Start with the Principle: Winning Messaging at Home and in Washington

It’s certainly encouraging to see the rising crop of conservative/libertarian candidates throughout the country. We’re definitely moving in the right direction, and political victories are slowly but surely piling up. I can’t help but think, though, that many of the politicians in Washington went to Washington for similar reasons and rose to power in similar ways, albeit in more isolated instances. Upon arriving, they found themselves in the Washington echo chamber. At first, they resisted. After a while, though, they had spent so much time with their colleagues and so much time among the pseudo-cognoscenti that they forgot why they went in the first place, and now know only that they want to stay there. (Pay attention, Sen. Cornyn.) Now, some of them are precisely the people we’re working to replace. As we move forward, I think it important that we work to avoid a recurrence of the same problem. Here’s one way that I think we can do that, while also helping to win more elections.

Most of us here agree on some basic principles, best articulated in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” though George Mason and the Virginia Convention of Delegates also emphasized property. Most on the right view the foundation of these rights as being grounded in the notion of a Creator who endowed us with a Divine Law. A subset of Divine Law, in our view, though, is the Natural Law. The Natural Law is valid in and of itself, and many atheists and agnostics use this as the basis of the notion of rights. Either way, there is a higher claim to these rights than the endowment of them by any government. Indeed, we reject the notion that government has the power to endow rights; it can only secure them.

Many activists, and some candidates, should and do sufficiently reflect on these notions. This is also a good point to mention that those who do give sufficient consideration to these principles recognize quite easily when candidates are only paying them lip service. Most of the rest of the country, though, does not often reflect on these ideas. They recognize the importance of these principles when presented with them, but all too often, we fail to present them. We get caught up in discussions of budgets, deficits, logistics, to some extent monetary policy, etc. We are all subject to this danger because we do need to discuss such things, but we must be ever so careful to keep the principles foremost in the mind and the discussion when doing so. Washington accelerates this process tremendously, as countless bills come up for discussion with interest groups and constituents sometimes discussing but often whining about the practical effects of this or that, and threatening the careers of those who oppose giving them their “fair share” of government handouts or protection. It’s fair to say that elected officials are overwhelmed with competing interests.

That said, I think that candidates would do well to follow this piece of advice: Begin every discussion, every speech, every debate, with principles. Tell people where you’re coming from, because most of them, regardless of how often they think deeply about it, are coming from the same place. Tell them what you recognize as the source of these principles – typically Divine or Natural Law, but that depends on you, not on me. Then apply the principles to the issue before you. Come back to them often. Finish with them. How you apply these principles to a given situation is less important than the conclusion that you reach. Most of us will work with politicians who disagree with us on a particular issue if we understand why they do so. We’d generally rather have politicians who may, in one circumstance or another, disagree on particular policy positions because of a different application of the same principles than a politician who checks all the right boxes but whose only reason for doing so is that they want to be in Congress (or the Governor’s mansion, state legislature, White House, etc.).

What will this do for you?

For starters, you’ll win the activists over quickly and easily. We want candidates who “get it”, who understand the notion that policy shouldn’t be determined by parochial interests but by the application of principles to given situations. Not only will these politicians vote the right way on known issues, but they will also have a consistent approach to new issues that arise and, more importantly, they will publicly articulate positions on all of these to the public at large. They will help us win debates by effectively making our case to the American people.

Second, you’ll win votes. People who have long forgotten such principles as those stated in the Declaration of Independence will be drawn back to them when they finally hear them again from the last person they might expect – a politician. Voters respond to politicians often on the basis of getting this or that because that’s what politicians promise. The Republican says I’ll give you tax cuts, the Democrat says I’ll give you social programs, and both say you won’t have to pay for them. So, voters make that choice. If voters actually hear a politician working from principles, though, in this case TANSTAAFL, the same principles they were taught to recognize in elementary school, they’ll respond to them just as excited fifty year olds do when they see a child with a slinky.

Third, you’ll win issues. Your colleagues may or may not respond when they are reminded of the principles that you espouse. Voters will. If you effectively put forth a principle-based vision and then apply that to the issue of the day, the American people will respond. They will contact their officials and attempt to influence their votes. If they are successful, great. If not, they will replace them in the next election.

Finally, you’ll win yourself. Getting into the habit of starting with principles will remind you every time you open your mouth of why you ran for office in the first place. You’ll remember what was wrong. You’ll remember how the Washington (or Albany, or Jefferson City) echo chamber had changed people, and you will insulate yourself from that by always retaining your own voice, and the voice of those who came before you. You will not fall victim to the same institutional group think that you went there to fix.

I hope that candidates and activists (including me, as I haven’t always done so) will heed this advice. It will help us to restore the America from which we have so far drifted.