If there is one lesson to be learned from the Republican primaries in the presidential election of 2016, it is that the surefire way to lose the battle is to be fighting against something or somebody.
An orator with an affirmative message, that may be perceived as a vision, no matter how gloomy, off-base, or otherwise unpalatable, will most likely triumph over otherwise significantly more “acceptable” candidates who either cannot connect to their audience or otherwise cannot articulate their policies in a manner that is coherent and wholesome.
And groups who are united only by virtue of opposing a particular candidate or policy, but who are squabbling over everything else, nor are able to provide an equivalent (or better) alternative, are bound to lose.
Whether through electoral politics or cultural messaging, over the past few years, self-identified carriers of the Reaganesque tradition have forgotten the simple yet essential point that made Ronald Reagan such a sweeping success on many levels: it is not enough to identify and define the enemy. Reagan’s life mission was to bring down Communism, but he also put forth an affirmative message of what the United States stands for and what it is willing to fight for. By defining Communism only in negative terms, he would have ceded an important opportunity for a tantalizing alternative in the form of a country that stands for individual freedom and justice. Consider the following:
“If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on Earth. And this idea that government is beholden to the people, that it has no other source of power except to sovereign people, is still the newest and most unique idea in all the long history of man’s relation to man. This is the issue of this election. Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” – Ronald Reagan
The power of Reagan’s words here is that he defines the United States affirmatively. There’s nothing of the latest: “If we don’t protect our borders, the terrorists win” nonsense. There is a clear definition of why our system is superior to everything else that is out there, whatever the imperfections in the implementation. He gives Americans an image of a country in which they have a stake. It’s not mere fearmongering against the potential horrors of that freedom being taken away; he does not let Communists define the future.
By contrast, both the groups who supported the winner in last year’s primaries and the #NeverTrumpers all embraced a vision based in a defensive stand against whatever each group saw as the lesser of evils. Nevertheless, even in Donald Trump’s messaging, his supporters saw for themselves a positive future – a return to greatness, as they saw it, even though the path to that outcome was explained in terms of what had to be undone, and all the horrible things that stood in the way. The #NeverTrumpers, by contrast, rather than lend consistent support to anyone of the remaining 16 candidates (or however many there were left by the time the society finally figured out that Trump was for real) spent the bulk of their time explaining why Trump’s message was awful, why Trump himself was unworthy of the nomination, and why Republicans should go with just about anybody other than Trump. Well, that less than inspiring message failed to resonate, and instead gave room to question the perceived weaknesses of the other contenders, and rip them apart until they failed. And frankly, to some extent, the same messaging problem resurfaced in the general election, when the Republican voters were urged to vote for Trump “because he was not Hillary”. Had anyone but Hillary Rodham Clinton been the Democratic nominee, the Democrats would have likewise been as successful in using this communication disaster against the Republicans, as the Trump campaign was able to make use of the divisions inside the Republican parties and lack of constructive unity around anything positive to capture the nomination.
None of that is news, of course, to those who have watched the entire mess unfold.
There will be many future elections, and many future battles outside the electoral politics, however, which require the reformulation of the messaging so that future adversaries cannot manipulate weaknesses and failures of the conservative voter, thinker, or influencer against themselves. Seizing the initiative and defining the battle itself then becomes the primary task of the conservative movement. Will we wage battles against public schools, and by defining the battles thus, allow our opponents to criticize once again, our interest in accessibility of education, or will we favor the diversity of options and the freedom to forge each student’s path in life? Will we emphasize the horrors of the current corrupt systems or will we bring forth the success stories of high expectations dating back to the rigorous Aristotelian education, which heavily influenced the Enlightenment tradition and the academic success of the early Ivy League universities? Will we emphasize the ruin of our society due to the dumbing down and politicizing of the K-12 system or the opportunities yielded by independent, critical, adventurous, and non-conformist thinking which has characterized the people who have transformed society or at least left significant and inspiring legacies?
It’s not that the conservatives should not consider the threats and the dangers of their adversaries prevailing. Such menaces are legion. It’s that to inspire one’s troops to battle, one needs a vision of victory, not merely the fear of defeat. For that reason, it’s worthwhile to cast aside the discussion of imminent doom and saving the last vestiges of the Western Civilization from Cultural Marxism, and other palpable boogeymen of the late 20th century discourse, and refocus our messaging and efforts on promoting the values we believe in, and stand for, and are willing to not only die in the heat of the battle, grasping at that last hill, but to live for that painfully and patiently, every day, with hope and determination. Defining our battle, leads us to this question: what is it that we are fighting for?
