Monday, April 08, 2013

The Good Life

Modern politics is often fought on the battlefield of the 19 inch or the 50 inch screen with grim bursts of image artillery directed by experts and consultants. But for all the experts and consultants, it is the ability of the politician to communicate what he feels and believes is true that trumps everything else.

Margaret Thatcher's death has touched such a nerve because her passing takes place in the shadow of mediocrities like David Cameron who talk a great deal but say nothing at all, whose preferred form of communication is to avoid controversy. Likewise so many American conservatives turn to memories of Reagan because when they turn toward the marble mecca of D.C., all they see from their party are former conservatives scurrying to evolve into blithering idiots in time for the next election.

The missing element is conviction. When conservatives remember Thatcher and Reagan, they hear the echoes of clear and principled messages. Neither of them were perfect as politicians, but their rhetoric was perfect because they knew what they believed, said it clearly and colorfully and enjoyed themselves doing it.

Modern conservative parties eschew that kind of plain talk. They flee from principle selecting candidates who speak as indirectly as possible and mean as little of what they say as they can get away with. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. But no cause is advanced in the course of these evolutions from communication to obfuscation.

Conservatism never wins. It loses. It comes to be associated with slick empty men and women who smile a lot and lie a lot. And that in the long run is far more devastating than the occasional senate candidate who says something horrible or idiotic. Candidates like Mitt Romney are more damaging than a hundred Todd Akins because they fix the image of a soulless party that cares about nothing and no one.

It is better to have the public think that the Republican Party stands for horrible and divisive things than to think that it stands for nothing. There are people who will vote for horrible things... but who will vote for nothing except in opposition to the something that the other party is selling?

Conservatives bemoan that Obama, who blatantly said that he would raise energy prices, redistribute wealth, diminish national power and ram through a radical agenda, could be elected twice. And the wrong lesson that GOP leaders have taken away from that is that the country turned to the left and that they have to turn with it. The real lesson is that voters will choose a radical agenda over no agenda at all.

Obama clearly stood for something. Many of those things were lies and deceptions, others were horribly destructive, but they were there. What did McCain and Romney stand for? They stood for good governance which is an unexciting thing. It might have been enough in the past when a good work ethic, modesty and reputability were more admired than they are today. And even then candidates with an inability to communicate anything of significance would have suffered.

Today even Thatcher's ideological foes were forced to pay tribute to her. Will anyone pay tribute to David Cameron on his passing? Doubtful. He will be far less hated, but also far less loved because he will have done nothing to earn any extreme or feeling. Had Mitt Romney won and served for two terms, is there any conceivable possibility that he would have been remembered in the same breath as Ronald Reagan?

It's not a matter of the pivotal period. All periods are pivotal in their own way. Today's leaders face challenges every bit as stark as those that Reagan and Thatcher did. What they lack is the ability to transmute those challenges into transformative victories because there is no conviction behind their political aspirations.

Politics is a strategic battlefield, but it's also an ideological battlefield. Winning elections is not the same as winning the argument. And winning elections while losing the argument is not enough.

Many of the candidates from conservative parties are unable to understand the ideological argument or to take it seriously. To them politics is policy and policy is non-ideological. They run on the conservative side of the aisle because it's the more reasonable camp, but they don't understand the ideas that animate the other side. They don't understand that the battle is not over individual policies, but a clash of worldviews.

In the last election, Obama articulated the campaign as a clash of worldviews. Romney did not. To Romney, this was about policies and he is still hurt and baffled that the superior policies didn't win. But to Obama, this was about the big picture ideology and that was how he fought the campaign. Instead of choosing one of the primary candidates who understood that this was an ideological fight, the leadership favored the most electable candidate who proved to be unelectable because he did not understand the terms on which the fight was taking place.

Thatcher always understood it and articulated it. As did Reagan. They weren't mere creatures of politics and policy. They understood that the politics and the policy, the task of getting elected and getting things done, was taking place within the context of a larger struggle between worldviews. And they were animated by the conviction that one worldview was healthy and the other was toxic. Their great gift was to combine that with communications skills that allowed them to forthrightly express that struggle in a way that most people could understand and appreciate.

Modern conservative parties have far too much messaging and too little message. You hear a great deal about how responsible they are and very little about what they stand for. They have a great many strategists and very few thinkers. They are political machines that no one really likes, including their own voters. They have industrialized conservatism and mass produced conservative politics with no content.

