The first step in solving a problem is to make sure that you are solving the right problem. Before the Republican Party puts too much effort into solving its supposed messaging problem, they should consider the possibility that their electoral challenges are far deeper than mere messaging.
Imagine that Candidate A runs on a national platform that says, in essence, “I will protect your right to live as you choose as long as you do not harm others, and I will protect your right to enjoy the fruits of your labors.” Now imagine that Candidate B’s platform says, “I know better than you how you should live your life, so I will decide what you may have and what you may do.” Oversimplified though those messages may be, they capture the essence of the GOP’s offer to the electorate as compared with that of the Democrats.
So, if the government-knows-best candidate wins the election, does that mean that the liberty candidate has a messaging problem? Or, politically incorrect though it might be to say so, is it possible that the real problem is in the electorate that would choose big government and not in the messaging of the candidate who stood for liberty?
Since losing the White House to a leftist radical, the Republican Party has heard an endless line of experts telling them that something is wrong with their messaging and that the GOP needs better branding if they are ever to win a national election again. Let us acknowledge up front that writing off large demographic segments or relying on antiquated get-out-the-vote methodology is never a good idea for a national party. Thus, the GOP’s recent self-examination is a necessary step. But, having said that, the GOP should not lose sight of the larger strategic problem as it addresses its tactical shortcomings.
The larger strategic problem for the GOP is that too many voters in the land of the free have never learned to value freedom, and that is a problem of culture, not a problem of messaging. And, with over half of the voters in 2012 opting for the government-knows-best candidate, conservatives are right in wondering if all the talk of improved messaging and branding is just code for compromise and moderation. But, even setting principles aside for the moment, moderation is a losing strategy for the GOP because Republicans will never win a bidding war with Democrats. If the GOP tries to court young women with offers of free contraceptives, the Democrats will just offer free contraceptives plus dinner and a movie. You can’t outbid people who are willing to spend their children into bankruptcy tomorrow in order to buy votes today.
The real problem facing the GOP is that the center-right mainstream long ago surrendered control of the nation’s cultural institutions to the left. Voters steeped in liberal dogma in schools, on the evening news, and even in sitcoms and Hollywood movies are easy prey for the sweet rhetoric and demagoguery of liberal politicians, and that is what ultimately went wrong in the 2012 election. An educated and informed electorate would have laughed the Democrats off the stage at the first mention of a “war on women.” Voters who understood even the basics of free enterprise would never have fallen for Obama’s redistributionist rhetoric.
Republican experts know that liberal dominance in the cultural institutions gives the left a tremendous advantage at the polls, but the sheer size of the problem seems to keep it off the table when the GOP tries to make sense of its electoral difficulties. It is far easier to talk of messaging, or even of moderation, than to raise the daunting problem of how to challenge the left’s dominance in institutions that they have owned for decades. But no effort at improved messaging can save the GOP as long as the Democrats control the institutions that relay the Republican message to the voters. If the Republican message is “We Care,” the message coming through the educational and news institutions will simply be that the Democrats care more.
So where does that leave the Republicans in their quest to reinvigorate the party’s brand? In the short term, the GOP’s expressed intention to reach out to disaffected voters can actually be a step in the right direction, provided the party is clear about the purpose of reaching out. If the purpose is to figure out how to transform itself to meet the expectations of voters who see government as the solution to life’s challenges, then the strategy will fail. The Democrats will simply up their bid for the same votes. But if the purpose of reaching out is to take the message of liberty straight to the people who most need to hear it, then the GOP’s outreach efforts are long overdue.
But outreach is a catch-up strategy, and its best hope is to reduce the left’s grip in targeted demographics. The real challenge for the GOP is to figure out how to break the left’s grip on the cultural institutions, and so far that challenge is not even on the table for discussion.
Dr. Tim Daughtry is co-author of Waking The Sleeping Giant: How Mainstream Americans Can Beat Liberals At Their Own Game.