Of the explanations for the conservative defeat in 2012, the most disturbing one is that the Republican base is shrinking, consigning us to permanent minority status. The Republican Party, and the conservative movement that it represents, badly underperforms with growing voter blocs, including women, Hispanics, Asians and the young. Among large parts of the population, we’re not an organized, competitive party — we’re a bad joke.
In short, the movement has got to grow, and grow fast.
Of course, that’s like telling a bullied child that the solution is to get strong. It’s sound advice, but useless without directions. The heart of a vibrant movement is a compelling story. There’s a reason Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, was so fond of storytelling. Narratives give us meaning, promote group solidarity and make messages memorable.
The Democrats (and the left wing in general since Karl Marx) have a simple, albeit deceitful, narrative with which they frame their world. The rich oppress the poor, the successful oppress the unsuccessful, the First World oppresses the Third World, humanity oppresses the environment, man oppresses woman. Regardless of the issue, the left uses the same false paradigm of oppression, enabling them to step into the tale pretending to be liberators.
The right doesn’t have such an easily adaptable story to explain and dramatize our positions. Some of our best stories have become outdated. Reagan described how communism was the “evil empire,” America was the “shining city,” and our duty was to go out and leave communism on history’s ash heap. In the hands of a competent narrator, that story worked brilliantly. It’s over. We’ve lost our stories, we’ve lost our storytellers, and now we’re losing the people’s imagination, their attention and their votes.
If you want to tell a story, you need a villain. The left’s antagonists are primarily fabricated. Common scapegoats include the rich, with supporting roles played by racists, sexists and evangelicals. The right had a real enemy in communism; our newer enemy, socialism, is a lame substitute. Islamism and terrorism are possible candidates, but while these are serious threats, they are too remote to serve as effective foils.
Today, the conservative movement’s best story is about big government. It’s a very good story, because it’s true. As the American people struggle to thrive, the not-so-amiable dunce of big government hinders our heroes. It’s an enemy that everyone has encountered who has ever groaned at an obscenely large payroll confiscation, who has ever crawled down a six-lane highway at 55 mph, who has ever paid ever-rising tuition for a state university only to watch it be squandered on the latest installment of political correctness gone mad. It’s a villain everyone has already met and most have heartily disliked.
Still, a villain alone does not a story make. Besides an antagonist, the story has to be coherent and relatable, and it must keep you hoping for a happy ending.
First, we’ve got to get our narrative straight. What makes big government such a good opponent is that it provides a consistent and stable framework: The everyman hero is hindered by the monolithic, faceless villain. Moreover, the story’s crisis has a simple solution: break the hero’s chains. This narrative could frame the Republican Party’s position on all sorts of issues: We free the immigrant from a suffocating bureaucratic nightmare, protect the worker’s wages from the taxman and smash the regulations that penalize the consumer. There are many stories, but one narrative, one enemy, one common cause.
Second, we have to make the story welcoming. Instead of a story about how the everyman is hindered by uncaring big government, we’ve allowed ourselves to be painted (and, to be fair, painted ourselves) as the status quo party, hostile to women, young people, workers, immigrants, etc. This is nonsense. Since Lincoln, Republicans are and always have been the party of the future. We alone hold the promise of a better world, while the Democrats have only petty hatreds and resentments. That makes it all the more important for us to tell a story that appeals to the people who feel alienated from us.
We should learn from the master. Reagan understood that the surest way to make a story inviting was humor. Consider the best summary of big government ever written: “If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.” It challenges the left’s entire agenda, yet it’s so obviously correct as to be a truism. The brilliance of jokes is that they have a terrific way of short-circuiting faulty arguments — making them invaluable in the fight against the Democrats.
The final key to the story is a happy ending. There is no more basic motivation than the ambition to improve. Every movement needs a source of frustration (the villain), but also the promise of change. The Republican Party has become the defender of the status quo (e.g., “the fundamentals of the economy are sound,” “our health system is the best in the world,” etc.). Yet the status quo is not what inspires people. The best leaders see the glories of the future and the flaws of the present.
The movement must grow — and the only way to grow is to craft a compelling story that addresses the frustrations of the American public, that welcomes and affirms, and that promises a different and better future. In our story, big government is the villain. We, the people, are the heroes.
Samuel Settle, 21, is a Republican activist and political fundraiser.
By John Solomon
How the government's punishing of the exposure of official wrongdoing can linger for years