Carly Fiorina's fierce and passionate attack on Planned Parenthood's fetal organ harvesting operation has gotten praise from conservatives and bitter attacks from liberals. In the process, it has demonstrated all too well conservatism's weak position in popular culture. Given present circumstances, Fiorina cannot be the pro-life breakout political star that her supporters hope for and that her critics fear. Such a crossover social conservative politician is almost impossible. In different circumstances, such a political star might be possible. It might even become politically unnecessary. But in any case, people must stop waiting for a political savior. Barack Obama was cast as such, but he had advantages any social conservative would lack, and it only took a short time for even his most passionate votaries to be disappointed.
Fiorina—whatever her flaws—isn't the problem. Even if she had a perfect record as CEO at Hewlett-Packard, it would not make much difference. The problem has nothing to do with her record or her delivery. It has to do with how more and more Americans receive their political information.
The controversy over Fiorina's Planned Parenthood remarks has been ably described by Ross Douthat, but the underlying power dynamics remain in place. People on the right must adhere scrupulously to fact, while people on the left have no such restriction. Fiorina's critics can say anything they want about the Planned Parenthood videos. They can suggest to journalists that Planned Parenthood provides mammograms, and they can then turn around and tell a congressional hearing that Planned Parenthood does not provide mammograms.
And they can get away with saying that the Planned Parenthood videos are faked or doctored. They can change the story about what services Planned Parenthood provides. That is because the voters that are up-for-grabs in our politics are not going to seek out speeches by politicians, or hour-long pieces of Planned Parenthood videos on YouTube. These voters will hear about those speeches or videos.
The media institutions of the right cannot reach these voters in their everyday lives. These voters will only hear Fiorina in highly edited video packages (putatively) showing how she lied, and those Planned Parenthood videos will only be referenced in order to be dismissed as fakes. The swing voters who passively receive their information from the mainstream news and entertainment industries will never have the chance to be moved by anything Fiorina says or anything those YouTube videos show.
This problem is growing because of the country's demographic trends. The mainstream news and entertainment media have been liberal for a long time, but there were other institutions that could partially offset media liberalism. Some churches could form an alternative information ecosystem, and so could socialization in families where the parents were politically right-leaning. Church attendance is decreasing, though, and a larger share of the population is made of recent immigrants and their children who have no history of center-right political activism. They only hear about politics from people who are on the left—Hollywood entertainers, mainstream news anchors, public school officials.
What cannot be stressed enough is that what liberal-leaning institutions are doing with Planned Parenthood and Carly Fiorina is what they do all the time. Usually, they are more subtle. They celebrate Obama's speeches while ignoring Rick Perry's speech on poverty. They produce hit pieces on Jeb Bush's and Mitt Romney's high school years, while explaining away Bernie Sanders's claim that American women fantasize about being gang raped. They don't have to tell the audience not to watch or listen. Story selection and tone usually suffice.
This is why the right focuses too much on candidates. Candidates might be more or less principled, and they might be more or less skilled, but all candidates operate within the constraints and opportunities of the political environment. Obama is a skilled candidate, and a determined liberal, but Obama could not have run as a post-partisan pragmatist if the media (or anyone) had successfully publicized his record of opposing extending legal protections to newborns that survived botched abortions and had lied about his votes.
The advantage of the left is not in the quality of its candidates, but in the sweep of its institutions. They can reach relatively apolitical swing voters whenever they choose. If conservatives had organizations that could fund one-minute, issue-based messages on streaming media that up-for-grabs voters might hear month-in and month-out, conservatives could change the political landscape. It would reduce the ability of mainstream news and entertainment media to provide cover for liberal politicians. It is one thing to tell people not to trust information on talk radio shows they don't listen to and YouTube channels they never heard of. It is another thing to tell those same people to unsee what they have already witnessed.
Instead of institution building, conservatives keep pinning their hopes on magic candidates who will give magic speeches to win over the voters we need. Those candidates may give wonderful speeches, but in the absence of institutions that can speak directly to the apolitical, the voters won’t hear them. If we build those institutions, we might find that even candidates of modest ability will be good enough.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.
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