Thursday, January 26, 2012

Should All Nominees Be Supported?

Should a political party’s nominee always be supported? Generally, the answer is yes. A political party is a collection of people whose views overlap enough to give them a common interest in getting each other elected. To that end, they form a party with the implicit agreement that they will compete with each other to represent the party and then will support the nominee regardless of the outcome of the competition. Thus, the nominee should be supported. But there is an exception.

This exception arises when (1) the nominee’s views are well outside the range of common interests which hold the party together, and (2) there is a legitimate belief that supporting this nominee will harm the long term goals of the party.

On the first point, Reagan famously said that he could support anyone with whom he agreed on 80% of the issues. Reagan was making the point that it is foolish and counterproductive to require 100% agreement with a nominee before you can support them. Indeed, 100% agreement is probably impossible. Hence, this is the reason moderates should support conservatives and conservatives should support moderates and libertarians should support social conservatives and vice versa.

But Reagan’s point also contains the implicit understanding that at some point (possibly below 80% using Reagan’s formula) there is no obligation to support the nominee. Why would this be? For that, we need to look at the question of harm.

Companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to ensure their products remain consistent. They want to make sure you find the exact same amount in each cereal box, that every batch of Mac and Cheese tastes the same, that every sock has the same number of stitches, and that every Acura uses only Acura parts. Why? Because having a consistent level of quality affects how people perceive their brands. People want to know exactly what they are getting when they make a purchase and branding achieves that -- whereas failing to maintain that consistency damages the brand because people will no longer know what to expect from their purchase.

Whether we like the idea or not, a political party is nothing more than a company, and its product or brand is an ideological range. Choosing a nominee from outside that range blurs the identity of the party and damages its brand.

How? For one thing, this will alienate supporters. Supporters expect nominees to be within the ideological range. When they aren’t, the party has violated the contract under which it claims a right to the individual’s support. It is the equivalent of McDonalds selling you a Big Mac container but including a ham sandwich rather than a burger. This is a violation of trust.

Moreover, this confuses voters. When a person represents a party or ideology, their views become associated with that party or ideology and their successes/failures taint the ideology. In other words, the nominee redefines how the public views conservatism or liberalism, and their meanings change. Hence, conservatism and Republicanism came to be associated with Nixon’s views in 1968, Reagan’s views in 1980, and Bush Jr.’s views in 2000 -- I exclude Bush Sr. because he claimed to be a moderate. Liberalism, by comparison, came to be associated with FDR, LBJ, Carter, and now Obama. Clinton called himself a moderate.

Prior to LBJ, the majority political view of the nation was FDR-liberalism. This could have continued indefinitely, except LBJ disgraced liberalism. His errors in Vietnam and his monstrous Great Society wiped out the Democratic party in the South and set the stage for a conservative resurgence. Jimmy Carter finished liberalism off by proving that Democrats are reckless spenders, incompetent managers of the economy, and militarily inept and cowardly. This set the stage for Reagan.

Reagan’s success revived conservatism while also redefining it back to its roots -- away from the big-government conservatism of the Nixon years. By the time Reagan left office, conservatism had become the natural ideology of the country and 60% of the public believed it.

This could have lasted for generations, except along came George Bush Jr. He wrapped himself in the conservative label and set about running a big government, civil-liberties-crushing, crony-capitalism, foreign-adventuring administration which so thoroughly discredited conservatism that in 2008, the voters were more radically liberal and more willing to accept liberalism than they had been at any time since LBJ. The ONLY THING THAT SAVED CONSERVATISM was the election of Barack Obama. If Obama hadn’t proven to be such a disaster, conservatism would be dead today. But Obama was a disaster and he caused a massive backlash which took the form of the Tea Party.

The lesson here is simple.

Ideologies get defined by their leaders and they get punished for the sins of their leaders. If a nominee calls himself conservative but acts like a liberal, the public doesn’t blame liberalism for his crimes and failures, it blames conservatism even if that person never once acted like a true conservative. Thus, Bush and Nixon, neither of whom could be called conservatives, discredited conservatism. LBJ/Carter/Obama, each of who were progressives and not liberals, discredited liberalism. And in each case, the only thing to save conservatism/liberalism was pure luck that someone worse came along to discredit the other side. If Moderate Joe Democrat had come along after George Bush Jr., we could well be looking at an America that views liberalism as the natural order of things and sees conservatism as meaning reckless spending, bad economic management, and cronyism.

Moreover, the nominee need not even be as disastrous as a Bush/Obama to harm the ideology. The goal of politics is to effect long term change in the country. That is simply not possible when the person representing your ideology holds views that are inconsistent with the ideology. This muddies the ideological waters and confuses the differences between the parties. In other words, when the Republicans and the Democrats both push the same solutions to the same issues, voters will come to believe there is no difference, and they will either stop voting or they will pick the party that promises them the most loot -- advantage Democrats.

This is what happens when you pick someone who is far outside the acceptable ideological range for the party or who happens to be insane. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if Newt or Santorum or Romney or Paul are so far outside the bounds that you should not support them, but ask yourself: “how bad would it be for the party, for my beliefs, and for the country if conservatism came to be defined in the way ____ sees it?”

Winning elections is important, but you don’t want to sacrifice the future to win a single election.

By the way, there's an interesting poll out which shows that 33% of Republicans want a new candidate to jump into the race. This is down from 68% only two months ago. I think the field is set.

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