CONSERVATIVES! Stop Playing Defense in the War of Ideas

Written by Wes Walker on July 20, 2014

Have you noticed how bad ideas keep getting good press? Even when they fail on an epic scale, the ideas themselves live on. Is this something we could change?  I say “yes”, but we’ll need to change our game plan.

A really obvious example to cite of this principle in action (among many available choices) is the parade of epic failures trotted out by the Obama administration. Foreign policy flubs, shuttered shovel-ready projects, the Supreme Court rapping his knuckles, Obamacare flip-flops, arming Mexican cartels while clamping down on gun ownership — besides some other problems on the Mexican border — the list seems almost inexhaustible.

People seem to agree that promised results were never delivered. Just look at his approval ratings.

It might seem common-sense to say that this is “open-and-shut proof” that the ideas themselves were fatally flawed, and doomed to fail. To hear liberals tell it, though, the problem isn’t the idea, but the implementation. Time and again, the public accepts the “good plan executed badly” excuse.  But WHY do they accept it?

The easy thing to do would be whine and moan about (maybe you’ve heard this before) media bias, Hollyweird, radical left academia, blah-blah-blah.

So what? Suppose all of that is true — should we give up? Accept defeat? No, surrender isn’t an option.

The proactive alternative to blame-shifting and crying “uncle” is to reexamine what we’ve done poorly, and make necessary changes. That is exactly what we need to do now.

Example: what do you notice about the following contrast: “reproductive rights” vs. “war on women”?  It’s the classic expression of how their side likes to frame issues, and frankly, they use the tactic very effectively.

They pick one position (theirs) to be draped in language that makes it “for” someone or something. It uses language that “affirms” a supposed virtue. This is intentional. Then they paint our position, not as being “for” a competing virtue (although that would be factually accurate), but “against” the virtue their side affirms.

They do not, for example, like to say “Pro-life” when “anti-choice” would do the trick. It carries a different emotional impact. And, make no mistake, these are emotional, not intellectual arguments. Emotional responses are far easier to manipulate.

Another result of their tactic, is framing what the key point of conflict in the debate is.  If the public accepts the premise that (continuing the abortion example) the debate really centers around “reproductive rights” and “choice” then any argument you raise about the life of the unborn is irrelevant to the supposed “central argument”.  They truly won’t hear arguments about the in-utero baby being alive if they have already accepted that the Big Question hinges on “Choice”. If we’ve let them set the question of the debate, we’ve surrendered before we’ve started.

More than that, if they’ve successfully framed themselves as “pro” (virtue “x”) and their opponents as “anti” (virtue “x”) they automatically become the good guys. They are the home team, and have a sympathetic ear from the public.  This, too, is intentional. And we are fools if we let them get away with what Bill Whittle appropriately calls “unearned moral superiority”.

If we play by their rules, we lose. Period.

They are actually doing what we should be — they appeal to an accepted PRINCIPLE to justify a PRACTICE. “Freedom”, for example, is what they use to justify abortion.

We’ve got it backwards. We keep trying to justify individual practices piecemeal, without having them plugged into any larger principle. Well, no wonder we keep losing ground!

Let’s look at Immigration, since it’s a top-of-mind issue right now. With the flood of people, especially children, surging over the US-Mexico border, what is really at issue?

The arguments we make typically address the practice, and not the principle.  Even when principles are raised, they tend to be rhetorically weak, not connecting emotionally to the audience we hope to persuade.

National Sovereignty? Valid, but abstract and emotionally sterile.  Costs (including medical, social, and financial)? That comes across as “grinch-y” especially when the response is “deport them”. Fairness to people who come in legally (again, too “abstract” and not bumper sticker-y enough).

Isn’t there something more fundamental we object to? I think so.

Don’t we object to the harm these people are exposed to during this journey? How people are exploiting them for various kinds of personal gain? Don’t we object to children falling from trains, or dropping dead in the Texas heat? Don’t we object to kids being exploited by drug cartels? Don’t we object to the violent criminals using the cover of crowds to move freely among immigrants and citizens alike?

How could it be racist to mention that Mexico deliberately chooses to subvert its own (very strict) immigration laws allowing unaccompanied minors to travel from Guatemala to the US-Mexico border? Is not the Mexican government complicit In every injury and death of unaccompanied children they permit onto these America-bound trains? But Americans are somehow the bad guys?

How about we demand that Mexico stop endangering kids, by sending them North on trains with strangers, and instead, insist Mexico helps repatriate these kids and reunite them with their families.

How hard could that be?  I’ll bet we’d have their attention and cooperation if we put a moratorium on wire transfers of money to Mexico, Central America and South America until this problem comes to an end. Even if it’s politically unpopular to pressure Mexico to respect the laws, couldn’t you at least do it for the children?