The Structural Disadvantages of Israel and the American Right

This great article by Ron Fournier has applications far beyond the case of Israel. Israel has an age-cohort problem in American politics. Israelis aren’t getting their message out to younger Americans, and this is a bigger version of a problem faced by the American Right in domestic politics.

Netanyahu went on most of the Sunday talk shows yesterday, and he did fine. Netanyahu is as eloquent as you can reasonably hope for from someone whose primary language isn’t English. The problem was that people under age 30 just don’t watch those shows. Younger people are getting their news about the Gaza conflict largely through social media, and younger liberal activists are statistically less likely to be sympathetic to Israel. This combines with the tendency (in my experience) that younger liberal are more likely to share politically oriented news and information to their basically apolitical social-media contacts. Many younger people who are not strong ideological liberals inhabit a media universe where Team Left (as defined by their more activist friends and the entertainment media) is the only one that gets heard from for all but maybe 40 days out of every two years.

That doesn’t mean these younger voters are all especially liberal, but their media consumption habits form impressions of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys that are often at odds with what those same young people believe about legal at-will late-term abortion, or whether Israeli civilians should just shut up and let themselves be bombed by Hamas. Their media environment ensures that many young people never even get to think of the controversies in those ways.

I sympathize with, and like Netanyahu. I read my first book of Netanyahu’s 20 years ago. But, as Ron Fournier points out, Netanyahu’s media strategy can’t reach a very large fraction of Americans that might prove persuadable. It doesn’t matter how eloquently Netanyahu speaks. Most of the young people he needs to persuade will never hear him.

What is true of Netanyahu is true of the American Right. It would be nice if Republicans ran better conventional campaigns, but there is only so much that even the best campaigns can do in 2014 (or 2016) using made-in-the-1970s tools. When it comes to younger voters, the search for the better ten second debate zinger, the better thirty second commercial, and the better twenty minute speech involves looking in the wrong places.

Political persuasion is built on political socialization. The Republican consultants of the 1990s could start from the assumption that, all else being equal, there was a latent majority of the electorate that had been socialized to vote for center-right candidates. That is why the 30-second ads could work. The audience had the context that allowed the ad to be effective. That latent majority no longer exists. An ever-larger fraction of the voting public has not been socialized to think kindly of the American center Right. Now, many of those who think that conservatives are their natural enemy also happen to be mostly pro-life and suspicious of higher spending or whatever, but that doesn’t change who they think their friends are.

This dissonance between policy preferences and voting behavior can’t easily be changed by a national convention speech, or a debate performance, or a mess of ads in the October of even-numbered years. Unless people are ready to change their minds, contrary information just makes them evasive, irritable, or hostile. Getting people ready to change their minds is important work that has to take place between elections and even between episodes of Meet the Press.

People made fun of “The Life of Julia” slideshow and the famous 2012 music video about Obama, but getting younger voters to see effective, five-minute presentations through social media is almost as much the media challenge of our time as crafting effective television ads was the media challenge of the last third of the 20th century. The Left has huge legacy advantages in reaching those young people who are not already embedded in strongly conservative social networks. That makes it that much tougher for the Right to reach young people, but the problem is compounded with conservative donor money going to techniques that will either not reach those young people or else reach them too rarely, too briefly, and too late.    

Hat tip to David Frum for the Ron Fournier story.

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