The Planned Parenthood videos are a far more important story than the Donald Trump nonsense. Whether by Columbus Day, or Thanksgiving, or Valentine's Day, the Trump campaign will be over due to declining poll ratings or defeat in delegate selection contests. The Planned Parenthood videos and, just as important, the reaction of liberal elites to the Planned Parenthood videos, demonstrate the enormous obstacles and the equally enormous opportunities that conservatives face in reaching a large fraction of the American public. How we overcome those obstacles—or fail to—will determine the course of American politics and society.
The horror of the Planned Parenthood videos is simply beyond belief. Fetuses that can be quickly killed by chemical injection are crushed alive around the commercially valuable organs so that untainted specimens may be torn out and sold. It puts the next story about Donald Trump insulting some politician into perspective.
What the Planned Parenthood videos have revealed about liberal elites and the dynamics of American politics is extraordinary. Outside of those who consume conservative media, Americans are more likely to have heard of Cecil, the dead Zimbabwe lion, than of the videos. Those who have heard of both stories know more about Cecil's last moments than about fetuses having their brains destroyed so that their organs—their human organs—could be sold.
The July 30th NBC Nightly News report on the Planned Parenthood videos was, in its own way, a beautiful example of how properly motivated journalists can make an inherently interesting subject incomprehensible and irritating. Imagine if a network had covered Romney's infamous (surreptitiously taped) 47 percent remarks by never quoting Romney, including clips of a hostile interview with the journalists who released the Romney tape, and then had ended the report with the suggestion that the attacks on Romney could lead to declining business investment and job growth.
A significant (and growing) share of America lives in a media environment in which they will not hear about the Planned Parenthood videos, or will hear occasional stories that are relentlessly propagandistic and unbearably boring. Liberal elites will try to ignore, distort, sneer away (“heavily edited”), and finally ban political information that is too damaging to their cause.
Conservatives are frustrated, but their frustration is instructive. What is happening with Planned Parenthood isn't special. This is what happens every day of every year for tens of millions of Americans. The difficulty that conservative now have in bringing the Planned Parenthood videos to the attention of nonconservatives is actually an improvement over the complete failure of the right to reach that segment of the public the rest of the time. Tens of millions of Americans are carefully shielded from evidence supporting conservative outlooks. They never hear the best conservative arguments. Meanwhile, the worst of the right gets copious attention.
This has an impact on those tens of millions who do not consume conservative media and/or were not socialized by their families into conservative politics. To this population, conservatives appear as an alien horde even when they agree with conservatives on policy. Their media experiences never focus attention on subjects like the Democratic Party's extremism on late-term abortion. They know all about Donald Trump calling Mexican immigrants rapists. They will also know all about the next Republican fool, and the one after that. This population is not yet a majority, but it is growing. Conservatives who do not reach them are drawing to an inside straight in high turnout elections by hoping they can win by large enough margins among the rest of the country. That becomes harder every four years.
In 2004, after the collapse of Dan Rather's absurd National Guard hit piece on George W. Bush, some conservatives hoped that the conservative blogosphere, Fox News, and conservative talk radio could act as a check upon the liberal media—which is to say, the rest of the media. That hope was realized in the case of Dan Rather, but it has failed overall. Conservatives can say what they want within their (aging, demographically declining) media universe. The rest of the country, especially the young, will hear what liberals want them to hear, and will not hear anything that might be dangerous to their proper political development.
That doesn't mean we should despair. Our liberal opponents are telling us that we have an opportunity. There is a reason why liberal elites are working so hard to strangle the Planned Parenthood story. Liberal elites know that some fraction of their coalition is with them only by default, and can be turned into reliable votes for the left only if they are shielded from strong opposing arguments. If they were confident that they owned the future, liberal elites would not have to ignore, distort, or ban.
But they will own the future if we let them. We cannot use the existing conservative media to reach those Americans that liberals are afraid will hear from us. Conservative media outlets were designed to reach conservatives, and they do that. They entertain, inform, and even mobilize, but they only do that among that minority of Americans who are already basically on our side.
We shall have to reach those persuadable non-conservatives through the media that they do consume. We will have to reach them when they are doing what they want to do. We will have to reach them during the programs they already watch and listen to. We will have to invest in showing them our strongest arguments and (prudently) our strongest visuals in increments that can hold their attention. Sometimes they will last thirty seconds, sometimes two minutes. We have to build institutions that can produce and fund such outreach campaigns. If we are to win in the long-term, the right must stop the insane overspending on Republican presidential primary campaigns and PACs. Our opponents on the left (even those who posture as nonpartisan journalists) will not bring our message to the general public. That is up to us. Either we can work together to talk to that America that never hears from conservatives, or we can continue to grind our teeth.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.
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