Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Telling a Conservative Story

Suddenly, after the Labor Day holiday, everyone is talking about the conservative message to America: how to talk to Americans about what America has become and how we could fix it.

If it weren't obvious last week, it certainly is obvious this week.  In November 2016, after eight years of Obama and his wrecking crew, America will think it is Time for a Change.  Even if conservatives say and do nothing between here and the next presidential election, Americans will be responding to the economic and national security problems by looking for alternatives.  They will be thinking that there has to be a better way.

People often sneer at today's conservative politicians and compare them to Reagan.  Here's Jonah Goldberg.
Ronald Reagan's cult of personality remains strong and deep on the right, and I count myself a member of it. But what often gets lost in all the talk of the Gipper's adamantine convictions and timeless principles is the simple fact that he was also a really good politician.
And given that for most of human history "human wisdom was passed on in stories" being a really good politician means telling stories.
Many historians will tell you that the secret of Reagan's political success was his gift for storytelling.
Yes, but.  Ronald Reagan got nowhere with the American people until the Carter Malaise of the late 1970s: Americans just weren't interested in his stories.  In fact, liberals sneered at his stories and made him into a kind of laughingstock.

What made Ronald Reagan into a "really good politician" rather than a footnote to history was that at the critical moment, really his last chance at the presidency, people started listening to his stories.

In my view, conservatives have had a great story to tell in the last decade.  It's just that the American people haven't wanted to listen.   Why would they?  They had plenty of jobs; their homes were soaring in value.  What, me worry?

All along, conservatives have been saying that we needed to reform entitlements, we needed to reform education, we needed to reform health care and reduce Third Party payments.  It didn't matter how good of a story we were telling, the mainstream media would inject an iota of doubt with their "but critics say" retorts.  And Democrats were always ready with a new subsidy, more free stuff.  People blew off our message and our stories.

Let's acknowledge the basic problem.  Democrats are offering voters free stuff if they vote for a Democrat.  That is the basic transaction for any government; it rules by offering rewards to its supporters.  Typically these rewards are obtained by taxation or by favorable administrative rulings.

But conservatives say that this basic political transaction is a chimera.  Force shouldn't be a first resort when trying to solve a national problem; it should be a last resort, when all else fails.  In fact we say that we humans thrive not by looting each other with a government enforcement officer by our side, but by figuring out what other people want and working to give it to them while hoping for a bountiful return.

But notice the problem here.  We conservatives are saying that politics should not be a game of "vote for me; get free stuff."  We say that national politics should be a process of getting the politics out of routine day-to-day living and working!  We are arguing the opposite of the free-stuff pitch.  We are saying that if you want more stuff, then make stuff for other people!  How crazy is that?

Conservatives often whine that liberalism is the easy choice: just vote your feelings.  But I think that this is misleading for us to think so.  Hey, we conservatives have feelings too.  It's just that our feelings say that we would all be better off, and happier too, if we asked, with JFK, what we could do for our country rather than what our country could do for us.

Notice that liberals make this argument when they say with Oliver Wendell Holmes: "I like to pay taxes; with them I buy civilization."  For liberals, taxes are a form of giving.

Only civilization is not the liberal administrative state.  Civilization is the citification of humans, transcending race and creed and tribe and doing the unimaginable: trusting trustworthy strangers.  And taxes are not giving.  Taxes are force: pay them or go to jail.

The great opportunity in the upcoming election cycles is that things are clearly going wrong.  When liberals and the media argue for more of the same -- more taxes, more spending, more regulation, more subsidies -- then ordinary people will start to wonder.  If it didn't work before, why would it work now?

That's when conservatives can come in and start telling good stories.  But it ain't gonna be easy.  Because conservatives are proposing a politics of anti-politics.  Vote for us and we'll reduce the free stuff.  Yeah, that should be a winner.

That's why conservatives are always reduced to telling a tale that leaves the "cuts" out.  Vote for us and freedom and prosperity!  Vote for your birthright and don't settle for a mess of pottage!

That's why there's religion.  People need to be persuaded to be social beings, thinking first about how to contribute to society and only second about how to get theirs from society.

That's why it's fatal for politics and religion to be combined into an established church.  It is not easy for people to resist the temptation of taking what they want by force.  It's the opposite of the song, that you have to be carefully taught to hate.  Nonsense.  You can whip people into a frenzy of hate in five minutes.

But you do have to be carefully taught to believe in limited government.  It's a new idea, a radical, dangerous innovation.  And it breaks away from the time-honored culture of the male warrior, to find wealth in loot and plunder, and the time-honored culture of the community of women, to expect the men to defend them and provide for them.

The miracle is, of course, that any human has broken out of the old ways of plunder and clientage.  But we did, starting most obviously in the Axial Age.  In our age, the breakout happens as people complete the cultural journey from rural agriculture to city industry.

We have a name for the people that have completed the journey.  We call them the People of the Responsible Self.  Anywhere you run into people that think of themselves as responsible people you are looking at potential conservatives and Republicans if you can just get them to ditch their attachment to race and clan.

So let the conservative storytelling begin!

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