Conservatives need to create powerful, “sticky” messages that lead the electorate to a tipping point

All the talk lately is about talking.  Tune in to any conservative outlet, and you’ll see that the politicians and thinkers are scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to get voters to support conservative values.  Conservatives are talking about their lack of a clear narrative.  Conservatives have an ideology, and a good one at that, but ideologies don’t sell.  It’s the stories about those ideologies that sell.  It sometimes seems that conservatives are so hamstrung by the fact that the plural of anecdote isn’t data, that they too often stop making any effort at all to use anecdotal stories to sell their ideas.

Group of men talking

This past weekend, National Review hosted an emergency summit devoted to conservative messaging:

Nearly every speaker advised that [conservatives] “make the case” for conservatism, that their leaders find a better way of communicating the superiority of limited government and traditional social values. The country is prepared to hear it, they said, it’s only a matter of explaining it–an admittedly difficult task when the latest national election proved that more people are interested in a message of government-provided security and spoils.

After attending a part of this summit, James Taranto noted that Democrats went through this same soul-searching after the 2010 election.  The president, they said, needed to send out a better message.  The greatest orator since . . . well, ever, was falling down on the job and failing to communicate.  They did win in 2012, but was it the message, or something else?

Obama won re-election, but would anyone really describe the 2012 Obama campaign as a clinic in exegetical politics? Did Obama lay out a compelling case for his principles? Far from it. In fact, his clearest ideological statement was “You didn’t build that.” His supporters spent weeks insisting he didn’t say that.

What Obama did do successfully was vilify his opponent (“not one of us“) and make narrow, often fear-based appeals to particular interest groups. His campaign also demonstrated a mastery of technology for identifying voters and coaxing them to the polls.

Taranto suggests that conservatives stop agonizing about “messaging” and start focusing on winning.  This is one of those rare occasions where I part ways with Taranto’s conclusion.  I agree with him that Obama won, not because he sold voters on his vision, but because he was able to turn Republicans into heartless, greedy, misogynistic monsters.  The thing is that this vilification was the message — it just wasn’t a positive message about Obama.  Instead, it was a negative message about Romney and the Republicans.  In other words, Dems did a great job messaging.  Conservatives simply missed it, because they were looking for soaring rhetoric, while Progressives were actually serving up trash talk.

Group of students talking

The reason the Democrat’s trash talk message worked so well is because it fell on fertile soil.  The Left knew that it couldn’t sell Obama — his record did not speak for itself — but Leftist strategizers also knew that for decades the Left had created an intellectual atmosphere in which it was easy for people to believe, all evidence to the contrary, that Romney was an evil, soulless man, and that a Republican America would be, as Ted Kennedy so memorably said about Robert Bork,

a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is—and is often the only—protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy….

That none of this came to pass during any Republican ascendency is irrelevant.  Kennedy’s message has stuck for two generations, forever tarring Republicans with the “evil” brush. The cultural bias the Democrats have created against conservativism reached its tipping point in November 2012 when a president with a disastrous economic record rather handily got reelected. Relying on decades of indoctrination and sophisticated modern social networking, Democrats spread a message that stuck:  Republicans are evil.  Everything else, whether from the Left or the Right, was just chatter that people ignored.

Older women talking

It’s the tipping point that matters.  Malcolm Gladwell wrote The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference back in 2002, long before social networking websites had appeared on the scene. In a way, though, our modern age’s manic social networking makes Gladwell’s points even more relevant than they were ten years ago.

Gladwell’s thesis is a simple one:  Ideas are like viruses.  Most of them float around, affecting a pocket of people here, or a pocket of people there.  Given specific circumstances, though, the virus reaches a tipping point and suddenly explodes out of the pockets, and becomes dominant.

After looking at studies that explain the explosive spread of certain ideas (including product popularity) Gladwell came up with a list of three must-have factors that will cause an idea to go viral.  The first is what he calls “the Law of the Few,” the second is “the Stickiness Factor,” and the third is “the Power of Context.”  The factors are surprisingly uncomplicated.

