The NERP Manifesto: Modulating and Moderating the Conservative Message

I was recently tasked with writing a column on the resurgence of Northeastern Republican Politicians. (Or NERPs) It was a fun topic to tackle, and one which I foolishly imagined the vast majority of conservatives and Republicans could embrace as “good news.” I was quickly disabused of this notion, however, when the usual parade of comments and e-mails emerged airing the same old litany of complaints.

“[A]re these “Republicans” of conservative persuasion or of the country club variety, which the northeast is infamous for producing?”

“Scott Brown is a place holder. Unless he votes like Snowe and Collins he will be defeated in the next cycle and he knows it. This is the only kind of Republican that can survive in the northeast.”

“You’re cheering for the election of so-called Republicans who are no different than Democrats. How nice for you.”

The fact is that some of these Republicans will not find favor among conservatives in other areas of the country. But while they may differ on some issues of the day, there are other core areas where they are still soul-mates of conservatives at large. When it comes to responses to the NERPS such as the ones I quote above, I do not place the blame for these knee-jerk reactions on our readers, but on the essential, long standing failures of the conservative media and punditocracy for most of the current generation. One of the enduring weaknesses in modern American conservatism is not in the message or principles being espoused, but in the difficulty encountered by so many proponents in articulating the message in a coherent fashion and deciding which elements of the conservative platform are common across the various factions within the Republican Party.

Even once you identify the very best elements which conservatism has to offer, it’s not always an easy task to get that message out because some of the most solid, winning aspects of conservative philosophy are arguments which are decidedly unpopular to people who may have a more populist leaning bent. This can and frequently does lead to a tendency toward extreme rhetoric and generalizations which leave the speaker short of ammunition under the harsh glare of the debate stage lights.

This critique was perhaps best stated by James Poulos, political editor of the tragically still unpublished magazine Culture 11. Analyzing the methods and message of the McCain – Palin team during the 2008 presidential election, he cautioned against arguments based on “zingers and chants. Those things are fine and natural ornaments for the election-year tree – but they do require a tree.

That linked quote was lifted from Charles Homans’ excellent article in the Washington Monthly, Culture Shock: What happened when one conservative Web site ventured outside the movement bubble. I strongly recommend reading it, no matter what you may think of the publication in general. It draws heavily on Conor Friedersdorf’s 2008 manifesto, Electric Kool-Aid Conservatism. In it, the author speaks eloquently of the difficulty I addressed above regarding effective salesmanship and conservative ideology.

Nor is it always easy to make a positive case for a conservative theme. Take the argument for gradual social change, which is predicated on the notion that certain societal traditions add value we do not always fully understand. Even after the breakup of the nuclear family in African-American communities, for example, we cannot explain precisely why the absence of fathers has proven so disastrous, though facts confirm the effect so unambiguously that old conservative warnings are now accepted pop-culture themes.

Unfortunately, when a nuanced argument fails to present itself, the best ideas can be rapidly stuffed into a convenient political canister where they lose most of the merit we originally admired. This is the end result of our tendency to politicize each and every argument and immediately take it to its illogical extreme. This was perhaps best described recently by George Will, during an appearance on the Sunday morning ABC roundtable. He was discussing Arlen Specter’s oh so convenient conversion to the Democratic Party’s banner and talking points, calling it “agreeably free of any pretense of principle.” It’s a trap which we need to avoid when talking about conservative theory.

Examples of how we overly politicize even the best arguments abound. One of the most common and successful campaign talking points among Republicans this season is the need to return to fundamental constitutional principles. “Restoring and defending” the constitution is the rallying cry, and it’s a good one. We’ve clearly strayed far from the tenth amendment in our nation and it would be beneficial to elect a new generation of leaders who understand and embrace that idea.

But we also have supporters marching in the streets who manage to drag even that fine idea so far down the road that they wind up in a ditch. “Repeal the 16th and 17th amendments!” is one of the rallying cries of the day. “It’s what the founders intended!” Really? OK, I can see wanting to do away with the income taxes, providing you’ve got a functional replacement method of tax collection and appropriation in place first, but the 17th amendment?

