Many conservatives feel like they are living in a country they no longer understand and that does not particularly like them. There is some truth to those feelings. Millions of Americans only hear about conservatives when they (putatively) misbehave and about conservative ideas in ugly and distorted forms. The result is that many Americans who might otherwise be supportive of or indifferent to political conservatism range from passively to actively hostile.
Think about all those millions of Americans who have no history of voting Republican and who are not consumers of right-leaning media like Fox News and talk radio. This would include the vast majority of those millions who have immigrated to the U.S. in the last thirty years (and their children), the overwhelming majority of the African-American community, and many white voters who are too young to remember the 1980s and whose parents did not socialize them into conservative politics. How do they hear about the political right? Largely through mainstream news programming, entertainment media, and social media postings of their peers who are active in liberal politics.
These Americans (who are becoming a larger fraction of the electorate every year) have a particularly skewed view of our political debate. Given how they consume media, they will never hear Rick Perry's speech on poverty, but they will hear all about the next time some obscure GOP member of the House of Representatives says something nasty about the poor.
Ramesh Ponnuru wrote about how Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill influenced the Republican primaries by attacking the candidate she wanted to run against in the general election as a “true conservative” with a “pro-family agenda.” Well, conservatives warmed to that message, McCaskill got Todd Akin (of “legitimate rape” infamy) as her opponent, and the rest is history.
But Todd Akin was just one clumsy, stubborn, and now almost forgotten man who lost one Senate race. He is in the past. Republicans learned it was better to nominate candidates like Cory Gardner. For an ever-growing fraction of Americans, liberals get to pick their opponents not just in elections but also in everyday discourse. And what will those Americans read and hear? Will those Americans read a Ryan T. Anderson essay in defense of religious liberty or some demented rant about how gay marriage is the final “Obamination” (18,000 Facebook shares).
This absence of articulate, intelligent conservative arguments from the daily lives of millions of Americans is a civic disaster. As time goes on, it allows liberal politicians to move farther left, and do so with confidence that an ever-larger percentage of the population will support them because they do not see the right as a viable alternative. Millennials who are mostly pro-life will vote for pro-abortion extremists because they will know nothing of their extremism. Who will tell them?
Right-leaning Super PACS are collecting tens of millions of dollars that will be spent next year on ads in which Republican presidential candidates who agree (or pretend to agree) on most public issues will tear each other down. These ads will be aimed at the declining fraction of the population that is already favorable to political conservatism.
How much better if more of that money was spent on media consumed by voters who were not already on the right, but who might harbor doubts about abortion and who don't want higher taxes? Conservatives face a choice. We can work together and build institutions so that Americans hear our best ideas from our best spokesmen (and these will often not be candidates for public office), or we can accept that our coalition will be a comfortable place to die within an increasingly unfriendly country.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.