The Law of the Few says that studies show that there are specific people in society who are information, idea, and style vectors.  Whether they have a vast network of contacts, a reputation for sharing useful wisdom, or the innate gift of salesmanship, these few people exercise a disproportionate effect when it comes to dispersing ideas.  When they talk, other people — lots of other people — listen.

Family talking

Do we have anybody like that articulating conservative ideas?  I’m not so sure.  Gladwell’s point is that these people spread their ideas because of their ability to connect directly with other people.  All of our conservative talking heads are just that — talking heads on TV or the radio.  Conservatives, perhaps true to their commitment to individualism, do not have networks of people on the ground (i) who are themselves networkers, (ii) who are viewed as reliable information sources, or (iii) who can sell anything to anybody.

In a way, the internet has made things even worse for conservatives.  While it’s increased information dissemination, it’s also increased information ghettoization.  We don’t talk to our neighbors about politics anymore.  Instead, we go to a like-minded blog and enjoy the feeling that we’re not alone.  But by doing so, we delude ourselves into believing that there are more like-minded people out there than a walk in the community and a talk in the park would reveal. Facebook is more of a marketplace of ideas than the blogosphere, and I can tell you that my liberal friends used it aggressively for political networking, while my conservative friends did not — it part, because conservatives didn’t have any “sticky” messages to disseminate.

The Stickiness Factor?  That’s what it sounds like:  it’s a message that doesn’t just amuse or intrigue people for a mere minute.  Instead, it sticks with them and, even more importantly, makes them act.  During the Bush years, the Dems came up with a great one:  No War for Oil.  The fact that this slogan had little relationship to the facts, or that a ginormous number of people stuck it on the back of their gas-guzzling SUVs was irrelevant.  Those four words convinced too many Americans that the Republicans were fighting wars on behalf of Standard Oil.

Girls whispering

In 2012, the Democrats announced that Republicans were “waging a war on women.” Again, data was irrelevant. It sounded good, especially when Democrats Alinsky-ized Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock.

The Progressive penchant for ignoring facts undoubtedly makes it easier for them to come up with the pithy slogans and posters that sweep through Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and email chains before ending up on tens of thousands of bumper stickers that subliminally drill into every driver’s head. People could laugh when reading “Somewhere in Texas, a village is missing its idiot,” never mind that George Bush was a highly educated, accomplished man with an academic record better than or equal to his opponents’.

Conservatives used to have pithy sayings (“Live free or die,” “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country,” “That government is best that governs least”), but we don’t seem to have come up with any clever ones lately.  As you may recall, during John McCain’s failed candidacy, his slogan — “Country First” — managed to leave supporters cold, while allowing opponents to mumble about racism.  I doubt that we’ll ever get another “I like Ike,” but we can certainly do better than Romney’s “Believe in America,” which sounds more like the beginning of a fairy tale than it does a rousing call to the ballot box.

And finally, there’s the Power of Context, which at its simplest level means that a message has to capture the zeitgeist.  People have to be primed and ready to receive the message.  In 2012, Americans, fed on decades of anti-capitalist education and entertainment, were more than ready to believe that Romney was a dog-abusing, woman-hating, religious nut who wanted to enslave poor people and blacks.  Thirty years ago, people would have laughed at this message.  Last year, there were too many people who thought it made a good deal of sense.

Couple talking

Democrats are masters of leveraging context or, as Rahm Emanuel said, “never letting a crises go to waste.”  Just as the Pentagon has shelves full of war scenarios that they’re ready to break out should one geographic region or another blow up, it’s quite obvious that the Progressives also have shelves full of battle plans.  Economic crisis?  Let’s nationalize!  Crazy person goes on a murderous rampage with a gun?  Let’s jettison the Second Amendment.  Woman in Mississippi isn’t near an abortion clinic, so she decides to give herself a do-it-yourself abortion?  Malign pro-Lifers as murderers.  Islamic terrorism against Americans?  Blame Americans or video-makers.  There’s a playbook.

