Since the election, rather a lot of ink (if not quite blood) has flowed through RightWorld in answer to such questions as: Why don’t the cool kids like us? Is it the social conservatives? Is it their primitive tribal god? Are the Neanderthals scaring away thoughtful folk with inarticulate grunting noises? How shall we taxonomize Sarah Palin — or shall we diagnose her instead? A cancer, or some non-terminal disorder?
As Ramesh Ponnuru argues very persuasively in the current issue of National Review, the evidence — the election results, the exit polls — simply don’t support the thesis that socially conservative positions have cost Republicans more votes than they’ve won. Those who feel otherwise have tended to be long on condescension and short on facts.
All the same, I think they may be on to something. But I don’t think it’s what they think it is. To me, they’re like people looking at a giant mural and describing what they see in one tiny corner as though it were the whole. I’ll tell you what I mean — but first, a little story.
The Saturday night before Election Day I found myself on the roof of a condo in Santa Monica with about twenty twentysomething Californians. We were talking about music and politics, and regarding this latter one said: “Republicans are socially awkward. They’re stiff. They have a hard time talking to people. They dislike music and the outdoors. They’re just different from us.”
I thought of offering a rebuttal, but then his remark got me daydreaming about these, my beloved skis: about the way they float in thigh-deep powder, and the way they push little clouds of snow in front of me when I turn, and the way these snowclouds spray my face as I fly through them on the next turn, and how very loathsome all of this is. Then the topic changed and my next two statements were about Abbey Road and The Art of Fugue, both of which I listen to from time to time that I might freshly experience the horror of music and better appreciate the blessed silence following a double bar.
I relate this snippet of conversation because it is representative of many comments I have heard from persons similar to me in age, educational background, and personality. It might have come from a good 70 percent of my friends. One thing such comments reveal about those who make them is that their heads are filled with pictures of what it means to be a conservative, and the pictures aren’t good. They are not political so much as moral and aesthetic, and what they add up to is: Conservatives ain’t my kinda people.
The first thing I should say about this is that I don’t really know how much it matters in tactical politicking. A good number of tacticians seem to think it matters a lot, but my interest is personal. It perplexes me that so many of my friends find my worldview so outrageous. Sometimes I think about why that might be.
Which brings me to my main point: The “Is social conservatism sinking us?” framework is too simple. It obscures, or at least distracts attention from, a number of distinctions that are relevant to understanding why the cool kids think conservatives are bogeymen. Consider:
Social issues versus moral issues.
I think recent commentary has focused on social conservatism because social issues tend to excite voter passions in a way that budgetary matters and trade policy do not. When people have debates about abortion, they aren’t thinking: “How can we exercise prudence in the service of a shared goal?” They are thinking — on both sides — “What you advocate is evil.” This makes it easy for them to suppose that those who disagree with them are not simply mistaken, but wicked.
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.
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.
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.