Friday, October 14, 2005

What It Means to Stay "On-Message"

There's no question that the GOP has greatly strengthened its already formidable position in American politics since the 2000 election. Their significant electoral gains, ability to set the legislative agenda, and galling indifference to accountability all attest to their strong unifying conservative philosophy, emphasis on party discipline, mastery of the art of political rhetoric, and willingness to place winning at the top of their priority list. All of these factors make national coordination much easier for Republicans than it is for Democrats, who encompass a much greater diversity of ideology, political interests, demographics, and tactics. Effective national message coordination is absolutely crucial for winning elections and shifting the public's perceptions of what a party stands for, as I hope to show in the following paragraphs.

Since the 1960s, conservative philosophy has focused on a limited number of principles strongly identified with Western culture, Christianity, and the American Dream. A prospectus from the April 1999 issue of the Hoover Institution's Policy Review magazine provides a helpful breakdown:
Conservatives resolve arguments in favor of the individual rather than the collective, of clear standards of judgment rather than relativistic measures, of personal responsibility rather than the interplay of vast social forces, of the market rather than government economic intervention, of international strength and self-reliance rather than empty promises of security. The federal government is, in general, too big, taxing too much of the wealth of Americans, doing too many unnecessary and often counterproductive things that get in the way of economic growth, to say nothing of personal liberty. Even as it has indulged in frivolity, the federal government has been neglectful of the security of Americans in its rush to disarm after the successful conclusion of the Cold War. Meanwhile, a debased high and popular culture shows few signs of recovery.
It's doubtful that liberals would be able to come up with a similar list and keep it comparably brief. They probably wouldn't be able to agree on the relative importance of domestic and international social justice, environmental protections, gun control, women's rights, civil liberties, minority rights, the social safety net, socialized health care, and so forth. This lack of agreement has stymied efforts to develop a compelling liberal ideological portrait to match the harmonic coherence of conservative thought. The right profits greatly from the fact that most of its ideas (with the notable exception of the mistrust of government) draw from a common philosophical tradition that reaches back thousands of years and is inextricably ingrained in the consciousness of all Westerners. Thus, they exude a psychological gravitas that newfangled progressive notions simply haven't been around long enough to develop.

The fact that conservative principles fit together so neatly allows GOP candidates and operatives to focus on a very small number of issues in media campaigns, all of which reinforce the conservative ethos in the public consciousness. It's a very effective feedback loop that works something like this: "taxes must be lowered because the government is too big, capital investment creates jobs, and the individual knows best how to spend his money. And since money (i.e. property) is what allows people to maintain their standard of living, i.e. the American Way, anyone who violates the law must be punished severely. Everyone is treated equally before the law; after all, we are a nation of laws, not men. Law enforcement, national defense, and the court system are the sole provinces of government, which can't do much else very well. On the international scene as in business it's every man for himself, so we can't rely on the UN or other international standards to look out for our interests. And we must leave social services up to faith-based organizations, because only they have the moral ballast necessary to properly direct charitable energies. Etc."

Regardless of how effective the above ideas turn out to be in the real world, they sound good and complement each other well. They are also very simple, which works to the advantage of the party that exalts faith, ideology, and "good character" above knowledge, intelligence, and competence. Republicans understand that in politics, "when you're explaining, you're losing"--a point that many otherwise learned folks, some of whom make their livings teasing out complex issues, fail to grasp fully. The GOP keeps its PR messages short, resonant, and above all consistent--what they've managed to accomplish is the political equivalent of national branding, maintaining brand identity over time by delivering the same talking points to every market. Democrats haven't achieved anywhere near that level of PR consistency, which is why their successes at the state and local levels far outshines their national performance.

The elevation of a cluster of political ideas to brand-name status depends principally on party unity, or more specifically the suppression of dissent in favor of partisan loyalty. Without a small group at the top defining strategy and an all-encompassing (or very close to it) group of lower representatives and base members dedicated to maintaining message coherence, the party starts to look like a house divided. You get things like sharp divisions between elected officials and the base, representatives frequently rebuking each other in public, and internecine power struggles between opposing factions, none of which project an impression of effective leadership to voters. It would be quite ironic indeed if conformity and obedience, two qualities that many among the Democratic base pride themselves on not having, turn out to be prerequisites for electoral success in the 21st century.

But conformity is comparatively easy for Republicans. They are, as Howard Dean infamously pointed out earlier this year, predominantly Christian and white (and heterosexual). Their base is concentrated further away from the lowest economic classes than Democrats', whose greater ethnic, cultural, and economic diversity presents a significant obstacle to long-term party unity. Moderates find it difficult to distill a Democratic philosophical essence from such a great multiplicity of voices. The polls have shown in election after election that a demonstrated record of political competence is not enough--to do more than take electoral advantage of its opponents' failures, a party must project a sound, consistent, coherent collection of messages with near-total cooperation from its base and representatives.

Perhaps most importantly, the definition of a successful GOP legislator is one that is willing to subordinate his principles to the interest of winning at all costs. To put it charitably, Republicans recognize that doggedly clinging to principle is counterproductive if it keeps you out of power. The Democratic Party stands no chance of dislodging GOP dominance unless it is willing to take winning as seriously as they do. That means falling into line behind a positive agenda that may well be far less than perfect--as long as party members can agree that it's better than what the right is peddling. So what's necessary now is to figure out a plan and start hammering home the same talking points repeatedly and universally, because if history is any indication, it'll all take years to sink in. This is how multigenerational majorities are formed--between the 1930s and 80s, voters saw the Dems as standard-bearers of the New Deal and Great Society. But nothing lasts forever, and now Democrats have to stitch together a new identity without the help of a economic depression. I, for one, hope they can get something together before the nation reaches a major crisis point.