Do you really want state governments picking your senators for you? That may sound like a fine idea for now if you happen to live in one of the flyover states, but what about in places like New York? Have you seen the government we’ve got in Albany? I wouldn’t trust them to pick out their own socks when dressing to go to work, say nothing of picking my senators. This is a case of a fine idea taken too far, leaving the speaker open to ridicule. It’s also worth mentioning that while the original constitution didn’t incorporate the idea of direct election of senators, once the 17th amendment was passed, it became part of the constitution. The document was structured with the ability to evolve as needs dictate, much the same as our society has evolved over time from the general look and feel it had during the days of the founders. (More on that below.)

Another example of damaging, excessive politicization is to be found on various issues of environmental protection. This is one battle front in the political arena where conservative thought leaders felt compelled to draw a line in the sand to differentiate themselves from liberals and have all too often wound up on the wrong side of the fence as a result.

In some areas this has worked out well enough, such as highlighting the increasingly clear case of junk science behind the global warming movement. A vigorous debate on climate change was badly needed and conservatives have done well on that front. But in other areas the tendency toward political bloodlust has ghettoized the movement. Take, for example, the liberal based plan to shut off all the lights and electrical equipment for an “Earth Hour” on Earth Day. No matter how silly you may personally find the idea, or how little energy it might actually save, how many of you found yourself agreeing with the former proprietor of Hot Air when she told everyone to turn all of their lights on for that same hour?

Really? Advising people to waste energy, not to mention driving up their personal electric bills to no useful purpose, simply to avoid looking like you agreed with somebody who could be classified as an environmentalist? Wasting money? What’s conservative about that? The answer is – nothing. It’s not conservatism. It’s pointless showmanship in the political wars which opens the speaker to verbal abuse and pollutes the conservative message.

Let’s turn our attention to another of the great rallying cries heard across the conservative media, blogs and social networks such as Twitter. “Socialism! Redistributionism! Obama’s a socialist and he wants to redistribute our wealth!” Well, you’re right. In fact, you are absolutely correct on all counts. He is and he does. Unfortunately, I have another news flash for you. You do not currently have any political leaders or elected officials who are not socialists and who don’t want to redistribute your wealth. They all do. And in that grouping I am including Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Marco Rubio. Socialist redistributionists one and all. The truth hurts, huh?

Don’t believe me? Find me one among them who wants to completely eliminate the process of taxation and appropriations by the federal government in all cases. Show me one of them who is actively campaigning to totally and immediately eliminate Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and every other social safety net program that we have. How many of them would qualify by that criteria? The answer is… zero. The only difference is that the conservative Republicans want a bit less socialism with their coffee in the morning, thank you. It’s all a matter of degrees, and there is a valid, needed argument to be made by conservatives on this score. But, yet again, when you take it to an extreme and just start shouting about socialist America without being ready to tackle the nuanced details of the argument, you play the fool and provide free ammunition to your opponent.

And how about taxes? “Tax and spend Democrats” is probably one of the most common themes in conservative literature. Tea Party groups once again held massive rallies on April 15th this year (trust me… I was at three of them) to protest high taxes. But when confronted by reporters, some of them were unable to come to grips with the fact that the current President passed a fairly sizable tax cut during his first days in office. This led to more headlines proclaiming that nearly half of all Americans paid no federal income tax, prompting conservatives to fly into another round of complaints saying that the government that is taxing us too much should be… ummm… taxing more people? This allowed liberal bloggers to have a field day making fun of the “uninformed” Tea Party protesters.

Underneath all of that there remains a completely valid conservative argument, in that the tax load is unequal and biased against the wealthy and successful in terms of the income tax, while the majority of the rising taxes and fees being laid upon the middle class are hidden inside of glitzy packages like the health care bill. But it’s not the pithy sort of argument which fits neatly onto a bumper sticker or in a 140 character Twitter tweet. More study and nuance is required to articulate the message.

