Making the click-through worthwhile: Why the vast majority of politicians wants you to be unhappy, depressed, angry, and frightened; the political earthquake that occurred 25 years ago this month; the real state of America; and a “Crazy Eddie” level offer.
Happy Election Day. If your neck of the woods is voting on something, go out there and make your voice heard . . . presuming you care. If you don’t care and haven’t bothered to look at what or who is on the ballot, stay home. I went through the biggest races yesterday, and you can find an extensive list of races in all jurisdictions here.
Politicians Need You to Be Anxious
If you follow politics, you probably get a lot of emails from campaigns. To follow what the Democratic presidential campaigns are saying, I’m on all of their fundraising email lists, and thus several times a day I receive messages with subject lines that are about one step short of suicidal: “not good news.” “I’m personally asking . . .” “This is what we feared.” “we fell behind last night.” “Kamala has not qualified for the sixth debate yet.” “If everyone who reads this gives one dollar . . .” “Setbacks.” “We are JUST short.” “This is important.”
I won’t donate money, but I may ask someone to do a wellness check on those campaign staffers.
You don’t have to be a marketing genius or psychologist to figure out what they’re doing. Clearly, messages that sound ominous or troubled spur more donations than messages that say, “we’re doing fine.” If people think you’re doing okay, they’re less likely to send money. The Biden campaign could truthfully send an email declaring, “despite some not-so-great debate performances, we still have a big national lead, we still enjoy the best match-ups against Trump of any Democrat, and we’re looking okay, other than a slide in Iowa lately. Please send money.” But then most people would ignore it. Under this approach to campaigning, the ideal campaign needs its staff, supporters, and volunteers to be in a constant state of anxiety and agitation, constantly intensely motivated because they believe that doom is imminent unless they’re always giving 100 percent effort.
(Speaking of asking for money, did I mention the NR Webathon? Did I mention that fighting a free speech case all the way to the Supreme Court is real and not cheap?)
I should take a moment to salute those who care about a presidential campaign; a bit like rooting for a sports team, it is voluntarily becoming emotionally invested in a process that you have little or no direct control over, and one that is likely to end in disappointment. There is only one champion in each contest, and there’s only one winner in each campaign. Each day may bring ups and downs, but each cycle, every campaign except one ends with a concession speech.
You see the same relentlessly negative tone in campaign ads. Our state legislative elections are today, and last night the local news breaks warned me that candidates were soft on the abuse of foster kids, wanted to deny basic rights to rape victims, and didn’t want to stop mass shootings in our schools. I saw more grim black-and-white footage than an Ingmar Bergman film festival. Casual viewers would never realize that this is a contest between ideologically-opposed dweeby lawyers for state legislative seats; the stakes of the election were painted as repelling a demonic invasion.
Politics is now so saturated with appeals to fear and anger that you have to wonder if it’s psychologically healthy. The moment you feel like things are going okay, the less likely you are to donate or volunteer your time and effort. If you’re happy with the status quo, you’re less likely to vote. And of particular concern for the party of bigger government, the more you think your life is going well, the less you need government to do things for you.
Thus, almost everyone involved in the political process has an incentive to make you feel bad about something, that the stakes have never been higher, that we’re hanging by a thread, that your vote, your donation, your individual decision could make all the difference. If we’re a country with a fairly strong economy, generally secure in a dangerous world, generally tolerant and agreeable, generally helpful to the less fortunate, and a country with problems but none so bad that we would want to trade places with any other country . . . then you don’t have to be so active in politics. You can go enjoy your life and think about other things.
This is why clickbait articles declare “things have never been worse” when we know that isn’t true. You particularly find the “we’re going to hell in a handbasket” arguments from those who are attracting attention by denouncing “David French-ism,” which is never all that well-defined but is inevitably cited as the root of all of our troubles; one moment it’s an adherence to viewpoint neutrality in laws about public expression, the next a generally secular culture, the next, opposition to or criticism of Donald Trump. (A lot of these debates boil down to rehashing the arguments of the 2016 primary.) I am unconvinced that the missing key step to a cultural renaissance is “a hearing held on what’s happening in our libraries, in which, you know, Senators Cruz, Hawley, and Cotton make the head of the Modern Library Association, or whatever, sweat.”
In a clickbait-dominated political culture, whatever is new, shocking, and unusual attracts the most attention and often defines perceptions, even if it is wildly unrepresentative. We on the Right complain when some no-name GOP state lawmaker says or does something stupid and is suddenly used by the national media as a symbol of the moral failings of the entire party. We complain when the media finds a handful of nuts on Twitter reacting a certain way to describe a broad reacting. (The term “nut-picking” is used to describe this phenomenon.)