Thatcher did not work overtime to try and seem reasonable the way that her successors do. Neither did Reagan. They did not present themselves as the sane choices, but the best choices. They could compromise but their images were uncompromising. They were not laboring to be the moderate alternatives to something else. Instead they became the model to which alternatives were presented. Most of all they gave everyone within the sound of their voice the sense that they knew what they were doing and that they wanted to begin doing it as soon as possible.

Winning the argument is hard, but the most important ingredient is conviction. Politics flows in tides that ebb and churn. The unshakable position of yesterday becomes the controversial one of tomorrow. There is no politically secure territory. Only territory that can be won and lost by the politics of the next day. The short term politics of the poll may win some elections, but it has no long term future. The movement that sets its agenda by the polls has no ideology. Its leaders are mercenaries who will believe and do anything if their consultants tell them to. Only the movement that has convictions can win long term victories.

All this can seem abstract, but it comes down to plain human needs and feelings. Most people vote for what they think is a good life. And they vote for leaders who care about them and will keep life good for them and their children. There are any combination of policies that can cover that ground and it is the candidate who can convincingly make the case for the good life who stands the best chance of winning in the short term and the long term as well.

Thatcher and Reagan convinced millions that they were fighting for the good life. And they delivered. The damning sin that the left cannot forgive them for is that their policies, at home and abroad, succeeded more often than they failed. But they didn't convince with mere empty words, with the same tired slogans that stood for nothing and opposed nothing and advocated nothing. They did not skulk in on the heels of consultants who made them seem as nonthreatening as possible. Instead they made it clear that they were here to fight against the forces of decay, the ideologies of terror and the sense of mortality that comes to every great nation in the hour of its decline.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are dead now, but in life they won a victory over the seeming deaths of their nations. They came in the hour of twilight and they stepped down with the sunrise. Their victories were temporary but they showed that leaders can stand against decline and breathe new life when most of the experts believe that all is lost and that we must learn to accept that. They showed us that with conviction and courage we can resist the inevitable.


Anonymous said...

Just wonderful, and she was a great leader.

IgorR said...

Donald Trump, who in my opinion is not a particularly good person and and even worse conservative, and a buffoon to boot, catapulted to become a real contender for the Republican nomination simply by vigorously and relentlessly attacking Obama. Can it be a simple oversight that we've had Bob Dole, George Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney as the best the establishment could come up with? I refuse to believe that they are that stupid. For whatever reason any Republican candidate that's given a pass by the establishment either already comes in castrated or is subjected to the procedure before being given the nod. They even managed to do so to Sarah Palin just as soon as she gave McCain some semblance of a fighting chance for a brief moment, in spite of this seemingly being an anatomical and temperamental impossibility.

There are many theories. Some say the establishment consultants don't like to rock the boat because their goal is to feed off the system not to endanger it or their own good standing with it. Some say that the two party system is a cheap parlor trick, that both parties are controlled by the same people who create the illusion of choice by running two candidates who are only mildly different, and perhaps even know in advance whether they need to take the fall. I don't profess to know. What I refuse to accept is that they are simply unable to learn from the failures of their own candidates and Reagan's and Thatcher's successes.

Of course passion sells. Rand Paul was able to inspire three quarters of the conservative movement by advocating a position to the left of Obama, but in a passionate, confrontational way. Passion is such a powerful weapon that you could probably elect some sort of a modern Hitler if he just attacked Obama with relentless passion and spoke about the coming resurgence of America. And yet they run Romneys and McCains. Figuring out why they don't really want to win or what serious institutional constraints prevent them from playing for keeps like the left does is in my opinion a pre-condition for victory.

Naresh Krishnamoorti said...

An alternate title of this essay could be "The Hedgehog and the Fox," which may be a more accurate way of describing the difference between Thatcher and Cameron than ideological and non-ideological.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...


finding candidates who are passionate, understanding the issues and are good communicators is not at all easy. There aren't too many people who fit that bill.

Trump could do what he did because he had the media experience. He was missing a bunch of things, but he could take over interviews and press his case. Very few pols can do it that well.

Romney ran the campaign like a business meeting. He made his pitch, instead of fighting.

Anonymous said...