This whole discussion of taxation and redistribution brings us back to the concept of a slowly evolving American society as mentioned earlier. America was born without the idea of social safety nets for the most vulnerable among us. Does that make the idea of returning to those roots a good one, or something that should be framed as the intentions of the founding fathers? Perhaps one of the saddest moments of the 2008 election season was when a news crew caught on camera a group of young College Republicans at a rally supporting Rick Santorum. They were marching in a circle, chanting, “Hey Hey! Ho Ho! Social Security has got to go!” This wound up running in a loop on MSNBC for the better part of a week and was embraced by many liberals as the “face of modern conservatism.”

Conservatives have a great, winning message on this front, and some of you are getting it out there. But there are still a few of the “Hey Hey Ho Ho” folks banging the Socialism Drum and polluting the debate. And they will always be the ones who catch the headlines.

America has evolved into a nation which believes in safety nets for those in crisis. The America we had before the installation of these protections wasn’t all that pretty. Just ask the people who lived through the great influenza pandemic of 1918. Nearly 700,000 Americans lost their lives and not all of them directly from the flu. Otherwise successful, responsible families lost all of their income and savings to medical bills and funeral expenses, lost income from having no primary breadwinner, and saw people literally starving to death in the streets. During the great depression, untold numbers waited in bread and soup lines, living in makeshift shanty towns and dying from exposure.

There’s an old saying – one which I’ve employed myself – about how it is easy to be liberal when you are young and in college. Later, when you have to pay taxes, run a business and plan for your retirement, conservative values begin to look more appealing. But by the same token, please remember that it’s easy to oppose the idea of a socialist, redistributionist safety net when you are young, strong, healthy and employed. If a few disasters hit you when you’re getting on in years and looking at retirement, some of those same programs may begin to look less evil.

The fact is, we have evolved into a nation which actively seeks to avoid situations like the ones described above from the early 20th century, and sees the federal government as part of the remedy. Does this mean that conservatives shouldn’t be talking about issues like social security, Medicare and welfare? Not at all. These systems are in dire trouble and need to be fixed before they take the rest of the government down with them. But, again, the message here is to moderate the discussion and present reasoned arguments about how best to manage the system. The safety net should provide relief in crisis, but not be so comfortable that people are inclined to remain hanging in it. The conservative message is that any living gained by dint of personal labor and responsibility must always be more attractive, profitable and enjoyable than living within the confines of a safety net or welfare trap. And with that in mind, you may remember that simply blasting messages on your Twitter account decrying “leftists” and the “welfare state” is not helping the cause. By talking smarter you bring more people around to logical conclusions on such questions.

In summary, (for those of you who actually manged to hang on long enough to make it to the end of this bizarrely long manifesto) Republicans seem poised to make a startling comeback during the mid-term elections of 2010, and I suspect many of you would like to not only retake, but hold that ground for the long game. You may disagree with them on some issues, (and yes – I’m talking to you, social conservatives) but the fact is, you are never, ever going to do that without the NERPs. But if you identify the really important conservative values and principles which can be shared across a wide audience, including Republicans of all stripes and moderates and independents as well, there is opportunity awaiting if you communicate effectively. Sticking to smart arguments and not settling for demonizing an entire swath of the population should be integral to the difficult task of articulating the conservative message.

I know plenty of Democrats and liberals, which is not surprising since I live in New York. (Hell, I’m married to one.) There are elements of liberal political philosophy which are actually helpful and intelligent. But when taken too far, they turn into disaster. I’m afraid the exact same can be said for Right wing theories of government as well. And yet day after day I am deluged with rhetoric saying this or that about “leftists” and “the Left” and Democrats, commies, socialists, lions, tigers and bears, oh my! Eventually it just melds into an annoying background buzz. The shortcoming here is that it seeks to oversimplify something which is far too complex and demonizes people who may actually be very pure of intent and who actually do love their country, but have a somewhat misguided vision of where we need to be going and how best to get there.

You attract more flies with honey than with vinegar, as my grandmother used to say. (Though Woody Harrelson still maintains you catch the most with dead squirrels.) And you win more debates and political converts with smart, well reasoned arguments than smarmy insults and glossy accusations. If you’re a conservative, you have a tougher message to sell in a nation which has steeped for several generations in comfort and entitlement. Be sure to make the best argument you can and find good allies wherever they may present themselves.