I read something by John Hawkins the other day, and I can’t get it out of my mind.
Complaining bitterly about the Democrats’ “politics of personal destruction” or bellyaching that the media doesn’t treat us fairly ultimately accomplishes nothing. The public doesn’t care.
Using the exact same tactics against the left that it uses against the right may very well be effective.
Even if it isn’t, it may at least convince them that such tactics ought to be off limits on both sides. We can say, “Gee, what if Bush had done this” or “That’s a cheap shot” all day long, but until our political opponents feel the brunt of the same savage incivility that it dishes out on a regular basis, nothing is going to change.
There’s something comforting about what Hawkins has to say, because it’s always easier to act on our baser nature than to rise above it, but after giving it a great deal of thought, I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that savage incivility won’t help. Savage incivility didn’t win the White House for Democrats; Barack Obama did. Few people become Democrats because they like the savage incivility displayed by members of the liberal cultural elite. We really should understand this before we start imitating the worst behavior of our fellow Americans, because, for a variety of reasons, it simply won’t work.
I think it’s helpful if Hawkins recognizes a few things that are, not what we wish them to be. Firstly, conservatives do not, by and large, have the influence over popular culture that liberals have. Secondly, conservatives are not in power politically at the federal level. Thirdly, conservatives have been successfully labeled and framed by liberals.
We can’t expect that simply following the liberal playbook will lead to conservative success, because we’re not liberals. We’re not in the same position as liberals. We don’t have the same tools as liberals. We’re different, and our tactics must be different as well.
The first step in determining our tactics is determining our goal. If our goal is to simply give the Left a taste of its own medicine then “savage incivility” might suffice. I was under the impression, however, that our goal was a bit loftier than engaging in a full-throated battle of the bastards. I thought our goal was to win. To win elections you have to win hearts and minds. If we want to do that, I’d suggest a new archetype: the thoughtful conservative.
The thoughtful conservative already exists, of course. Mark Levin’s Liberty and Tyranny is a perfect example of the thoughtful conservative in action, though Levin’s radio show may not always qualify. Similarly, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism is the work of a thoughtful conservative, though not every one of Goldberg’s posts on The Corner may qualify. Thoughtful conservatives may not always be thoughtful, but their body of work still possesses a quality not found in, say, the collected works of Michael Savage.
The thoughtful conservative doesn’t set out to mock or ridicule, but to convince. The object is to advance an argument, not to put an ideological opponent in their place (though that may be a by-product). A lot of conservatives have been talking about Jon Stewart’s labeling Harry Truman as a war criminal, but I have seen relatively few conservatives talk about what an amazing job Cliff May did in thoughtfully forcing Stewart to take that position.
May went to The Daily Show knowing he’d face a hostile audience and host. Still, he was the polar opposite of how John Hawkins thinks conservatives should behave. He didn’t come armed with intrusive facts about Jon Stewart’s life or make outlandish and unsubstantiated claims about Stewart’s staff. He calmly, reasonably, and humorously stated his position. He explained in a very engaging way why his position was far more rational and pragmatic than the position taken by Jon Stewart. Without ever ceding the moral high ground, he eventually got one of the poster boys of progressivism to call Truman a war criminal (and awkwardly take it back a few days later). Thoughtful conservative 1, pseudo-intellectual talk show host 0.
It takes effort to be a thoughtful conservative. It’s hard in this day and age to remain above the fray, especially when your opponent is calling you racist, or a fascist, or a hatemonger. It takes great aplomb to hear the insults and ignore them. In the days of our nation’s founding, it was one of the most recognizable attributes of a gentleman. In 1774, during the tumultuous days that came before the outbreak of violence in the American colonies, Benjamin Franklin was forced to confess that he had come into possession of certain letters from the royal governor of Massachusetts, and seen fit to give the letters to the Sons of Liberty in that state. Franklin lived in London, England, at the time, which meant he was well within the reach of the government. He was called before Parliament, where he was forced to stand silent while his character and name were destroyed by England’s solicitor-general, Lord Wedderburn. Franklin uttered not a word, and in fact never even moved, even as Wedderburn implored his fellow members of Parliament, “I hope, my Lords, you will mark and brand the man, for the honour of this country, of Europe, and of mankind. … He has forfeited all the respect of societies and of men. Into what companies will he hereafter go with an unembarrassed face, or the honest intrepidity of virtue?”
Franklin was secure enough in his virtue and pragmatic enough in his philosophic outlook to know he was on the defensive and that the best course of action was to remain quiet. Yet that didn’t mean he would remain quiet forever. Franklin continued writing his essays and papers in defense of the colonies until he was forced to leave London in 1775.
In addition to knowing when to argue, the thoughtful conservative has to know how to argue. We really don’t argue anymore, but instead try to come up with new and amusing names to call each other. People aren’t really protesting a government growing out of control; they’re just “teabaggers,” after all. Supporters of President Obama aren’t Americans who are yearning for something different; they’re merely “Obamatrons.” The thoughtful conservative, on the other hand, knows that arguing, not name calling, actually gets things done. You may not always be trying to convince the person you’re arguing with. You may very well be trying to convince your mutual audience. Take another look at Cliff May’s interview with Jon Stewart. Just a couple of minutes in, and it’s clear that May is the one in control of himself and the interview while Stewart who is grasping at straws. I doubt Stewart was convinced by May, but I have no doubt in my mind that some viewers were.
Once you know when and how to argue, you still need to be able to argue, and for that you have to be armed with knowledge. The thoughtful conservative is not an intellectual, at least not in the “squishy” sense of the word. Arthur Brooks, for example, recently wrote an article claiming that this current political fight goes much deeper and is an actual assault on capitalism. In order to make that argument, Brooks needs to know not only a thing or two about what’s going on in the world today. He has to have a solid grasp on the theories and history of capitalism, socialism, the welfare state. The reader may not be exposed to every scrap of knowledge that Brooks has accumulated over the years, but that knowledge was put to use when Brooks was making and framing his argument. Incidentally, I believe that Mr. Brooks is understating the scope of the battle, for I believe the cultural war we are fighting is for nothing less than the survival of Western civilization (but that is perhaps another column entirely). The more you know about what you’re fighting for, the more effective you’ll be as a fighter.
John Hawkins was right about one thing: it is time to fight back. But not, as he suggests, as a savage beast without moral compass or human dignity. Let’s leave the barbarism to our opponents.