A few nights ago, I had dinner with four family friends. They are somewhat political, but aren’t Democrats or Republicans. If I had to define them, I’d say they leaned conservative on fiscal issues and liberal on social issues. They all voted for Ronald Reagan. They also all voted for Barack Obama. Twice.
Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama–an interesting voting pattern, no? I couldn’t help but try to make sense of it. Here’s what they had to say:
“Reagan made me feel like he understood what I was going through and wanted to fix it.”
“With Reagan, you really understood what he was about, what he stood for, and what he wanted to do.”
“I always felt that with Reagan, it wasn’t about what the other guy was doing wrong; it was about how he was going to make it right.”
“I’m not a conservative, but I understood Reagan’s conservatism. He made the case for it, and it made sense. It wasn’t angry or inflammatory. It was funny, honest, and kind of welcoming.”
I think these comments are worth paying attention to. Sure, these are only four people speaking their minds, but I have heard similar sentiments echoed by hundreds of people over the course of the last few years. And I happen to agree with many of them.
Empathy matters. It’s important that people believe that politicians care about them. If they don’t think you care, they probably aren’t going to vote for you.
Pointing out what the other guy is doing wrong won’t get you elected. People have to believe in your ideas, your policies, and your vision. If more time is spent criticizing your opponent than making a case for what you stand for, you lose.
People who don’t align themselves with a political party or don’t feel comfortable defining themselves as “liberal” or “conservative” often can’t stomach preach-to-the-choir perpetual outrage. They crave solutions, and they’ll vote for the person–regardless of his or her political party–who they think is putting forth the clearest agenda.
For months during the 2012 presidential election season, I was concerned that Mitt Romney couldn’t win. I argued with colleagues that I thought he might be in trouble. I, who agreed with him on policy most of the time, couldn’t see his empathy, his outreach, or a clear articulation of his vision. And if I couldn’t see it, I wasn’t convinced that the rest of America could.
With about two weeks to go in that election, I went against my instinct, something I’ve never done in my life. I listened to the emails and phone calls I was getting. I decided that lots of big shots knew better than me.
As it turns out, they didn’t.
I wasn’t wrong for months about Romney, and I won’t be wrong when I tell you that if conservatism doesn’t do a better job of presenting itself to people, the movement will be in serious trouble. If outreach remains unimportant (outreach, not pandering), if some don’t break free from preach-to-the-choir delivery styles and traffic-hungry, knee-jerk outrage, if things like empathy and charisma aren’t recognized as important in our messengers, if politicians don’t prioritize articulating their visions rather than complaining about the other guy’s…then conservatives lose. Again and again and again.
Barack Obama set out to win and he did. Yes, he spewed class warfare. But he also sold class warfare. He made it popular because of how he presented it. He didn’t win by running against McCain’s policies or Romney’s; he won by promoting his own in a way that won public opinion on key issues. I don’t agree with most of Obama’s policies, but his campaign team did a fantastic job. And that shouldn’t be ignored; it should be learned from.
So I won’t be going against my instinct again, that’s for sure.
I also won’t be sugarcoating what I feel are weaknesses in strategy on the right.
And I certainly won’t be ignoring the voices of those who once adored Reagan and now aren’t drawn to conservatism. Because growing a movement begins with listening to what they have to say.
Follow Jedediah on Twitter @JedediahBila