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What’s RightWorld Doing Wrong?
A closer look at the current issues.


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While most social issues are moral, however, not all moral issues are social. Take war. Many Americans think that the Iraq War was not simply foolish, but wrong, and much of the Left thinks that about most wars. Or take the environment. Greens speak of “global-warming denial” the way most of us speak of “Holocaust denial” because they think they are witnessing a moral outrage. If we want to be popular on the roof in Santa Monica, we must address the ethical dimension of politics sincerely and comprehensively.

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Brand-name voting versus rational-analysis voting.

One way of understanding what voters do is to try to reconstruct their decisions with reference to rational thinking. (No, there is no cynical smirk on my face.) I here use “rational thinking” broadly, to encompass everything from the decision to support the candidate who best advances one’s economic interests to the arguments thoughtful people make on both sides of the life issues.

The rational-analysis model explains a lot, but it’s incomplete. One important exception is what I’ll call “brand-name voting.” A brand-name voter tends not to examine individual issues carefully; his decisions can instead be explained with reference to a few sweeping ideas about what a given party is like. These ideas are — to repeat something I said above — usually moral and aesthetic.

According to my father, my great-grandmother was a straight-ticket Democratic voter her whole adult life because she emerged from the Great Depression with the feeling that “Democrats care about people.” That is brand-name voting. Many of my friends are also brand-name voters, and some for the same reason as my great-grandmother. Others think in stereotypes about who conservatives are (corporate fat cats; backwoods yokels) or what values they hold (“They love war”; “They hate gay people”).

Brand-name voters run the political gamut, but when they’re against us, their opposition is usually hard to overcome. That’s because many of our arguments require a higher level of abstraction than the corresponding liberal positions. The case for the welfare state is very simple, and rests on the idea that those with more should help those with less. There is a comparably simple libertarian response based on the idea of property rights. And then there are sophisticated arguments that welfarist policies distort incentives in a way that often ends up hurting the people they are meant to help. For that, there is no good bumper sticker.

Influencers versus influenced.

Ideas are viruses, and we are their carriers. Some carriers transmit ideas to just a few, while others have lines of communication with millions of people. These latter include the media, Hollywood, the music industry, and mass-market book authors. For lack of a better term, let’s call them (and others similar to them) “the elites.” Other carriers transmit their ideas to the elites. These include the university professors, the authors of highbrow literature and criticism, and the creators of esoteric art. For lack of a better term, let’s call them (and others similar to them) “the intellectuals.”

The elites and the intellectuals take a much dimmer view of conservatism — and particularly of its moral doctrines, social and otherwise — than the general population. This would be no great challenge if their influence were proportional to their numbers, but of course it isn’t. And of course they wield that influence in their presentation of all issues, not just the moral ones. Someone who thinks your politics are basically evil is unlikely to listen carefully while you elucidate the finer points of tax policy. If you’re at his mercy for the communication of your ideas — well, good luck.

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To the extent we’re worried about losing people like my friends, we need to broaden our analysis beyond snapshots of voter sentiment on particular dates. We need to complement that analysis with consideration of the long-term, dynamic processes by which people’s political outlooks take shape. This is tricky, because such processes do not lend themselves to easy or accurate empirical testing. One has primarily to watch and listen with attention, applying whatever wisdom one has attained about human beings.

I’m not old enough to have attained much of that, but I have had hundreds of conversations like the one on the roof. What I find again and again is this: My interlocutor has no very clear idea of what conservatives believe, and if he does — this is more important — he has no idea whatever of the justification of their beliefs. He can’t enter the conservative viewpoint because he can scarcely imagine it. And I think this stuntedness of imagination follows from his never having heard conservative arguments or seen conservative paradigms in their best forms.

It would be unfair in the extreme to deny that many young, educated voters have reflected thoughtfully on conservative arguments and rejected them. But it would be naïve in the extreme to deny that lots and lots of people, on all sides, are completely predictable outputs of cultural inputs. If your inputs are, roughly, the college campus plus the “mainstream media” plus the “blogosphere” plus the music industry plus Hollywood, it’s no wonder you end up talking like the guy on the roof.

I don’t think, then, that the problem is conservative positions — or at least not mainly so. I think the problem is the way conservative positions are communicated. If we want to persuade the cool kids, we need to find a way of reaching them. Part of that is retaking the cultural institutions we’ve ceded to the Left for almost half a century. (No, I don’t know how. Feel free to drop a note in my suggestion box if you do.) But another part is expressing our views — and especially our moral views — in a way that eschews shrillness, does justice to the complexity of the questions at issue, and justifies our positions from the ground up instead of assuming a shared foundation. Or, if you’ll allow me to switch metaphors (and you will), we need the elites, the intellectuals, and the masses who put on their modes of thought to see the whole background picture against which we state our beliefs. Should they still reject us, at least they’ll know what they’re rejecting.

I have more to say about this, but I’ll save it for tomorrow. Come back then if you’d like, and thanks for reading.

— Jason Lee Steorts is managing editor of National Review.



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