Given what happened in Indiana last week, what steps might we take? While we will certainly have to defend religious freedom through RFRAs and in the courts, if conservatives want to be heard over the long-term, they will have to develop a more comprehensive political approach. Here are some suggestions:
1. Don't panic. The structure of the media is such that, if the journalistic and entertainment herd decide in the morning to accuse the governor of Kansas of ritually sacrificing sacrificing Jennifer Lawrence, two-thirds of the country will believe the slander by dinner. But, if you are patient and invest in reaching the public, the country won’t necessarily believe that story a month later. Don't make ill-advised retreats. It won't help. Actually, until you figure out how to directly talk to people who don't consume conservative media (talk radio, Fox News) nothing will help. These media firestorms are not why social conservatives are losing. The firestorms merely dramatize and clarify how social conservatives are losing every day.
2. Build a middle-class economic agenda. If you want people to be on your side, then try to be on their side. As Henry Olsen has said, much of conservative economic argumentation has amounted to giving the CEOs more bargaining power over employees in the hopes that the company will shut down the plant a few years later.
Well my fellow conservatives, how do you like your CEOs now? Rather than a conservative politics oriented around the lowest possible top marginal tax rate, perhaps conservatives should focus their energies on tax policies that will improve the take home pay and work incentives of working-class and middle-class families. Conservatives could also prioritize market-oriented health care reform that would save the government money while addressing legitimate worker concerns about health care coverage and affordability. The CEOs would make out just fine under such an arrangement (though they might pay slightly higher effective tax rates than under a policy that prioritized their concerns).
3. Get over the conservative addiction to politically suicidal tax policy. It is great that Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee are willing to criticize big business on social issues but Huckabee's FairTax plan would be a tax cut for high-earners and tax increase for the middle-class. Flat taxes inevitably involve the choice of either raising taxes on the middle-class or unrealistically reducing future government revenue.
The amazing thing is that the candidates favored by populist conservatives adopt tax policies more favorable to the Republican donor class than anything the donor class would dare ask for on their own behalf. Adoption of these kinds of plans is a signal to the electorate that populist conservatives are just acting out their frustrations and cannot be trusted with governing.
4. Reach out to those who don’t self-identify as social conservatives. If social conservatives primarily focus on mobilizing those who already agree with them, the most that they can hope for is for Republican politicians to talk social conservatism at values voters summits and otherwise ignore social conservatives whenever possible.
The real target for social conservatives should be the Obama voter who talks about “the baby” when someone in their social circle is pregnant and who has unformed opinions on how health insurance markets should be structured. If social conservatives can reach this voter, then they won't have to chase Republican politicians. The Republican politicians will come running like dogs in heat.
5. Build institutions. How are you going to reach that Obama voter? Fifteen million dollars went to the Draft Ben Carson Committee scam. Who knows how many more millions will be spent on Carson's earnest (but doomed) presidential campaign? Conservatives need a core of activists who are oriented toward reaching persuadable voters and a culture of trust among small donors that their money will be put to good use.
6. Pick your fights and fight them hard. A saving grace of our situation is that the media can't get people to unsee things. If people had a sense of the abortion radicalism of the national Democratic party, that would change the tenor of the debate. It would be tougher for politicians who want to deny legal rights to newborns to prattle on about their alleged compassion. But we don’t invest in those fights and the persuadable voters are never presented with the extremism of the other side. And so we are in this mess.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.