You know it has happened to you at least once. You hear about some complex political issue, some bill waiting to be passed, some local ballot initiative, and you can make neither heads nor tails of it. You need, or want, to hear what someone else thinks of it, in order to know what you think of it. It’s happened to all of us.
We live in the information age. We can, with a few pecks at the keys or flips of the channel, find out exactly what any given person thinks about any given subject pretty much universally. Clicket-click, Obama on taxes. Tappy-tap, Affleck on Darfur. Flip flip flip, Matthews on leg tingles. Just like that, we can know what we think about something, and switch back to “Fringe” or restart Guitar Hero.
People, and by people I mean voters, are not dumb. But they are quite often unable or unwilling to properly process information. In many ways, the modern American voter lacks the very tools necessary process what is an extraordinary amount of information available to them. I can’t tell you how many people I talk to about politics who do have detailed information and still can’t decide what to think about it until they hear what someone else thinks about it, be it Rush Limbaugh or Jon Stewart.
Media has more impact than education. People recall GI Joe episodes better than whatever book they read in the third grade. So people, therefore, think in terms of a media culture, and not in terms of an educated population of individuals. Again, this is not to say the average person is dumb, but just that the average person doesn’t think anymore. They don’t need to think anymore. Horatio will figure out who killed who, Colbert will figure out what is and is not to be mocked, and celebrity activists will determine what’s the most satisfying way to feel about something.
With a lack of critical thinking, Barack Obama’s life story was obviously compelling. This media culture of ours derives credibility from situational aptness. Obama is black, so he’s more credible on black issues. He’s multi-racial, so he’s more credible on race, and so on. (Curiously, this rarely works if claiming to be more credible on military issues for having been in the military … at least in the media. And the media, as I said, is where such things are decided for us.)
What voters largely do want is someone who articulates; and this is ultimately Obama’s greatest electoral strength and the GOP’s greatest weakness. Articulation is what makes Jon Stewart, a comedian, a leading voice for the left. It’s because he says aloud what is in their heads. That’s Barack Obama. Obama can articulate both sides of an issue in the terms of familiarity for each side. People are moved by articulation because they require someone else to articulate their thoughts, since as I said, they depend on others to think. Why, in other words, would Bob deal with race issues, when he can just listen to Obama and feel satisfied they are being handled? Because Obama articulated Bob’s feelings, Bob can comfortably abdicate his burden of thought and go back to World of Warcraft.
The GOP doesn’t articulate well. Even when we have a policy position that enjoys wide support, or share a philosophical belief with huge numbers of voters, we can still lose those voters, and this is the kicker, on those very issues. The fact that the kind of two-faced articulation Obama specializes in succeeds is not something to be celebrated, but neither is it be ignored. Not if we want to have success in the near future. In other words, we could argue about the relative value of this type of thinking in society, but that’s a different blog. This method of thought exists, and widely. It’s fine to want to be the voice of reason, but first we have to make sure we’re a voice at all.
As we all engage in the post-mortem process, as we think about where the GOP is going, we have to remember something we never seem to remember. The Republican party has to speak for someone. When Bob comes home at night, and turns on Fox news channel, as most cable news viewers choose to do, he is going to be swayed by something that we, as a party, sneer at. The Clinton lip-bite, the Obama infomercial, the Hillary tears and, yes, the McCain POW story. Bob’s mind is wired by the television, not the newspapers and not (yet) the internet. When Bob flips through the television stations and hears Democrats saying the things he and his friends say at work or on campus, and the Republican saying something that either bores him or puts him off, the substance of the issue at hand is lost.
In truth, half the Bobs out there were practically raised by the television. It is why, among certain viewers, shows like Family Guy and Robot Chicken gain such tremendous cult followings doing little more than making television-related pop culture references in lieu of traditional jokes. This television-mind-wiring can be undone, obviously. Blogs, for example, can help clear it up. But for so many Americans, it is the need to have someone think and speak on their behalf that drives them.
Going forward, this Grand Old Party needs to take a hard look at how we do business. Conservatives in America even more so, meaning all of us who care about conservative policy in practice and want it enacted. We should focus on ways to articulate even before what to articulate. Because when you don’t, you lose that very important block of American voters who think, largely, in the same fashion as the celebrity culture and, more importantly, often by proxy, be that proxy celebrities, radio hosts, or an everything-to-everyone zeitgeist candidate for President. I don’t think it will always be so. In fact it is, to borrow from the zeitgeist, ready to change. But we won’t have our hand in how it changes if we remain out of power indefinitely.
So for now, it’s not just about message anymore. It’s not even just about packaging anymore. It’s about a voter flipping to Fox and hearing a Republican talking head saying something that makes him say “darn right and pass the Wii-mote!”