This might be the key passage of my interview with John Ziegler on Tuesday, for it is, in a nutshell, why conservatives don’t win elections anymore. It is not that conservatism generally permits less nuance than liberalism (in terms of political messaging, that is probably one of conservatism’s strengths). Rather, the key lies in the second passage that I highlighted. There are a certain segment of conservatives who literally cannot believe that anybody would see the world differently than the way they do. They have not just forgotten how to persuade; they have forgotten about the necessity of persuasion.
There’s a lot of truth to this, and I think it goes back to the origins of the conservative/libertarian counter-revolution. When you read something like Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style in American Politics – or even Perlstein’s excellent Before the Storm – you begin to understand how the “conservatives as outsiders” theme developed in the 1950s and ’60s. Managerial liberalism had reached its apogee; conservatism was literally thought of as a conspiratorial mindset; and most people blithely assumed that a benign liberal technocracy would persist for the indefinite future. We’re accustomed to looking back at the Civil Rights backlash and Barry Goldwater’s campaign as harbingers of Reagan and Gingrich, but to contemporaries these movements were fringe.
Conservatives have long lamented their exclusion from establishment organizations (academia, journalism etc). This isn’t an original observation, but exclusion resulted in a series of parallel conservative institutions meant to challenge the Left’s ideological dominance. For a time, these organizations flourished as intelligent, vibrant alternatives to liberal dogma. Now, however, our institutions have ossified. They’ve become accustomed to preaching to the choir rather than defending their arguments over unfavorable cultural terrain. Silver notes that Ziegler – an accomplished radio host – is usually quite poised in the studio. No surprise there – he’s talking to an audience that largely agrees with him. This is why McCain’s strategy felt so unbelievably ham-handed – attacking Obama over his purportedly socialist leanings is something that plays well in a Republican primary, not the general election. Obama is not and will never be Michael Dukakis circa 1988. The central plank of his economic recovery plan was a middle class tax cut, for God’s sake.
Contra Sullivan, these tendencies are not unique to evangelicals or a result of Bush’s noxious brand of faith-based politics. They overtake any movement whose ideas are exhausted, whose thinkers are largely uninterested in outside criticism, whose leaders are unaccustomed or unwilling to defend their ideas. In fact, the GOP’s current plight bears a striking resemblance to the disoriented Democratic Party of the 1980s. Getting outside the cocoon, acclimating ourselves to preaching at an undecided congregation rather than the ever-faithful choir, and actually grappling with constructive criticism are the best ways to correct this problem. But kicking religious voters to the curb isn’t going to do a thing to persuade undecideds that the GOP offers substantive solutions to real political problems.