republican Party, for getting their message out to the American people.
The Future Of Our Country Is At Stake.
In 20 years time, will our country be free, dynamic, prosperous, and strong – or anxious, oppressive, stagnant, and weak? The answer ultimately depends on whether a majority of Americans embrace the core values and beliefs of conservatism or liberalism. Ideology – not population size or geography or natural resources – is at the heart of our success or failure as a nation.
With the stinging defeat of the 2006 midterm elections still fresh in our minds, it is time for conservatives to face facts. The American people are being inundated by liberal propaganda, from the schools, media, Hollywood, and courts, which is pushing the country towards a collectivist, multicultural, “politically correct” future. We see it happening all around us. Clearly, existing conservative voices, institutions, and strategies, while important, are not enough to stop this trend. So conservatives need to start thinking in bigger and bolder terms. Conservatives need to find a way to bring conservatism back to the American people. How? I believe by reaching out directly to the public – and bypassing the liberal guardians in the schools, media, and Hollywood – and (re)educating the American people about the conservative principles that made this country great: limited government, private property, free enterprise, personal responsibility, strong national defense, and patriotism. It can be done. But conservatives need to get started right away. Before it is too late.
Steven M. Warshawsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.