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With all the furor and dishonesty over the Supreme Court’s decisions on contraception and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, it’s a good moment to think about what kinds of structural weaknesses the center-right has in public debate and what can be done to address some of those weaknesses. The truth is we don’t speak to nearly enough people often enough. Come election time, millions of Americans are not prepared to listen to conservatives—and the fault lies not with those Americans, but with the right.

Millions of voters knew about Todd Akin’s comments on abortion and rape but had never heard about Barack Obama’s vote against an Illinois law to protect newborns that survived botched abortions. Romney was seen as the abortion radical by association while Obama paid no price for the radicalism of his own record. Now we can blame the liberal-leaning media for not pointing all of this out, but what part of “liberal” media don’t we understand. We have to find ways of getting our own story out.

Election time is the wrong time for this process to begin. Imagine if Romney had spent September of 2012 bringing up Obama’s abortion record. It would have seemed like a distraction from his economy message and the public response would have been first incomprehension and then horror (at Romney). To the target audience, it would have seemed incredible that the nice man on television would let those babies die alone and in pain. Maybe Todd Akin would do something like that. For Romney to bring Obama’s abortion radicalism in the heat of the electoral contest would have meant dedicating his campaign to that issue for weeks at a time. That would be asking too much of a principled politician, never mind Mitt Romney.

This gets to something important about persuasion. People have to be ready to be persuaded. In his excellent biography of longtime National Review publisher William Rusher, David Frisk explains Rusher’s useful understanding of the process of persuasion. People don’t change their minds until they are ready to change their mind and “a powerful argument’s first effect was to shake him [the person who heard it].” Those arguments “rattle around at the base of their brains, unforgettable and unassimilable, long after the pablum that preceded and followed it has been eliminated from their memories.” Rusher described the process as “outrage, silence, assent, enthusiasm. In that order.” The nature of persuasion and the constraints of campaigning mean that only the very best candidates can hope to produce that process within the few months of a general election contest. These candidates come very rarely indeed, and are not always on our side.

The consequences of conservatives not being able to reach large numbers of Americans can be seen in the 2012 election returns. While young people hold nuanced opinions on taxes, abortion, and immigration policy (with sometimes plurality support for a somewhat conservative position on those issues), Obama overwhelmingly won young voters. Some of that can be blamed on the Romney campaign, but as any of us who saw people’s brains sputter after the first presidential debate can tell you, the problem was that many young people (and not-so-young people) who would have been horrified to learn of Obama’s record on born-alive legislation were not ready to listen—and it was not their fault. Conservatives had not laid the foundation.

Conservatives should try to reinvest some of the vast quantities of money spent during election campaigns to redefine the public’s ideas of politics in those years between elections. Life would have been easier for Romney if the public had already known about Obama’s record on born-alive legislation on January 1, 2012. It would be easier for Republicans to talk about health care reform if the public was already familiar conservative plans to expand coverage in ways that were less expensive and intrusive than Obamacare. Millions of people who do not know about the worst of the left and the best of the right would have a chance to work through the slow process of figuring out the meaning of the information.

This would be difficult even aside from the money involved. Reaching people given the expansion of social media, streaming media and time shifting is an enormously complicated problem that the right-leaning political classes do not have a handle on, but younger conservative strategists like Patrick Ruffini and Kristen Soltis Anderson seem like better bets than older Republican consultants who decided this ad was a good way to reach persuadable voters. Picking the right fights is crucial and the Republican consultant and lobbyist classes have not recently distinguished themselves in either sound judgment or commitment to principle. The combination of prudence and boldness from younger conservative intellectuals like Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru would be a better guide than the Haley Barbours and the Mike Murphys.

That doesn’t mean that everything can change. Public opinion is not infinitely malleable. There is no public relations campaign that will, in the short and medium-term, get the median voter to support banning abortion in the case of rape. There are no speeches and no ads that will convince the general public that cutting taxes on high-earners is the main answer to the economic anxieties of the middle-class.

What a well-funded and well-executed campaign of persuasion can do is make it easier for conservative candidates to speak to those persuadable voters who do not consume right-leaning media. It would likely soften the attachments of some Democrats-by-default and create new persuadable voters who would be more likely to listen and less likely to adopt the left’s caricatures of the right. It would make honest liberals (and there are many) who do not know (or find it very easy to avoid) the worst in their own side and rarely hear solid conservative argument a little more open to discussion. That probably won’t make them vote for conservatives, but it would remove some of the venom from our public discussion. Such a strategy of persuasion would of course outrage the least honest and most fanatical elements of the left. That isn’t the best part, but it is a bonus. 

Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.

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