Learning from how Conservatives Push their Cultural Worldview

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martin dufresne
Learning from how Conservatives Push their Cultural Worldview


martin dufresne

Learning from How Conservatives Push Their Cultural Worldview
By Sara Robinson,March 14, 2008
[url=http://www.alternet.org/story/79675/]AlterNet/Blog for Our Future[/url]

This is part II of a series. Click [url=http://www.alternet.org/story/79511/]here [/url]to read part I, "What We Can Learn from Conservatives About Winning in Politics."

As we saw in the previous post, the entire conservative movement was organized around the single goal of changing the country's dominant worldview, weaning it away from liberal assumptions about how the world works, and teaching Americans to assign meaning to the world using conservative values instead. They firmly (and rightly) believed that that once the rest of the country evaluated and prioritized reality the same way they did, the rest of the conservative political, economic, and social agenda could be implemented with strong popular support, and no meaningful resistance.

But the early architects of this plan, including Paul Weyrich, also realized that having strong ideas wasn't enough. To succeed, they would also have to master the arts of persuasion.

"Ideas do not immediately have consequences," wrote Eric Huebeck in his 2001 update of Weyrich's long-followed plan. "They do not have an impact in direct proportion to the truth they contain. They have an impact only insofar as adherents of those ideas are willing to take measures to propagate those ideas."

Or, as a more cynical conservative once put it: You gotta catapult the propaganda.

This may seem like heresy to liberals. We like to believe that the progressive worldview is so patently superior that intelligent people will readily see the logic of it, and then sensibly adopt it as the best way to think and live. If people resist it, it's only because they don't completely understand it (yet). Fixing that is simply a matter of education: we just need explain our vision more clearly. Our own resolute faith in the power of reason convinces us that reasonable people will be reasonably persuaded by reasonable discussion of reasonable ideas.

It's time to consider the reasonable possibility that we may be wrong. (...)

Liberals operate from a position of strength on the battlefield of ideas -- and this may be why we consistently overvalue reason and undervalue emotional appeals. Our ideas do have a strong intellectual appeal. But we tend to forget that they also have a far healthier emotional appeal, since we don't have to resort to stimulating fear and hate to get people to buy into them. Still, we've been notoriously terrible at stirring people's more positive and hopeful emotions, and getting them to resonate on a soul-deep level with the values that define our worldview. Clearly, we could stand to learn a thing or two from the conservatives about how they did this. (...)

The first thing we need to do is lighten way up on the long recitations of facts and figures and programs and policies. Most non-wonks don't care about this stuff -- the details just make them yawn. They're bored by promises of new programs: most Americans are pretty well convinced by now that whatever the program is or how well-funded it may be, they probably won't see any personal benefit from it, so it comes across as an empty promise. Yet Democratic candidates all the way back to Walter Mondale have been running and losing on just this kind of dispassionate, uninspiring wonk-talk. And then we wonder why the conservatives keep whipping our asses.

You'll seldom catch conservatives talking wonky. They're told from their very first candidate trainings to steer clear of anything that dwells on abstract facts or figures. People want viscerally engaging stories -- emotional stories about people like them, inspiring mythic tales taken from history that express their highest ideals, vivid invocations outlining the shining details of a better future to come. They want clear-cut portrayals of good guys and bad guys that reverberate with the promise that justice will be done, and that they will be honored in the end as agents for good. We may grow up, but we never lose our childhood taste for an illustrative tale well-told. The conservatives knew this from the beginning, and turned this knowledge into a potent political strategy. (...)


This article does not address the root intellectual and social causes:

the rise of the post-war influence of Hayek, in particular, and the emergence of a conservative anti-New Deal current around National Review and Goldwater, post-1968 cultural resentment and the socio-economic context of economic stagflation in the 1970s that launched the revolt of the Reagan Democrats, and finally, the continuing Cold War and the shift of some leading intellectuals to the Right, in magazines and think tanks (Commentary, Heritage, AEI, etc.)

so not too useful an article, I find, esp. in its back-patting aspects, ie:
Liberal ideas are so superior, how come we can't convince people of that?

[ 17 March 2008: Message edited by: Geneva ]

N.Beltov N.Beltov's picture

[url=http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/259919.html]Thomas Frank on the Conquest of Cool[/url]

It's a good piece on the culture wars.

Michael Hardner

It seems to me that part of the problem is the inability to speak directly to the issues without over or under explaining them.

Both sides use emotional appeals, and this is to be expected. What neither side does effectively is own up to the ideas they pushed in the past.

Jean Chretien's red book was a solid plan for Canada's government. Once the Liberals were elected, the red book faded from view. That was a wasted opportunity.

Mike Harris' government thought 'boot camps' or the threat of 'boot camps' would rectify our children. They didn't, but we didn't hear about that from either side.

The first step, I think, is for the press to highlight the problem of the public's fickle attention as an ongoing problem with democracy. There are ways that such problems can be addressed.