Chris Christie came to the Conservative Political Action Conference in DC last week with a self-serving message. The Republican Party has a communications problem, one that can only be solved by a new communicator, one a lot like Chris Christie.
What Christie doesn’t get is how deep a problem the center-right currently facesespecially among young voters. Christie’s right about conservatives needing to get their message out, but getting any message out (especially to younger voters) will take much more than he suggests. Pew found that younger voters are more liberal than earlier generations. A College Republican study found that while many younger voters have center-right inclinations, they have also been socialized into thinking of the center-left as the good guys. A younger voter might be against higher taxes, and against late-term abortion (when they think about it). They might think it is wrong for the government to cancel people’s health that they like in order to make them buy more expensive health insurance that they don’t want. What the young person lacks is a vocabulary for those concerns and a sense that sensible and sympathetic people share those concerns.
Thirty-five years ago, young people might have gotten a sympathetic exposure to right-leaning principles (if not exactly conservative policies) from their families or church groups. Today’s younger voters are less likely to attend church and less likely to come from families that had a history of voting center-right. The young voters of thirty-five years ago might have been exposed to a center-right vocabulary and worldview from television ads and network news that had a liberal bias, but also had norms that meant that they had to try to cover the opposition with something like fairness some of the time. Today the audiences for both traditional television and the network news tends to skew older. The result is that many young people get their information (when they get it) from more overtly hostile media and social networking sources that don’t even make any attempt at objectivity and minimal fairness.
This means that the opposition is defined (usually second hand or in carefully edited snippets) as out of touch old guys who are afraid that rap music from twenty-five years ago will make today’s teenagers want to kill everybody. It means that Romney’s “binders full of women” comment is common knowledge while Obama’s misspelling of respect is no big deal. One can try to rationalize it. Obama’s misspelling is no big deal because we know he is smart. Romney’s comment (which is totally reasonable in context) is worthy of mockery because we know he is . . . Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs? There is no point in looking for a comedic explanation. The explanation is that combination of elision and emphasis that is used to cultivate prejudice.
There is nothing new about hysterias created by pop culture and journalistic hostility to the right. Barry Goldwater could have told you all about it. What is new is the problem of breaking into the information stream of the nonpolitical twenty-year-old who wants to marry, would like a larger paycheck, and wants some reasonable assurance that she will maintain catastrophic health insurance if she should get laid off. Talking to her is harder than it used to beespecially since most people have to hear something more than once before they are ready to listen. That is a major communication problem and Christie (who narrowly lost voters under thirty even against a feeble opponent who had been abandoned by her own party) didn’t tell us how to talk to that twenty-year-old. Possibly because nobody on the right-of-center knows how to reach her.
That isn’t to say that Republicans (and for the moment conservatives have to vest their federal-level policy hopes with the GOP) don’t have an agenda problem. The ultimate confession of policy futility was Romney’s statement to a group of wealthy donors that his proposals had nothing to attract the votes of the forty-seven percent of the population that did not have a net income tax liability. The good newsthe great newsis that there is now an off-the-shelf middle-class agenda on the right. There is a group of reformist policies to increase the take-home pay of working families, extend coverage in a much cheaper and less intrusive way than Obamacare, help connect the unemployed to the job market, and restructure immigration in a way that will be more pro-growth and better protect the interests of our country’s current population of low-skill workers. The work of policy reform is less that of blazing a path than walking the path that has been laid out. And of finding a way to tell others about it.