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The Campaign Spot

Election-driven news and views . . . by Jim Geraghty.

There’s No Free Ice Cream in This Movement.



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A lot of folks seemed to like this section of today’s Morning Jolt, spurred by a Future 500 panel discussion on the Future of Conservatism at the National Press Club:

Back when Obama was pushing for military action in Syria, a significant chunk of his base opposed the idea, and another, even larger chunk was just plain quiet. Organizing for Action was notably muted. Obama’s grassroots army appears powerful and easy to mobilize, as long as the motivation is “give us free stuff” — i.e. “free” health care, “free” birth control, “free” Obamaphones, etc. But is it that they’re only stirred by asking what their country can do for them, not what they can do for their country? Is it that Obama has built a large, activist base that will show up and attend rallies and knock on doors and vote, but only if it is promised some sort of tangible goodie at the end of the process?

For better or worse, that’s not what fuels our movement. The conservative message doesn’t include free ice cream. Our message is pretty relentlessly that we expect you to take care of yourself, and only turn to government or society as a whole in dire emergencies:

  • If you’re an able-bodied adult, we want you to go out and find a job for yourself, and work for a living. We’re increasingly convinced that government job-training programs are either a waste of time or hopelessly ineffective. The very best job-training program is an actual job, giving you experience and skill development to help you get a better job later on.
  • We want you to save for your own retirement; we see that the current Social Security system only works if the population endlessly expands and lifespans stay short, and so we would rather replace it all with 401(k)s.
  • We wish we could bring market forces into health care, so that you shopped around for non-emergency medical services, and sought out the best value for the lowest price, creating pressure on health-care providers to keep prices down.
  • We want you to wait until you’re married to have children, and once you have children, we want you to stick with your spouse whenever feasible. We want you to recognize that there are some things in life that are more important than your own happiness — perhaps none more important than the well-being of your children.
  • We want you to have your choice of schools for your children, but it’s up to your kids to pick a major and career path that will allow them to earn a living for the rest of their life. We have no sympathy for those with Masters Degrees in Puppetry.
  • The world has evil people in it, both here and abroad, and some confrontations with that evil are inevitable. Fate and chance may require you to take your own protection into your own hands.
  • Ultimately, the quality of your life is up to you. Yes, fate, chance, genes, luck, and the family we’re born into play big roles. But ultimately, no government program is ever going to get you to the life you want to live.

Here’s the big problem: This is a particularly hard message to win with during economic hardship and anxiety.

Lori Sanders, a policy analyst over at the R Street Institute, noted that a big reason why Republicans have lost the women vote in just about every presidential race for a generation is that “women are risk-averse.”

“It’s a much more nuanced world that women live in,” she said, suggesting that women are repelled when conservatives and Republicans pledge to shut down the Department of Education.

When she said that, it reminded me of something Kevin Williamson had written about when and how African-Americans began growing politically and emotionally attached to the Democratic party:

As I have shown at some length, it was the New Deal rather than the Democrats’ abrupt about-face on civil rights that attracted black voters. The last Republican presidential candidate to win a majority of the black vote was Herbert Hoover, and the majority of black voters were Democrats by the 1940s — a remarkable fact, given that the Democrats were still very much the party of segregation at that time, with future civil-rights enthusiast Lyndon Johnson fighting laws against lynching. African Americans remain more intensely supportive of New Deal programs such as Social Security and the minimum wage than are whites, even when their personal financial situations ensure that they are unlikely ever to earn the minimum wage or depend upon Social Security . . . 

That African Americans’ attitudes toward economic issues are strongly influenced by their historical experience of economic exclusion is consistent with other aspects of black life beyond political-party affiliation. For example, blacks are notably risk-averse when it comes to personal financial decisions. Blacks are much less likely to invest in stocks than are similarly situated whites. They invest relatively less in risk-involved instruments such as stocks and bonds and more in risk-mitigating instruments such as life insurance. (That is one of the reasons that affluent black households often end up less wealthy than white households with identical incomes and education levels. Women exhibit similarly risk-averse investing behavior with the same result.) Risk aversion is the reason that many Americans — black, white, and other — are made anxious by proposed changes to the welfare system, even when they themselves are unlikely ever to need it. They view the welfare state as (that inevitable phrase) a safety net.

And that is what the plantation theory gets wrong. Democrats are not buying black votes with welfare benefits. Democrats appeal to blacks, to other minority groups, and — most significant — to women with rhetoric and policies that promise the mitigation of risk.

In short, our message is, “you have a responsibility to take care of yourself” at a time when A) some of our fellow Americans never developed the ability, skills, or inclination to take care of themselves or B) they may want to, but the economic environment — layoffs, sluggish hiring, stagnant wages, employers preferring part-time workers — makes them feel less capable of self-sufficiency than ever.

A recurring theme was, “people (or the voters) don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

Steve Bannon of Breitbart.com recoiled a bit from this argument declaring, “I do not agree that we have to be the party of empathy, because that is the path of becoming a slow walk to Statism.”

Discussing a gathering of under-25 Latinos at a social event in Texas, the Libre Initiative’s Brittney Morrett lamented, “They think we [conservatives] don’t care. They think, ‘whatever the Democrats are putting forth, it’s going to help me because they care about me. Whatever the Republicans are putting forth is going to be bad for me, because they don’t care about me.’”

Oh, we do care. But we care differently than the folks on the Left do. It’s the difference between the care of a daddy and the care of a sugar daddy. Whether a Democratic officeholder ever admits it or not, their love is entirely transactional — you vote for me, I keep the government there to take care of you and spread the money around.

Our love, like a parent’s, can include some tough love, but that stems from having higher expectations. We want all American children to fulfill their dreams. We want them to thrive, and prosper, and get a good education, and form strong, happy families of their own. What leaves me and a whole lot of other conservatives with our eyes bulging in fury is that somehow the litmus test of “caring” has become whether or not we support the status quo of giant social-welfare programs that have failed generations of poor Americans. We want them to feel the satisfaction and pride that comes from working for a living, instead of the quiet humiliation that comes from voting for a living.

(By the way, does the “people need to know you care” dynamic work in reverse? Because I’m pretty sure the candidates and officeholders on the Left don’t care about me. In their eyes, I’m the problem. I’m a married white male in a suit rapidly approaching middle age. They see me as some fountain of money they can turn to fund all of their vote-buying crony capitalist ventures — and if you put a few drinks in them, they would probably say whatever money I’ve made has been through exploiting the proletariat.)


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