Did you hear about how Vice President Biden and former House speaker Nancy Pelosi both referred the continent of Africa as a “nation”? Well, most people didn’t. They would have if it had been Sarah Palin.
That isn’t important in itself, because these kind gaffes are, in themselves, trifles. The problem is that changes in the media environment have made it much more likely that people who don’t consume right-leaning media and aren’t embedded in politically conservative social circles only hear shots at one side. Th worst flaws of the other side are edited out of existence.
This is especially problematic when a population has no collective memory of successful and popular center-right politics. Henry Olsen does a great job writing about the policy and attitudinal difference between white, non-Evangelical non–college graduates on the one hand and Republicans on the other. Those non-Evangelical blue-collar whites are not conservatives of the tea-partiers or establishment Republican variety. These voters have plenty of reason to distrust the GOP. But many of those same voters likely also have some fond memories of Reagan and not-so-fond memories (either personal or passed on from parents) of the Democratic party of the 1970s and 1980s. Both parties are unsatisfactory but both parties can be viable alternatives depending on the candidate, the candidate’s policy agenda, and the circumstances.
It is different for a large mass of African Americans, recent immigrants, and many younger whites who have primarily gotten their political socialization through the mass media of the last twenty years. All the stories about Palin being dumb can’t make these voters think Obama is doing a good job on the economy, but the media environment can get them to mentally disqualify Republicans as an alternative. The media environment can’t make them like late-term abortion, but it can make sure they don’t hear about Obama’s record of voting to deny legal protecting to newborns who survived botched abortions.
What is more, the media environment creates a sense of associations of center-left politicians as basically decent (if lovably imperfect) and center-right politicians as the chieftains of an alien horde. Those associations can’t be shaken all at once. You don’t go from thinking Obama is a basically good guy who doesn’t always get it right, to thinking through the implications of his abortion voting record. You definitely don’t process that information when (if!) you get it several weeks before an election — and the information comes out of the mouth of the enemy. You are, of course, always primed to believe the worst of the other side — even when they agree with you on the general direction of policy.
It would be better if Republicans ran better candidates, who gave better speeches, and had a better policy agenda, but for a fraction of the population that might agree with the content of that agenda, the speeches will rarely be heard and even less often listened to. That is not primarily the fault of either the candidate or the listener. It is the result of the absence of political institutions that can build relationships between large swaths of America’s population and center-right politics. Building those institutions is more important than finding the right candidate.
My column at First Things is about how the candidate-centered strategy for expanding the center-right vote just is not enough.