A few months ago, I was in the checkout line at the grocery store. It was in one of those periods in which the gas prices were soaring for no apparent reason. I overheard a woman in the next lane tell her cashier “What we gotta do is drill our own oil and not have to buy theirs.” I didn’t give it much thought, dismissing her as just being misinformed about American oil reserves. Then last week at a family gathering, a pregnant relative was talking about how she has a deductible for the year and her child will have one as well when he/she is born. Another relative, a NASCAR dad plumber of 30 years of age, piped in (no pun intended) with this: “You gotta carry insurance or else just carry none and Obama will take care of it”. He obviously had no clue about what “Obamacare” would actually do. It was then that I had a great epiphany and saw the utter brilliance of the Republican political machine and how Democrats are doing it all wrong.
What these incidents taught me is that most people are too busy living their lives to burrow into the details of issues and policy. What they rely on are innate core beliefs and preconceptions, and what Republicans have mastered is how to create an alternate reality in sync with these preconceptions in order to keep people voting against their economic self-interest. If people actually voted in their economic self-interest, the Republican Party would have zero Senators and perhaps a handful of House members from such districts as Beverly Hills. Clearly, something else is going on to save Republicans from extinction.
What the Republicans have discovered is this: voters respond to simple ideas and simple solutions. Whether the ideas are right or wrong or whether the solutions have any merit is entirely irrelevant, what the public wants you to do is say something that they can understand and that you seem to believe in.
Fixing the economy is hard, maybe even impossible. It’s far easier to make people believe that raising taxes even a tiny bit on the very wealthiest people will make things worse than to actually find a solution and implement it. If you repeat over and over again that every single person making over $250,000 per year is a (cue the heavenly choir) Job Creator (end heavenly choir) then it becomes a fact by sheer repetition.
Health care is a huge, complex issue. Finding a workable solution that would be cost-effective and cover everybody is a herculean task. It’s far easier to say that tort reform and interstate competition are all you need to do. It even fits on a bumper sticker. What to do if the other party passes modest health reform legislation essentially similar to what your party offered up sixteen years earlier? Call it “socialism”. Invent and demonize the “death panels”. Refer to a requirement to buy private health insurance as “government taking over the entire health care system”. The words don’t have to have any truth, they don’t even have to have any meaning- they just have to be scary.
There are two ways to approach the threat of global warming. One is to do what we can to minimize our carbon footprint and develop ways to absorb the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That’s expensive and could hurt someone’s bottom line. The other way is far easier, just dismiss the science out of hand. Pay off a few guys with a PhD to toe the corporate line and declare a lack of consensus. Invent a “Climategate” conspiracy. The public is far more willing to believe in a conspiracy than try to actually understand science.
On so many issues, from taxes to unemployment to immigration to the environment, there is always a quick and easy solution and/or a bogeyman to invoke. It doesn’t have to make sense that you can’t get a job for $20./hour in a factory because some Mexican is sneaking across the border to pick lettuce, it just has to appeal to your lesser nature.
So here’s the problem for progressives: we waste our time trying to make a logical case for what we want to do. In 2004, the Republican message was simple: “Lower taxes, fight terror, no gay marriage”. Seven words. We need to find messages that fit on bumper stickers rather than try to sway people with bar charts. It’s time that we came up with simple slogans and factoids to win elections. Who cares if they have any merit? Here are some suggestions:
Global Warming Causes Homosexuality
Raise Jane Fonda’s Taxes
Quit Fighting Overseas For Muslims
Conserve, Baby, Conserve
Ted Kennedy Paid No Inheiritance Tax
George Soros Pays Billions To Fight Obamacare
Higher Taxes Produce Oil
Offshore Oil Rigs Attract Illegal Immigrants
Women Who Abort Twice As Likely To Later Give Birth To Quarterbacks
Repeat the above often enough with no explanation, and by 2012 voters in the reddest of states will be fighting for higher taxes, carbon taxes, health care, and abortion rights.