In passing it is worth noting that Margaret Thatcher faced a strong campaign of industrial and social disruption organized by KGB operatives in communist front organizations such as the extreme left faction of the labor party, the ISWP, the miners union and the Trades Union Congresses, particularly in Scotland. she defeated these elements by restoring choice and championing freedom.
Here in the US the Republican Party faces a similar onslaught from the left that is being conducted through the media, academia and government bureaucracies. However the RP shows no sign of standing up to what has become the assumption of the superiority of collectivism, instead it goes along with, and actually engages in, the implementation of collectivist policies such as affirmative action, taxation policy used for social ends, confiscation and redistribution of private wealth and never ending assaults on private property and persons. They do this mostly for the single despicable reason that to do otherwise would damage their careers.
Where is our Margaret Thatcher? Sarah Palin may have been a good start but she was destroyed by DP party activists and the media, without any defense or counterattack being put up by the RP.
What is certain is that US decline will continue until policies promoting freedom, individual liberty and responsibility, private property and free choice are put in place.
roger in florida

AG said...

I think the problem is that it has become more attractive to be a writer or pundit than run for office, so the majority of articulate, passionate, fighters end up writing articles when they clearly should be running our country.

Greenfield 2016!!!

vladtepes2 said...

"blithering idiots", I love it, I love to hear the roar of Mr. Greenfield's verbal sixteen inch guns, tell it like is.
There's a sense of satisfaction to be had by shining a bright light upon the evil illogic of Obama and crew,
and upon the mostly feeble, bumbling resistance being put up by our current bunch of "so called" leaders.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this Mr Greenfield. We conservatives are at a turning point and we need this kind of perspective and clarity to press on.

IgorR said...

Daniel, I understand. But let's take the current situation, specifically Ted Cruz. From my perspective, he has only one problem: he wasn't born in the United States. I don't consider that a real problem in his case since he is undoubtedly a natural born citizen anyway because of his mother and her age at the time of his birth, but even though this circumstance is a distraction, it's not relevant for the purposes of this discussion because I don't think the establishment is concerned about it in particular.

He's got everything that the establishment could dream of: he is partially Hispanic, and while not the most handsome candidate ever he is presentable. Unassailable educational credentials, clearly intelligent, knows how to speak, and although not a firebrand by nature, displays passion and media savvy. I like him because he hasn't betrayed any major conservative principles yet although there is still time. He could speak out more passionately against Amnesty, and he does to some degree but I understand why he can't just go out and denounce Paul and Rubio.

The main reason why I bring him up is that the establishment isn't lining up behind him in any noticeable fashion, nor do I expect them to. He could possibly save them, but they don't want to be saved by someone like him. They never liked Reagan either. For a number of reasons, some that I understand and others I do not they want safe candidates. This needs to be understood better in order to fight them effectively. Some "extreme" conservatives have been complaining about the establishment forever and yet McCains and Romneys still win the popular vote during the nominating process.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

Cruz has gotten pretty popular pretty fast considering he only became a senator a few months ago.

He's gotten some choice spots in the Senate and he's clearly being promoted by the establishment to some degree, but whether they're serious about really moving him forward or whether they just want him there for diversity is another question.

But overall the establishment is a business arrangement, on both sides. It's about moving money and doing favors. The people that the establishment trusts are the ones who accept the rules of the game and won't shake the boat.

IgorR said...

For a non-member of the cabal to win, what has unfortunately become necessary is being good at media stunts. He or she also has to go into the process with just enough credibility not to be immediately and successfully ridiculed. A person like that can create enough positive name recognition but they have to know what they are doing in order not to eventually be turned into Saturday Night Live fodder. They also have to have a pretty clean personal record to keep Gloria Allred etc. at bay.

I understand that there are very few people like that who could also intelligently articulate conservative principles, and even fewer who are not allied with financial supporters who are only partially conservative and will assert their influence to hamstring the candidate on this or that issue. It was distasteful and disappointing to see Scott Walker, who is a good man, to stumble on Amnesty, but he is no longer acceptable because of that. There is a perverse natural selection whereby to get to be someone truly credible, like a governor, you have to be at least somewhat acceptable to some non-conservative donors. Sooner or later some rich, truly conservative people will figure out that they need to buy large mainstream media companies, and I think the Koch brothers already have. In any case, the key problem to be solved is positive, credible name recognition while being a true conservative and without too many owed favors to some influential fake conservatives.

boilingfrogs said...

"Most people vote for what they think is a good life. And they vote for leaders who care about them and will keep life good for them and their children."

More precisely, lacking both the belief in their innate ability to provide that good life for themselves and their children and trust in the future of the nation at large, most people vote for that individual who will promise some level of forward security, even if those promises are empty and the methods by which they will be secured are destructive. Some hope is better than no hope.

