America in Need of a Contest of Ideas
A problem with both national parties is that, too often, they appear to be
more interested in the accumulation and exercise of power than they are in
pursuing the legitimate interests of the people.
The results of the November general election proved Republicans to be more
reflective of the mood of the American electorate than Democrats – at least
for now. That mood can change quickly, and it will if Republicans haven’t
taken the proper lessons from their behavior in the years following their
1994 congressional takeover (especially the years 2001-06) and from the
results of the 2006 and 2008 national elections.
Somewhere there must be a "Politics for Dummies" board game, if only as a
metaphor for political-class group-think, especially among careerists,
whether elected, appointed or contracted. Many who enter politics buy the
board game, remove the wrapper, lift the lid and read the rules printed
under it. Like "Monopoly" and "Parcheesi," the political game has been
played for many years.
Political careerists tend to assume that, like the real board games, the
rules for the political game never change. In politics, the rules do change,
and too many careerists who invested in the original version of the game and
are guided by it miss the changes.
Cycle after cycle and at all levels of public office, both sides play the
game by the same rules and, if they win, each side and each successful
candidate claims his victory to be both a "mandate" and the result of a
superior strategy. Few of them consider that their success was made possible
by the failures or overreach of the other side.
Many registered voters are Democrats or Republicans simply because their
parents were. Others are registered Democrats or Republicans because their
parents were not. In many cases, party identity is emotional rather than
logical, and voters automatically align with a party based on their personal
histories and feelings rather than for practical reasons.
As a result, many busy people leading normal lives who don’t focus on
politics have no idea that they are really conservative and that Democratic
policies are not. There are a lot of hard-working, rather conservative
Democrats, including minority Democrats, who fall into this category.
This November, compared to prior elections, many of the former and a few
more of the latter were drawn to Republican candidates, not so much because
they were attracted to Republican ideas, but more because they were repelled
by Democrats’ miscalculations and liberal excesses in the past two to four
Rightly, Republicans talked about the economy, spending and debt – all
issues on which Democrats fell short – but, their most consistent campaign
messages were overly simple sound-bites like "Not him," "Repeal that," and
"Fire Nancy Pelosi." In fact, Republicans, individually and as a group,
advanced few real ideas.
Politics is about ideas – or it should be.
Patrick Caddell, a very wise Democratic consultant (Yes, Republicans, there
is such a thing), says that Republicans lack "a national narrative."
The reason Republicans do not have a narrative is that too many Republicans
don’t believe in genuinely contesting political ideas or even in the
ascendency or superiority of a conservative brand. National Republicans
would do well to first genuinely embrace conservatism, to educate voters by
speaking of the differences between conservative and liberal philosophies
and then, finally, to communicate and connect the value of conservative
thought to the lives of voters and their families.
Republicans have something to prove. Unless Republicans can effectively
communicate logically defensible, compelling ideas and sensible plans, their
new majority will never become a permanent one, and they may lose the
grassroots – tea party, Patriots, Constitutional and 9-12 Project people –
Ideas involve principles. So far, at least, the grassroots are all about
principles. This year, grassroots supporters were attracted to the
Republican Party by necessity, but they will not affiliate for long with any
party that lacks identifiable principles willingly supported by its elected
Good governance is the only legitimate responsibility of true public
servants. When public service gives way to the accumulation of power and
self-service among elected politicians, the people lose. Under the new rules
of the political game, politicians will lose, too – their jobs and,
potentially, their parties.
Shenk was involved in Frank Ryan’s campaign for U.S. Congress. He is
co-editor of the Rebuilding America website. E-mail [email protected]