by Bruce Thronton
Nearly 3 months after the presidential election the Republicans are still trying to fix what they think went wrong. A popular culprit is the Republicans’ alleged failure to communicate forcefully or persuasively a message that would move voters presumably receptive to conservative policies and principles. Just in the last week Jonah Goldberg, Daniel Henninger, Ari Fleischer, Ross Douthat, and Karl Rove have worked variations on this theme. Yet we should remember that any act of communication comprises not just a sender and a message, but also a receiver. We need to focus on the nature of America’s political “receivers,” the 65 million who voted for Obama in the November election, and the 93 million registered voters who didn’t vote. If those voters are not receptive to the Republican message, it doesn’t matter much how brilliant the messenger or the packaging of the message.
And that “message” has been out there for years now and constantly repeated. Only the stupid or willfully inattentive haven’t heard that we face a financial abyss waiting at the end of our entitlement road, that entitlements need to be reformed, that we have an exploding debt and deficit crisis, that a “tax the rich” policy only produces chump-change for solving that problem, that Obama’s economic policies have bloated the federal government at the expense of jobs and growth, and that Obama himself is the most left-wing, duplicitous, partisan, and incompetent president in modern history. And conservatives have identified repeatedly the bad ideology and flawed assumptions that have generated the policies that created those problems. The fact is, many voters know full well this dismal catalogue of failure, and they either don’t care, or they believe the fatuous rationalizations, lies, excuses, and economic magical thinking offered by the Democrats. How else explain Obama’s 55% approval rating in the latest Time/CNN poll? Either way, repeating once again the facts demonstrating that failure and the flawed ideology that has created it, or more effectively repackaging the facts and arguments and having it delivered by an oratorical genius, is not going to cut much ice.
If you disagree, remember what happened to Paul Ryan last year. He identified the problem of entitlement-driven deficits and crafted a response that made a modest start at reform. But after several months of demonization by the Democrats that included an ad with a Ryan look-alike pushing an old lady in a wheelchair over a cliff, the only narrative with traction by election day was the lie that Republicans “want to end Medicare as we know it” and “shred the safety net” and keep the “rich” from “paying their fair share.” You could have resurrected Ronald Reagan and had him deliver the counter-message and the outcome would’ve been the same.
Or maybe you’re cheered by those exit polls that reported majorities of Americans “want government to do less,” and so voters are ready to support entitlement reform. But be more specific about which entitlements should be reduced and see what response you get. Someone on Medicare who will get $3 for every $1 put into the program — thus receiving taxpayer money — may be in favor of cutting back on food stamps or extended unemployment benefits, but don’t even think about reducing his subsidy. Remember those AARP ads with the snarling oldsters warning, “Keep your hands off my Medicare” because they “earned” those benefits? So too with the home mortgage deduction, or agriculture subsidies, or any number of mechanisms for transferring public money to citizens and businesses. The fact is, the entitlement mentality has insidiously spread even among people who think that the “government does too much.” As David Brooks summed up recently, “Many voters have decided they like spending a lot on themselves and pushing costs onto their children and grandchildren. They have decided they like borrowing up to $1 trillion a year for tax credits, disability payments, defense contracts and the rest. They have found that the original Keynesian rationale for these deficits provides a perfect cover for permanent deficit-living. They have made it clear that they will destroy any politician who tries to stop them from cost-shifting in this way.”
Dig deeper into the ideas behind the policies and you’ll find out why the Democrats’ narrative is so much more appealing to such voters than is that of the Republicans. The conservative message is predicated on beliefs about ordered liberty, self-reliance, equality of opportunity, individualism, limited government, entrepreneurship, and all those other virtues and principles that indeed have made the United States the wealthiest, freest, most open great power in all of history. But those virtues necessarily entail a tragic view of human life. Individual freedom requires as well personal responsibility and accountability for bad choices. Equality of opportunity is no guarantee of success. Talent, character, initiative, brains, and luck are not evenly distributed among people. Limiting government means individuals, families, churches, and communities must see to their own needs and wants and find some way to pay for them. Many businesses are going to fail, but that is part of capitalism’s “creative destruction” that has made free-market economies so successful. We can’t have every good we want without paying a price or making a trade-off or accepting some level of risk. The good of driving cars, for example, costs us about 35,000 fatalities a year in road accidents. In short, a flawed human nature, the law of unforeseen consequences, and the limits of human knowledge all mean that we have to accept an imperfect world in which life isn’t fair: there are no winners without losers, there’s no free lunch, and we can’t eat our cake and have it.
The progressive Democrats, in contrast to the timeless wisdom even an illiterate peasant once understood, endorse a therapeutic view of human life. People aren’t responsible for their choices, for an unjust political and economic environment conditions those choices. Success doesn’t result from individual hard work and brains as well as luck, but solely from the accidents of birth or access to social advantages unjustly denied to others. Equality means not equality of opportunity, but equality of result, the primary goal being the reduction of esteem-wounding income differences through the redistribution of wealth by government. Free citizens are not responsible for solving problems or managing their lives, but rather techno-elites possessing superior knowledge must be given the state’s coercive power to reshape and control social and economic institutions in order to reduce the destructive consequences of failures of character or of unjust social, political, and economic institutions. Risk and trade-offs are not a permanent cost of human aspirations and actions, but can be removed from human life. The result will be a much better world in which failure is rare, all goods can be had simultaneously at minimal costs, income equality is achieved, risk is eliminated, and everybody gets to be a winner. Contrary to those cranky “mean” conservatives, there is such a thing as a free lunch, and we can eat our cake and still have it.
Given that humans, as Alexander Hamilton said, “are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious,” we shouldn’t be surprised that the progressive promise to indulge the self-interests and selfish appetites of the citizenry is more attractive than conservative sermons about self-control and self-sacrifice. So what if history shows that every attempt to create the progressive utopia has ended in disaster and failure, so what if the math says the entitlement state ends in bankruptcy, so what if our national character is being insidiously corrupted by getting something we haven’t earned but think is a human right, so what if, as Tocqueville warned 170 years ago, empowering the state to achieve these utopian boons comes at the cost of our freedom and autonomy. We want our free stuff now, and somebody else can pay the cost, whether the “rich” or our grandchildren.
The great 19th-century French economist Frédéric Bastiat once wrote:
When misguided public opinion honors what is despicable and despises what is honorable, punishes virtue and rewards vice, encourages what is harmful and discourages what is useful, applauds falsehood and smothers truth under indifference or insult, a nation turns its back on progress and can be restored only by the terrible lessons of catastrophe.
Better messages and better messengers are not going to overcome human nature. The melancholy truth is that our debt, deficit, and entitlement problems will not be seriously addressed until a critical mass of citizens feels the pain of these self-interested, shortsighted, catastrophic policies.
©2013 Bruce S. Thornton