I would suggest a few points that should be at least part of the answer:
- Preservation of the individual rights and freedoms in the US, as protected by the US Constitution.
- Access to equal justice under the law.
- Prosperity, growth, and opportunities for our citizens and residents
- The strengthening of our national sovereignty and the defense of our security and economic interests at home and abroad.
What we are seeking then is to:
- Undo the damage to the above-stated provisions induced through legal interference and disinformation, and to reverse the course of a vicious social engineering campaign that makes the population less receptive to these essential qualities of being an American. We are not merely seeking to “conserve” some peculiar traditions or outdated customs, but rather to conserve and preserve our national essence. Our nation is built on the recognition and protection of our fundamental, God-given rights rather than on ethnicity, country of origin, or any particular religion, other than the right to practice it without interference by the government.
- Empower each individual, regardless of background or political affiliation, with tools to defend against incursions to the four above stated qualities, but also to affirmatively and positively promote them in their daily lives, whether through political engagement, cultural contributions, or day-to-day discourse.
The Sharon statement is not a bad set of principles to revisit. Nevertheless, pledging oaths to statements made by other people may not be the best way to really internalize these ideas. Each generation must derive the meaning anew; understanding how the ideas of freedom and Constitutional protections apply timelessly but in lights of new realities, policies, circumstances, leaders, and challenges. This conversation will arise again and again – how to keep the fire going. We cannot just rest on the laurels of past generations and their achievements, whether political or cultural. It is precisely this type of delusional thinking: that the collapse of the Soviet Union meant victory over Communism, that has allowed the same failed ideas to resurface yet again and attract as much outward popularity as ever before. Also, human nature never changes so we find ourselves fighting the same battles over and over again ad infinitum. But that doesn’t mean that some battles cannot be won. Still, presenting the case that free will and independent thinking is preferable to having someone else making all the decisions for you – whether that’s the government, some human leader, or the society as a whole – is not an easy case to make, because freedom is not string-free and frequently uncomfortable. For that reason, showing choice to be a tool of empowerment rather than an enabler of weaknesses and bad choices is an essential part of getting the job done. Decisionmaking can and should be as exciting, as it can but doesn’t have to be painful and unnerving.
But the one fact that is not lost, ironically, due to the twists and turns of history is that people who don’t believing in having a choice, believe they only have one option: victory.
And people who tend to believe in choices seem to think that whatever they personally choose, even if they choose wrong, they can sooner or later choose again, differently, better.
I will let you ponder the consequences of each of these positions, separately, but I don’t think that supporting the possibility of different options and being wholly dedicated to the pursuit of truth and the triumph of freedom is inimical to the motivation of emerging victorious – and yet, we are taught that to maintain a moral high ground, we cannot battle with full fervor. The flip coin of this argument is that if we are really committed to fighting, no sacrifice is to great, including our own principles and positions. In other words, if we want to win like our enemies, we have to fight like them, dirty, unapologetic, even mean-spirited so long as we win. But if we do that, what are we left with at the end, except a few perfunctory achievements that are wrestled away from us by the next set of voters, pundits, or activists? Indeed, “fighting like your enemy” is the worst advice one can give. At best, you may become your adversary’s equal, and then your chances of winning are 50/50. If you want to win, you have to understand your enemy, you have to be able to predict your enemies’ moves and preempt them either by derailing or turning to your advantage. But ultimately, if you want to win, you have to have
- More to offer
- Better way of spreading your message
- Knowing and targeting your audiences that goes beyond “big data”, statistics, and automation and speaks to real connection.
- Define the battle, (what are you actually fighting about?), define the terms of the battle, choose the turf, and always have superior weapons, whatever that means for you – but ultimately, use what works for you, what strengthens you, don’t just copy your adversary’s tactics simply because they’ve worked for him in the past (see the grievous example of Marco Rubio attempting to outtrump Trump in the primaries).
- Resilience, flexibility, situational awareness, and an assertive spirit of knowing what is behind you and what you are up against.
And always, always leave a little something for later. You want your audiences begging for more. You want to have a little mystery. You want to stay interesting and exciting. And to keep a few cards up your sleeve even with your friends. You want to be consistent in principles, but unpredictable in tactics.
And above all, keep up the spirit. There are few things more depressing and off-putting than a gloomy, whiny, desperate, and pessimistic warrior. Remember, you are fighting a happy fight – for your family, your community, your country, the things you love, the freedoms you enjoy, the roads you travel, and the ideas that inspire you. Today is a good day to win.