But we on the Right can fall into the same habit sometimes.
A couple years back, a firebrand self-proclaimed Christian declared that Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair was the perfect symbol of America’s moral decline. “If you want one snapshot of just how corrupt — how morally corrupt, how morally bent, how morally twisted, how morally confused, how morally bankrupt — we have become,” Fischer said, “all you’ve got to do is take a look at the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.” I asked at the time, why is the cover of Vanity Fair our measure of our moral health? You didn’t pick it. I didn’t pick it. Probably neither one of us bought it or are subscribers. And as I laid out, the cover of Vanity Fair has been the spotlight of choice for celebrities who want to do sexually provocative or controversial things, since at least Demi Moore’s naked pregnant cover. Vanity Fair’s circulation in 2015 was about 1.2 million — really good for a magazine, but in a country with more than 321 million people then.
If you seek out signs of moral decline, you will find moral decline. If you seek out signs of moral renewal and the country becoming a better place to live, you will find those, too. How you feel about the state of your life, your community, your state, your country and the world will be largely determined by what you look for and choose to focus upon. As a wise warrior once said, “your focus determines your reality.”
(Okay, that was Qui Gon Jinn in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and he was killed shortly after he said that, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong.)
Then what should we focus upon?
Twenty-Five Years ago This Month…
We’re approaching the 25th anniversary of the 1994 midterms, the “Republican Revolution” and the Contract with America. In the speech announcing it, Newt Gingrich laid out the goals of a balanced budget amendment and line-item veto, “stopping violent criminals,” welfare reform, tax cuts for families, strong national defense, removing the limit on senior citizen earnings, rolling back government regulations, commonsense legal reform and congressional term limits.
Some conservatives will look at that list and groan that the Contract was a failure; the Supreme Court found the line-time veto and term limits unconstitutional, at least as the Constitution currently stands, and a balanced budget amendment has not yet been enacted. (A balanced budget amendment just says the government must balance the budget; it does not actually enact the spending cuts or tax increases needed to balance it.)
But then again, the Republican Revolution did lead to spending cuts and tax cuts, short-lived surpluses (driven largely by the gargantuan tax revenues from the dot-com boom), the enactment of welfare reform, arguably the most important domestic policy achievement of the past 25 years; a continued revolution in military technology.
By a lot of measures, the conservatives of 1994 would be impressed by the state of the country in 2019. If you had asked them their biggest worry back then, quite a few would answer violent crime. In 1994, the United States had 713 reported violent crimes for every 100,000 citizens; the rate had peaked a few years earlier at 716. In 2018, it was just under 369 violent crimes per 100,000 citizens, a mostly steady two-and-a-half-decade decline. A lot of factors went into that decline; it is worth noting that the ideas in criminal justice reform — trying to ensure that a felon’s first trip to prison is also their last, and that they have the tools to succeed in life as law-abiding citizens — could only be enacted in a country that was no longer so worried about getting mugged, having their homes and cars broken into, or being murdered during a robbery gone wrong.
In 1993, about 10 out of every 1,000 people filed tort lawsuits — inattentive motorists, medical malpractice, faulty products and other civil wrongs. By 2017, that rate was down to just 2 out of every 1,000 people. Thirty states enacted limits to the damages in medical malpractice lawsuits.
If you had asked them what their top priority in changing the country was, quite a few would mention abortion, even though it wasn’t mentioned in the Contract with America. In 1994, the Centers for Disease Control tallied 1.26 million abortions in the United States — down a bit from the 1990 peak of 1.42 million. By 2017, the most recent year statistics are available, it was 862,320. The most recent abortion rate is the lowest rate ever observed in the United States and is now roughly half of what it was in the year after Roe v. Wade.
While I understand the cautionary notes from Alan Hawkins and Betsy VanDenBerghe, I still think the divorce rate hitting a 40-year low is good news. Teenage pregnancy and birth rates are down significantly. Despite the perception that the Trump administration doesn’t care about the environment, America’s air quality is getting better — emissions decreasing, declining concentrations of pollutants, unhealthy air quality days trending down (although they’ve leveled off in recent years). Our unemployment rate is below four percent for 17 of the past 18 months!
But how many political messages will you get in the next year that tell you, “hey, America’s doing pretty well by a lot of measurements?”
ADDENDUM: Whoa. For $75, you can get a year’s subscription to the print magazine, full access to NR Plus, and Rich’s new book, The Case for Nationalism. The listed price for Rich’s book is $26.99, so this is like getting all of that for $48, which is like getting all of the rest for thirteen cents a day . . .