On the other side of the aisle, have you ever seen conservatives do anything but be caught flat-footed when a crisis arises?  Conservatives instantly go into ad hoc mode.  There’s a virtue to having sufficient flexibility to deal with an actual, as opposed to theoretical situation, but the person without a plan always looks unprepared and, therefore, helpless.

It’s not enough for conservatives to talk about talking, or to send each other messages about messaging.  If they want to be the zeitgeist’s master not its slave:

  • They must come up with a message that matches the mood of the time, whether it’s pro-conservative or anti-Progressive;
  • They must shape the message so that it gets stuck in people’s minds and drives them to action; and
  • They must make a deliberative effort to get the message to conservative networkers (i.e., information purveyors, and salesmen), rather than hoping that the message will magically disseminate itself.

We have a good message — we just have to sell it.

People applauding

And in that vein, here’s an idea from Mike Devx, one that would work marvelously well on Facebook. It would appeal to people on both sides of the aisle, and it would give a campaign advantage to Republicans if they would loudly embrace it:

I’ve wondered at times why laws aren’t required to have a “sunset provision,” meaning every law would expire at a certain time after passage. The law would have to be re-passed by whatever legislature passed it in the first place, or else it goes on the dustbin of history. Perhaps the default should be twenty years to the date after passage. But you could specify a non-default expiration that would be allowed to be LESS (not more than the default).

Same thing perhaps for regulations. It might keep the tsunami of laws and regulations under control. And the bad ones or the controversial ones would be guaranteed to be re-fought. Or the laws whose time may have come and gone — such as affirmative action to redress a wrong — would get re-fought and resisted because we have done enough.

UPDATE: If you like the idea of a Sunset Amendment, I’ve developed it at greater length here.

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  • Wolf Howling

    Thanks for addressing this existential issue for conservatives.  The failure to communicate has long been our single greatest downfall.
    Conservatives are at a huge disadvantage in many ways.  There is of course the fact that the media simply will not help the conservative message to get out.  Then there is the fact that, among the huge pool of low information voters, they have been conditioned to be receptive to the left’s messages via left wing educators and Hollywood.  
    Still, we have to start somewhere.  Your post is thought provoking.  I think it should start with exploiting the yawning hypocrisy of the left – that while they say one thing for public consumption, they either do the opposite or their policies hurt far more than they help.  With that in mind, I would think the absolute best place to start with a simple message would be:  
    STOP THE WAR ON INNER CITY AFRICAN AMERICAN CHILDREN. . . .  Give them the same educational opportunities the President’s children have in order to break the cycle of poverty.  
    That’s a message that ought to get people’s attention for a moment, particularly in our country where fairness is highly valued.  Plus it breaks one of the left’s most cherished narratives of rampant racism on the right.   Thomas Sowell has been shouting about this for years, and indeed, he is joined by many on both sides of the aisle.  It is a very conservative message – equality of opportunity.  It can’t legitimately be challenged by the left, there is just too much data to show the failure.  Moreover, just about everyone in left wing intelligentsia who will scream against this the loudest will have put their children in private school.   Etc., etc.
    At any rate, as I say, your post is thought provoking.  The problem would be how to get the message out in that simple a form.  Somehow, I can’t see many on the right grasping mantras, regardless of how effectively the left has used the technique.    

  • JKB

    I’m sorry I have no faith the Republican party can produce a message.  Look at who it the titular head, Boehner?  After getting his clock cleaned yet again, he’s re-elected as House leader.  Plus for some salt in the wound he guesses he shouldn’t have given Obama everything right off the bat.  Now what that means is that not only his Boehner an idiot but he has access to the best “minds” in the party.  And messaging, the Republican convention would have been completely forgettable were it not for Clint Eastwood’s improv that thankfully wasn’t vetted by the party’s brain trust.
    Okay, enough rant.  Hope remains that someone from the minors will rise up to carry a decent message.  But then there are a lot of morons like Akin and Mourdock who should know you can’t give the MSM out of context sound bites.  
    I do have a slogan for education
    “Teach Children to be Citizens, Not Subjects
    Promote Freedom of Thought”
    Of course, the problem is many Republicans just want a different implanted thought not actual freedom of thought.  
    I’d say what is needed is someone to start promoting real freedom, real free market, etc. then they’ll draw in the party.

