Rhetoric, observed Aristotle, is preeminently the art of persuasion. Conservatives, i.e., those who wish to conserve what is best and most vital about our civilization, have been notably unsuccessful at practicing this art in two large areas of social enterprise: politics, the rough and tumble of partisan struggle, and what for lack of a better term we might call “the culture wars,” which encompasses the fate of our universities, our major cultural institutions, and indeed the texture of our moral lives. Once upon a time, and not so long ago, those institutions lived up to their obligation to act act ambassadors linking the wisdom of the past with the requirements of the present in such a way that we could build responsibly for the future.
And today? You know the answer to that. The outcome of November’s election has sparked a great avalanche of conservative and Republican soul-searching. (I say “conservative and Republican” because they are not necessarily the same thing, which is part of the problem.) Has the electorate changed? Have demographic shifts in America led to a permanent shift in the habits of fiscal restraint? Must conservatives adopt the protective coloration of Leftists in order to stay “relevant,” i.e., to win elections and make a plausible showing in the media popularity sweepstakes?
These are the sorts of questions that bedevil the tranquility of conservatives these days. In his PJM column today, my friend Roger L. Simon has some pertinent things to say about this tangle of issues. “A failure to communicate,” he writes, drawing on a famous scene from the movie Cool Hand Luke, is the problem. Roger acknowledges the “the overwhelming onslaught of propaganda and dishonesty from the academy, Hollywood and the media.” But here’s the kicker: “We can complain about that all we want, but unless we start building our institutions, no genuine change will occur.”
And how do we do that? Roger is right, I believe, that in the defeat conservatives have suffered in the court of public opinion lies the promise of renewal. “The good news,” he writes, is that “the current debacle . . . provides this opportunity for radical change, perhaps even serious rebranding.”
Partly it is a matter of nomenclature, of branding. Why should the Left enjoy a virtual monopoly on all the nice words, all the emollient phrases, all the consoling sentiments? Start with the word “liberal.” Is there anything less liberal, i.e., less freedom loving, than those politicians and commentators that congregate under the rubric “liberal” these days? These people are illiberal statists who want to control every aspect of our lives and enforce a politically correct orthodoxy under the banners of “diversity,” “tolerance,” “fairness,” and the like.
Roger offers a pertinent if enigmatic quotation from William Morris: “Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes out not to be what they meant, other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”
What’s in a name? Juliet asked. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Was she right? Pondering Morris’s observation, Roger says that “What you call something is nowhere near as important as what it is.” Yes, but there is also this: “what you call something is often a deliberate form of misdirection.” This is something Juliet discovered too late and to her misfortune.
But she was young and inexperienced. We who are older, are we also wiser? Roger notes that “The art of public relations has been to get people to accept something, often when they don’t want it. Conservatives and Republicans don’t even have to do that. They are at an advantage in this regard. They have something the people most likely want, even though they don’t always know it. Our job is to make them know it.”
And how do we do that? Rhetoric, the art of persuasion, what Roger calls “radical rebranding.” “We need people with the skills and ability to reach out, to talk the language of America. And we need to listen to America as well. I suspect those people who voted against us and are now drifting even more toward Obama are trying to tell us something.” Reality is on our side, as we see in the burgeoning chaos all around us. What we conservatives need now are people who can effectively match the reality to the communicable rhetoric. It’s already happening.