Over at Commentary, Jonah Goldberg writes:
The vernacular of conservatism derives from a time when the country was churched and defined liberty as personal sovereignty. It needs to change to engage a country that is increasingly unchurched and incorrectly thinks liberty can and should be subsidized.
I think that Goldberg is right about how the vernacular of contemporary American conservatism is inadequate. I don’t see any one answer, but here are some observations about a section of unchurched younger and/or nonwhite voters who are currently pro-Obama:
1. Their approach to policy is (like that of most people) muddled. Many are appalled to learn that the top marginal income tax rate is thirty-five percent (now 39.9%.) It offends their basic sense of fairness that what they earn is their own and they extend this feeling to other people. Many think that late term abortion is already illegal. They would be horrified by partial-birth abortion if they knew about it. They have no idea of Obama’s position on partial-birth abortion.
2. These policy inclinations don’t make them “conservative” in any ideological sense and certainly not in any identitarian sense. They have a strong pro-Obama identity. To the extent they have policy ideas different from Obama, they almost never hear about those differences from their media stream. To the extent they hear about those differences, they can be somewhat argued out of their own policy inclinations. Remember that they are inclinations . It’s like the parable of the seed that fell on stony ground. If all they hear are the arguments of one side, those arguments, plus peer pressure, plus their own desire to avoid choosing against their own political identity will lead them to put their doubts aside and support the team they are already on.
3. Republicans exist as the Other. It isn’t ideological because their understanding of Republicans doesn’t track the elite media discussion of intra-Republican politics. Todd Akin is Mitt Romney is John Huntsman is Scott Brown. Republicans are for the rich and are against African-Americans and Latinos and Asians and working people. Many have never run across a conservative spokesman in the media that said something they understood about an issue they cared about.
4. The conservative political language that has developed over the last forty years requires a lot of context that this audience just doesn’t have. The result is that a lot of what conservatives and Republicans say comes across as total nonsense. Not wrong nonsense as in two plus two equals seven. It’s more like the nonsense that is produced when you randomly press buttons on your keyboard.
They have no idea why we need to “stop the spending.” Saying Obama is shredding the Constitution (or any variant of that line) comes across as something between pointless invective and a foreign language. They aren’t worried about preserving “limited government.” Telling them Obama is “socialist” is just confusing. They aren’t moved by the fear that we might end up “like Europe.” All this rhetorical shorthand is worthless. If you find yourself talking about American Exceptionalism in the first thirty minutes then you should save your breath. Talk about why a set of policies is beneficial and morally right, and then later (much later) build up to the exceptionalism if you must.
5. To even begin to reach this population, conservatives need to slow down. Never assume agreement. When talking abortion, don’t talk about “contraception.” Start with the visible humanity of the later term fetus. Lean on the visual and the audio in media. In many ways this would be far more hard hitting than anything conservatives are producing today. When discussing taxes and spending, focus on all the taxes they pay and how this isn’t even close to enough to fund the government. This is just a start of course.
6. I was listening to talk radio a while back and a caller complained about how Obama didn’t “foster patriotism.” My sense is that the reverse is closer to the truth. Lots of nonwhites (to include Latinos and Asian-Americans) took Obama’s election as a sign that they were cultural first-class Americans. It increased their love of country and their sense of place in the country. This is part of Obama’s appeal that transcends ideology and policy. Republicans can’t co-opt this appeal. It wouldn’t help to nominate a ticket of Marco Rubio and Tim Scott. This is a case where there can only be one first.
What conservatives can do is take account of this part of Obama’s appeal. It doesn’t help to describe Obama’s election (or reelection) as a break with what made America . . . American. His election made a lot of Americans feel a lot more American. Conservatives can explain to this group why Republican policy X is better than Democratic policy Y. Some of this group might be convinced to vote for a particular Republican candidate over a particular Democratic candidate. It won’t happen if Republicans seem to tell this group that the moment their country embraced them was really the moment they were betraying their country.