  • Mike Devx

    Thank you, Book.  I’m honored you thought enough of that thought of mine to grab it out of the comments and post it.  In truth, I’m glad that you, as a lawyer and a professional in the field, didn’t take one look at it and collapse on the floor in laughter!  :-)
    Simply thinking about it has actually been fun.  For example, I have no idea how much time it would take for Congress to re-pass every single law on its books.  In an average year – given a default sunset of 20 years for any law – they would have to re-pass 5% of the laws.  How long would that take?  Even supposing every law were to be re-passed without debate, it would have to be introduced by name, and then voted on.  Give twenty seconds to announce the name, and then via quick computerized voting in chamber, passage requiring forty seconds, that would be one minute per bill.  How long would it take them to re-pass 5% of all their laws?  Two months at eight hours per working day (five days per week)?  Such drudgery, and for little purpose!
    But, ah… how many bills would not survive such repeated scrutiny?  They would know in advance which laws are coming up for review each year.  Congressional staffs would pore over the list in advance prep, identifying all laws potentially worth fighting.  Think tanks would provide recommendations as well, identifying key laws for battle.  
    The drama surrounding which bills each side chooses to fight might be politically galvanizing for a lot of people who these days really aren’t paying any attention.  It might energize a lot of people on both sides, which wouldn’t be a bad thing.
    There would be comic relief at times.  Everyone’s heard of wild-ass bills that somehow got passed that are still on the books, but essentially ignored.  Those would be fun when they came up.  Occasionally they’d even accidentally get re-passed, and *that* moment, broadcast during “Morning Joe”, would be hilarious.
    Civic enlightenment.  Those bills that get resisted would require debate.  It would be informative.
    And some bills would always provoke furious debate.  Imagine if Roe v Wade (1973) had been a bill instead of a Supreme Court decision, with the automatic sunset provision of 20 years.  It would have been re-fought in 1993… and then again this year, 2013.
    So, allow two months for the grinding effort of just re-passing bills, and another three months for the debate that would occur for the contentious ones?  We pay them enough to put forth that kind of effort.  And if our Congresspersons are going to lord themselves over us by exempting themselves from ObamaCare – and exempt themselves from gun control laws they apply to the rest of us – and send their kids to private schools with armed guards while refusing to allow our schools to have armed guards – then maybe they deserve to put in the extra work.
    I’ve never seen a proposal that all laws be automatically sunsetted.  So there probably is an obvious hole in it that, once pointed out, destroys it completely and quickly!  I just haven’t come up with it yet.  But it’s been a lot of fun contemplating the idea.

  • Danny Lemieux

    I would recommend that Republicans learn to look at campaigns as negotiations.
    One of the tactics that I learned in negotiation is that, when another person uses an underhanded or disingenuous tactic, the first thing you should do is call them out…hard…on it. First, it tells them they were caught. Second, it signals to other parties that the other person is underhanded and makes them question the integrity of the other person. Third, it is a strong signal to the other party, “if you do it again, we will hammer you!”.
    My biggest frustration with Republican Party candidates (Dole, Bush I, McCain, Romneyj) is that they seem to be more interested in projecting themselves in a good image for posterity’s sake (Gee, he was such a fine, upstanding gentleman! Let the history books remember him as such…a gentleman, even as a loser) than in winning elections.
    Romney would have done himself a world of good if, when Obama overtly lied about his Benghazi /terrorism speech with the participation of Cindy Crowley, he had retorted, “That, Mr. President, is an outright lie and you should be ashamed of lying to the American people that way.” The record would have supported him. Romney should have openly (and accurately) called his opponents demagogues so that the American people would have been signaled where to look and how to interpret Democrat attack ads. 

