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?
A lesson in proper warfighting technique is provided by Stacy McCain.