Monday, September 28, 2009

The Death of Conservatism

Hugh Hewitt recently interviewed Sam Tanenhaus about his new book “The Death of Conservatism.” The interview was broadcast on The Hugh Hewitt Radio Show on Thursday, 9/17/2009.

A week later, Mr. Hewitt posted an e-mail response to the interview from one of his readers. It made me think of the way Republicans are misinterpreting our political climate. The reader’s response was characterized as being extremely effective. I’m not so sure about that.

Politics is messy. Americans struggle over ideology, wondering whether “liberalism,” “moderation” or “conservatism” sets the right course. Even within the Republican Party, the going gets rough. One can get a sense of the state of affairs through the writings of Stacy McCain. His arguments are always colorful and passionate.

But what of this particular response to the Sam Tanenhaus interview? To the question implied by the title of the book, the e-mailer’s reply was simply, “No we’re not.” The respondent gave several examples of how conservatism still had “vital signs.”

It made me smile.

Republicans look at the task of “winning hearts and minds” and immediately concentrate on the “minds.” The Hugh Hewitt e-mail is a classic Republican response. It tackles the intellectual side of the argument quite well, but to what end? It has limited popular appeal.

Mr. Tanenhaus knows that his book is a smokescreen. He diverts the attention of Republicans to the intellectual battle of ideas, when they should be concentrating on the emotional battle of feelings.

Here’s a recent event that gives you an idea of where there might be a problem:

On Friday evening, 9/25/09, the Jay Leno Show began its hour of primetime entertainment with the traditional monologue. At 8:10 into the monologue, Jay introduces a segment titled “Great White Moments in Black History.” It lasts for 30 seconds and features a spokesman telling the story of Essie Mae Washington-Williams, who revealed in 2003 that she was the daughter of “noted segregationist” Strom Thurmond. Mr. Thurmond, in his twenties, had engaged in sexual relations with a housemaid, and Essie Mae had kept it a secret until after Senator Thurmond’s death. At the end of the sketch, the Jay Leno spokesman gives an expression of feigned amazement, and the audience erupts into laughter.

The joke was funny because it was about a dead Republican. If it were about someone else, it would not be funny. It might even be considered macabre!

The studio audience (and maybe some reading this post) did not get the inside joke from the bit. When Senator Thurmond fathered Essie Mae, he was not a Republican. Senator Thurmond did not become a Republican until he changed parties in 1964. Interestingly, he was not characterized as a racist until after he became a Republican.

Why bring this incident to your attention? It points out that Republicans have a long way to go in this battle. Republicans are not losing ground because they have bad ideas. It is because they are considered to be bad people. Our culture is creating this perception. Republicans are forever characterized as the ones wearing the black hats.

Frances Rice is doing what she can to set the record straight. She notes that “Martin Luther King was a Republican.” But Americans have trouble believing what she says. When they process that sentence, they react emotionally. Their hearts say, “This can’t be possible. Dr. King was a good person, and I know that Republicans are not.”

If you are hearing this for the first time, your gut is probably giving you that same feeling of dissonance, with a squirt of stomach acid telling you, “This is nuts!”

Nonetheless, it is true, and it indicates the difficulties that lie ahead for Republicans.

Republicans enjoy fighting the battle for the minds of Americans. They believe that if they can just set the record straight, everything will work out. Unfortunately, American hearts are being led in a different direction.

Who is winning the war?

Not Republicans.

UPDATE 10/20/2009:
A lesson in proper warfighting technique is provided by Stacy McCain.


  1. This post tells a lot about your thought process. The joke in my mind was not that he was a Republican, but that he had sex with a ahhh, like that has never happened before. That is the joke to me, having illicit sexual activity with a black housemaid, classic. Just like the black male was once considered the "stud" and white women had secret relations. However...

    You are right on the money! It is not minds that need to be won, it is hearts. The only way to do that is to be recognized as a more inclusive party, socially that is.

    The stigma is palpable that Republicans are against "free thinking" or free will even.

    I am a firm believer that one must "stick to their guns" on fundamental issues that truly concern you or your party. But, and that is a big BUT, in order to have the voting base needed one of two things must happen. Democrats fail miserably or Republicans embrace alternative lifestyles and provide the same privileges for alternative lifestyles. Recognize women and gay couples as capable of making their own life choices.

    It's a heart matter...

  2. Lori12:

    Thank you for your comment. We are both on "the same page" that stereotypical characteristics of Republicans exist; the idea that they are against "free thinking", as you note.

    From my perspective, this exemplifies our anti-Republican culture. It is of the same vein as the GEICO "Cave Man" commercials. We are being told on a daily basis by our culture that this is what Republicans "are".

    I registered as a Republican when I was 21 years old. How is it that people I have never met have insight into my character and intent based upon a decision I made over 40 years ago? Might there be other events within the last 40 years of my life that have impacted me more than filling out that registration form? What if I go down to the County Clerk's office and change my party affiliation to Democrat or Unaffiliated? Does my character and intent suddenly change?

    To me, labels and characterizations are offensive. That our culture doesn't see this as wrong is like not seeing that slavery was wrong in the 1800s. Our culture is telling us that it is OK to assume Republicans are "backwards".

    Do you see any similarities between the way Republicans are being marginalized in America and the way non-Muslims are treated in the Middle East? A group of people is being demonized because of their belief system, and our culture says, "Yes, this is right!" We have an enlightened society, yet that society sees it as legitimate to stereotype and disparage one particular group.

    I think people see anti-Semitism as a bad thing. It is curious to me that anti-Republicanism is a good thing.

  3. I see the situation differently. Btw, I appreciate our exchange of views! I don't think Republicans are being "demonized" at all. I think that in our democracy that the majority is saying "We don't agree with you". Way different. As a party, the views on personal choice should be re-examined (sp?).Noting that you registered 40 years ago, which happens to be my age, I can't help but wonder if you got into a mindset that refuses personal choice, is it just habit, or do you agree with the party for other reasons? I would like to know, Are you for personal choice? Period.

  4. Lori12:

    I am a male, so my understanding of the female mind is limited.

    That being said, women have the extraordinary gift of being able to create life, and with that gift comes the power to be able to destroy life. How women use this power is an individual decision.

    What is important to me is that others, including governmental agencies, should have no say in the decision. To make it an issue that must be affirmed by a public agency is a mistake. It's also a mistake to force those who feel strongly about it to contribute their tax dollars toward something they see as immoral. When one tries to impose his or her standards on others is where we get into difficulty.

    Let's leave it as a very difficult personal decision and keep others out of it.