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  • pst314

    Danny Lemieux: I strongly agree. Being “nice” to cheaters is a loser’s strategy.

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  • Ymarsakar

    Many Republicans like the truth too much. The ones thrown out of the LEftist alliance, also have a similar problem. That’s why they were thrown out and made persona non grata.
    Those that use the truth and rely upon it to make things work, often have a natural disinclination to understand deception because they don’t want to use deception. They don’t want to manipulate humans and their behavior, that’s not their job, their job is to fix things in reality, not make people believe in an imaginary utopia like JIm Jones. Coincidentally, that has led to all the real cult leaders and con artists gravitating to the Leftist alliance in more ways than one. There they can fully use their talents without fear of social sanction, make a lot of money, and use the alliance’s power networks to protect themselves against their victims.
    People like McCain get caught off guard by the housing collapse, leaders like Bush get caught off guard by WMDs that got moved because he believed in Tony Blair and Colin Powell’s “UN plan”, all because they never could imagine that the people they believed in to tell them the truth, the people they trusted, were not only incompetent but also rooting for the enemy. In order to separate themselves from the Leftist hate, they try extra hard to be nice and good and play by the rules, to the point where they accept any bipartisan overtures for a “civil cease fire”. That cease fire is about as real as the one Palestinians routinely call into effect with Israel. It’s only to get the other side to stop shooting while the Evil grows more powerful.
    Good and Evil are time tested concepts. People know it is true even if they think they aren’t judgmental. It may come to be that a person thinks whatever gives them pleasure is Good and whatever gives them difficulties are Evil, but it’s still a conceptual framework that exists for that individual. Because many people would prefer to live a sane life in the US where people mutually cooperate for the mutual good, they believe the Left whenever the LEft says “let’s have a civil debate about politics”. But all that results in is the Left taking advantage of the situation to attack people who have stopped defending themselves.
    Country First and Believe in America, only works when your definition of America is the same as everybody else. In an American country composed of traitorous, insane, power mad, slave owning Leftists, I’m not quite sure what you think you’re going to have us believe in. Believing in the existence of Evil and how it should be executed without mercy and with great prejudice is one thing. Just “believing” in the nation itself, which is at least half composed of Leftist operators, isn’t such a winning strategy. It doesn’t solve the problem. It doesn’t highlight the differences. It doesn’t heighten the class tensions. It doesn’t expose the hypocrisy. It doesn’t do any of that. All it does is make patriots feel good. But not even patriotism will save this nation by itself.
    Much as the problem with fixing problems is getting rid of evil, the source of such barriers and the reason why you aren’t allowed to fix them, the same goes for the GOP itself. If one wishes the change the GOP’s messaging structure, one must necessarily get rid of the Colin Powells, the anti Sarah Palins, and the various other soft Leftists who may or may not claim Republican party membership. One cannot achieve victory when one’s own army organization is riddled with spies, assassins, saboteurs, and traitors. It just doesn’t work that way, no matter how many people cry out for diversity and against purity tests in the GOP.
    The Left has had a purity test for decades now. Look where they are now as a result. All the people that could have sabotaged their mission they got rid of. But those people aren’t in charge of the GOP. The Left got rid of them and kept them out of power.
    The basic two fold reason why the GOP is crippled is because whenever a promising communicator exists, the Left will destroy them, and if that doesn’t work, the Left will blackmail, bribe, and media influence the leaders of the GOP to do the same in the name of “civil debate and bipartisanship”.
    Either get rid of the Left or get rid of the current alliance between the GOP and the Left. The problem is complex, not simple, merely because this is a Gordian Knot issue. The knots overlap each other and are difficult to isolate, if not impossible to isolate. 
    Every day the Left grows more powerful and enslaves more Americans into their organization. The GOP is not and has never been immune to such things. Check out how the GOP handled FDR vs how the FDR handled the GOP.