There are two requirements that we lack these days, and they are so intertwined that it's difficult to tell the cause from the effect:

1) A pool of articulate, principled visionary leaders willing to lead the world with conservative principles.
2) A polity that can identify, understand, and support principled, visionary leaders willing to lead the world with conservative principles.

Politicians, generally speaking, are the dog, and we are Pavlov.

Obama is the bell.

Anonymous said...

This is reasoning at its best. Simple, unpretentious, understandable, and so desperately needed. Conservatives must get over Marco Rubio, ineligible as he is, which should be paramount, but strangely is not. Thank you Daniel.

Anonymous said...

We are in such dire straights. Even in the House which controls spending, we have R's who are too scared of not being re-elected to do what is required and stand up on their hind legs. Even Ryan, he of the plan to balance the budget IN TEN YEARS. What nonsense.

lemon lime moon said...

The President is a community organizer and so he knows how to gather support and change minds. He has a good education in Alinsky's methods as well and he used them to advantage with little to no opposition from most.
You often have to fight fire with fire creating a back-fire.
As Shakespeare said "Be stirring as the time; be fire with fire;
Threaten the threatener and outface the brow
Of bragging horror "

Anonymous said...

The BBC is now doing its utmost to destroy Margaret Thatcher's image to a new generation.

What the BBC does tell you is that Britain was in a mess when Margaret Thatcher came to power. Under Labour, Britain was the laughing stock of the world, “the sick man of Europe”, destitute and having to go cap in hand to the IMF. This for a nation that was once a manufacturing and global superpower.

The nation was in a ruinous cycle, heading to third word status, lead by a bunch of crypro-communists. It was not possible to see how that fate could be avoided. Yet this one woman turned a whole nation around. Margaret Thatcher provided an impetus to the nation that not only stopped the decline, but rejuvenated Britain’s stature in the world. Her task was of Herculean proportions, and she succeeded. It could never have been achieved by concensus, but only with fortitude and courage in the face of entrenched leftists in Labour, Unions, BBC, and even her own party.

She is being accused of being Divisive? Cant be done any other way.


bobby said...

"Conservatism . . . comes to be associated with slick empty men and women who smile a lot and lie a lot . . . Candidates like Mitt Romney . . . "

The general thesis of your post was great. Can you not defend it without resort to such "progressive" disdain for things such as honor and truth and respect?

I mean, seriously - Romney was a smiling liar?

Go fuck yourself.

Anonymous said...

Romney was / is a weasel in a suit. Maybe he is a great manager, but they are a dime a dozen.
Rommey was not and is not a leader rhat could inspire anyone.
He wanted to become involved in Syria? For what? And I'm to vote for a man that will send my son to fight for muslim degenerates who will overthrow a muslim dictator?
Lead the charge yourself.
The man didn't have the balls to stand up for his own dignity and that is supposed to inspire us? You're nothing but an ideologue without an thought that is your own.
Go hide under a rock where you belong.

PhoebeH said...

Bobby, your editing skill could land you a job at NBC News. No one called Romney a smiling liar.

Your ellipse deletes the transition sentence that progresses from the smiling liars of the conviction-challenged, MSM-cowed GOP "Establishment" to the kind of candidates they predictably anoint: impeccably respectable - even genuinely decent (e.g.,Mitt Romney) - men with admirable resumes, "no surprises" team-players who'll obey the first law of Republican presidential campaigning: say nothing that could possibly give offense to anyone.

CJinPA said...

Reagan campaigned for ideas long before he campaigned for a political party. That had a huge impact on how he was received: He really, really believed what he was saying.

He spent a decade giving speeches, written by hand on yellow legal pads, before running for office.

And he was a Democrat who chose to become a Republican. I made the same journey. I developed a worldview FIRST, and then chose the party that most represented it. Becoming a Republican was a conscious decision. Because of that, I think I can communicate non-liberal ideas better than my lifelong Republican friends. (No, I don't think I'm special. I'm actually kind of a moron.)

Reagan knew what he believed, and his various political positions sprung from those few core beliefs. He didn't try to fashion a unique stance for each issue. There was a common thread that ran through them all. Say what you will about Obama (and most Democrats) they do the same. (Their core belief is: We hate what America was; we don't like what it is; but it's saving grace is that it can be turned into something different.)

With the opinion-shaping machinery controlled by the Left (news media, entertainment media, and academia) Republicans will always face an uphill battle in winning the competition of ideas (the refs are pulling for the other side.) Which means more than ever that we have to show conviction and be consistent to break through the din. Excellent post Mr. Greenfield.

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