Postmortem for the Conservative Movement, Part 3: Failure to Communicate

This is a multipart series on the failures of the conservative movement that led to the nomination of Donald Trump. Previous installments in this series: Part 1, Part 2.

Perhaps no failure of the conservative movement has been so pervasive as the failure to communicate effectively with people who are not already conservatives. The accusation that conservatives suffer from “epistemic closure” is mostly horseapples; the accusation that conservatives have lost the ability to meaningfully engage persuadable voters with arguments that actually meet the concerns of everyday folks is a real one.

This is a problem that is compounded by the fact that conservatives have – especially lately – vastly overestimated their own political strength in numbers. Somewhere along the line, conservatives came to believe that they could essentially bludgeon their way to power within the GOP based solely on the strength of their numbers.

The reality is that the conservative base within the Republican party has been continually shrinking for years. In fact, as of last year, only 42% of Republican voters self-identified as both socially and economically conservative. 24% see themselves as moderate or liberal on both social and economic issues, while the rest see themselves as being either socially moderate or economically moderate.

Even within the 42% who self-identify as both socially and economically conservative, there’s a huge variation in dedication to conservative principles. The percent of Republicans – of Republicans – who self-identify as “very conservative” is smaller still. As the 2016 campaign opened, only 18% of Republican voters wanted a “very conservative” nominee.

Here is a reality that hard line conservatives like everyday readers of RedState absolutely must internalize: it’s going to be exceptionally difficult to force a candidate who is in total ideological agreement with us upon the Republican party, and if we are to do so, that candidate will have to have exceptional skill at persuading moderate voters. And at the risk of having tomatoes thrown at me, I must point out that moderate voters are not persuaded by repeated recitations of how very conservative a candidate is.

Honestly, the “how” of improving conservatives’ persuasion skills with non-conservatives is of decidedly secondary importance to the idea that conservatives need to persuade moderates and liberals at all. Right now, many are stuck in the belief that just being conservative enough is enough, and that voters should just flock to the most conservative candidate available via instinct – and if they don’t, hey, their problem, not ours.

That approach is a very good way to feel intellectually and morally superior to other people; as a means of winning elections, it’s pretty much the worst approach possible.

Human beings are flawed and do things for all sorts of irrational reasons. Perhaps no human endeavor more clearly indicates this than the way people vote. Over and over again historically, Americans have proven that they vote with their heart not their head, that they choose candidates for silly and irrational reasons that have nothing to do with how they will perform the job, and they are getting worse in this regard, not better.

And yet instead of making even the most cursory effort to adapt the conservative message to meet these realities, conservatives have all too often just sneered at non-conservative voters as inherent lost causes. Worse, any candidate (even a conservative one) who is able to actually persuade people who vote this way is viewed with inherent suspicion as a probable traitor to pure conservatism.

Allow me to illustrate but one example. During the course of this primary season, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were jockeying for position as the best conservative non-Trump option. During the course of the campaign, as inevitably happens, the candidates began to jab at each other. This caused a cascade effect downward to where the supporters of the respective candidates began to jab at supporters of the other candidate and belittle them for supporting (either Cruz or Rubio, as was their preference).

Nary a thought was given by hardly anyone about the fact that eventually, either Cruz or Rubio would need virtually all of the other’s supporters in order to topple Trump, and therefore being an asshole to the supporters of the other side might not be a good idea. Sure, intellectually speaking, there’s no good reason for supporters of Rubio to refuse to vote for Cruz just because some Cruz supporter on the Internet was a jerk to them; but that ignores the fact that people vote for these kinds of reasons all the time.

You can either fight it, and lose elections, or adapt to it, and give yourself a fighting chance to win. I really do believe that part of the reason voters cluelessly stuck with Kasich in the critical stages of the April campaign that decided the election was because of hard feelings during this particular period. Even the day Rubio dropped out of the race, I saw countless Cruz supporters engaging in rank triumphalism and taunting of Rubio and his supporters. Sure, I’m getting on the Cruz supporters a bit here, but I have no doubt that if Rubio had won instead, his supporters would have been equally guilty of intentionally alienating Cruz supporters. This is just how we’ve learned to behave towards each other and towards anyone who does not agree with us, and it’s a major weakness that we have as a movement.

Fixing this problem starts with realizing that, as a movement, we are not big enough to drive the agenda by ourselves in America. We need converts, and until we get converts, we need allies. And to get both converts and allies, we have to learn to acknowledge the concerns people have about the real life struggles they face in a language that makes sense to them and doesn’t constantly smack of condescension.

And until that happens, there will continue to be folks like Trump who will come along and appeal to these people who have felt stepped on all their lives, and who will know how to push the emotional buttons that conservatives have been ignoring for too long. And once those buttons have been pressed – well, as we saw, almost nothing can un-press them. No amount of evidence that a particular candidate is unfit for office can dislodge a voter who is truly emotionally connected to a candidate. And we are doomed to repeat the experience of Trump again.