  • Ymarsakar

    The key to breaking the Left’s veil of illusion is to convince America the Left is evil. Because they are.
    You don’t convince people that this is so until you show them the inner cities slave plantations and how the Left are profiting off of them.
    There’s a good reason the GOP doesn’t touch that subject.

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  • JimG33

    Bookworm, these ideas would make sense if we still lived in a world were conservative ideas were treated as within the range of normal, rather than the one in which we live where these ideas have been relegated to joke status. Let me make a few analogies.
    Ronald Reagan has been anathema in the black community since the Watts riots. Yet this idea didn’t rise above the horizon to the general public till his presidential campaign. Now how was this done? By the Left pushing the idea that because he began his presidential campaign in Mississippi, he was “dog whistling” for the “redneck” vote. This meme has been so deeply drilled down into the consciousness of your average Liberal that Spielberg can say at a Lincoln presser what a shame it is that the Republican and Democratic parties have reversed their positions on race. They haven’t of course, the Wallace run in 1968 showed the growing weakness of the segregationist vote.
    Another example on the race front is Gen. Powell’s interview on O’Reilly When asked if he really thought that Gov. Sununu was a closet racist for calling Obama lazy. His answer was, in paraphrase, if the African-American community thought it was, than that’s as far as it goes. So if the community, often defined by Al Sharpton or Whoopy Goldberg says it’s not OK, than damn it it’s not OK! Yet when certain community leaders called Powell a house N he let it lie there like road kill. The community is just the community, if they can’t take criticism like a grown-up then just pat em on their heads and let’s move on down the line. After all they do vote Democrat.
    Another example of our losing the culture wars is the show Girls. Wildly popular among the younger set it should be watched religiously by conservatives. Lena Dunham, star, writer and producer is the opposite of any All-American girl of an earlier time. With her only visible means of support her parents,  she lives in an apartment in Brooklyn taking in and dropping roommates at will. With a rather lumpy body, she ain’t Scarlett Johansson, yet she gets any man she wants, and dumps them when she wants, no hanging round the bar for the Prom Queen’s left overs. Her BFFs are all prettier than her, yet she dominates them with ease, is she the female Woody Allen with a big butt?
    James Bowman has asked does this character have any idea of the wreckage from the sixties the last time these ideas were tried? Of course she doesn’t. Not only has it not affected her parents, but her professors have told her to go for it, some of them while in her bed.
    It’s not as if this culture war is new. Just compare the work of James Montgomery Flagg and Norman Rockwell with the artists put forward by the New Masses during and after WWI, the bumper stickers don’t change. It’s just the “Duty, Honor, Country” is now a joke, and “We are the 99%” is folk wisdom.
    So, in the immortal words of Comrade Lenin “What is to be done?” 
    As Brietbart said politics is downstream from culture. Well the first problem is entry to the culture community is controlled by gatekeepers, and gatekeepers within gatekeepers, from the entry to the arts schools to the production of work after one enters the ranks of the professionals.
    And as Klavan says all that we can do is our work. Well maybe we should call upon the the old folk song about John Henry, and start looking to support artists who will smash those gates down. Artists, where are your drills? Patrons, where are your hammers?

  • Ymarsakar

    Most of this “work” is what goes on in this nation on a massive economic scale. You just got to free the slaves and serfs from Democrat monopolies and they’ll do the rest themselves. The ideology and the economy and the education institutes and the entertainment business are all tied together in a Gordian Knot. It’s often times so complicated most people can’t even take two dots and connect them together, much like it was before 9/11 concerning Islamic terror.
    The Left basically fuels their apparatus with money. Cut off the money and divert it to one’s allies and it’ll make a significant difference. Much like it did in Iraq when money stopped being wasted on corruption and terrorist projects and redirected towards actual schools and police projects.

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