With the recent news of Republican candidate Cindy Hyde-Smith winning in Mississippi and giving Republicans a larger majority in the Senate, there is a little bit more to be happy about in the aftermath of the Midterm. Nevertheless, the huge loss in the House and other offices warrants serious political reflection on what to expect for the future and what the experts have said already is still feels inadequate.
The usual “moderate” commentators have come out of the woodwork to blame Trump for hurting the Republican brand especially among suburban women and the college-educated. However, as Steve Marks and Joy Pullman point out, the problem lies more with these groups than with Trump. It’s more likely that they were fooled by savvy campaigners than they were dismayed by unprincipled politicians. While this problem should still concern conservatives, it should not turn them against the president--those who did fared even worse in their elections.
Other conservatives have criticized the GOP for failing to pass more reforms, pointing to the growing federal debt, the continuation of Obamacare, not defunding Planned Parenthood, etc. Not only is this thinking counterproductive; it is wrong. The reason most of these changes aren’t happening is the Democrat party and their cheerleaders in the media. With a small majority and a clutch of milquetoast legislators, Republicans were nearly always forced into compromise or inaction. With Democrats controlling the House, Americans can only expect more gridlock and more executive orders to bypass this gridlock.
Only a few writers have made a point about multiple instances of election fraud even though this really does account for some of the Republican losses or near-losses. Somehow everything else in the 21st century has been automated and secured, from bank accounts to videogame profiles, yet many states require no photo ID and hand-count paper ballots—this classic scene in The Simpsons captures the asymmetry well. Consequently, Democrats (predictably) steal close elections while Republicans (predictably) do nothing.
More Money Means More Name-Recognition
However, one lesson from this election that still bears mentioning, despite its obviousness, is that money and media still matter. Democrats outspent Republicans by large margins in both the House and Senate elections. This disparity increases dramatically when one considers that many Democrats in blue states faced little to no opposition in their races (like Diane Feinstein, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and others), which allowed the party to spend lavishly on candidates challenging Republicans in all the red states. And to make matters worse, Democrats continued to enjoy plenty of free advertisement from friendly media. Attacked on all fronts, Republican campaigns were all stretched thin and seemed ready to collapse.
Why does money matter? Name-recognition. Contrary to expectations, the rise of the internet and social media has greatly increased the difference money can make in getting one’s name out to the public. Obama’s campaign was the first to show this: through the power of online media, he went from an obscure junior senator to a messianic presidential candidate with an army of followers. Meanwhile, his opponents—if one can remember them—still plugged away with phone calls that people ignored, TV ads that no one ever watched, and held meetings with PACs composed of out-of-touch elderly donors. Everyone knew Obama; few people ever knew Romney or McCain.
Even though he eventually lost, Robert O’Rourke’s campaign in Texas serves as the latest example of the difference money can make. O’Rourke went from being a no-name congressman with few accomplishments (except a DUI) to being a rock star contender known across the nation. With the record amount of (out-of-state) millions raised, his name (or his curiously Latino nickname, “Beto”) appeared in every Twitter and Facebook feed; his army of campaign workers planted his signs everywhere they could (while ripping out the few Cruz signs nearby); and he went on tour rocking out with Willie Nelson and buying every endorsement for sale.
If O’Rourke ran against any person who wasn’t Ted Cruz, perhaps the most recognizable American senator after the 2016 presidential election, he would have won the race, as many of his fellow Democrats won in other states. Like him, they had the money to put their name everywhere and won almost completely because of this. Even incumbents like Pete Sessions and Barbara Comstock who were supposed to have this advantage were rendered virtually anonymous by the Democrats’ well-funded campaigns.
The Power Of Media Narratives
Of course, even if the Republicans had as much name-recognition, like Ted Cruz and Scott Walker (who lost), Democrats could rely on a liberal media pumping out favorable narratives that push them to victory.
Conservatives discount the power of narratives at their own peril. They believe that the truth of their arguments will prevail over the seductive simplicity of narratives, even after this costs them election after election. Much of this has to with how arguments and narratives work. While an argument explains the how and why of something or someone (how healthcare and immigration are reformed, why free speech is important, etc.), a narrative only states that something is (Republicans are racists; the poor are getting poorer, etc.). An argument becomes stronger with evidence, which is why Republicans, who have evidence in abundance, tend to rely on them. A narrative becomes stronger with repetition, and Democrats and their allies have this in spades.
In the wake of smartphones and the subsequent proliferation of mass media, people have become more and more susceptible to narratives and less able to process arguments. Never mind their educational credentials, which are often more a liability than a benefit; people have lost the ability to reason. This means that ignoring narratives increasingly guarantees defeat in coming elections.
This leaves Republicans with a few other options: (1) they can agree with the narrative to galvanize their base; (2) they can concede to the narrative and try to look moderate; (3) they can argue with the narrative and try to debunk it; or (4) they can fight the narrative by creating a counter-narrative.
The first way of looking at a narrative, owning it, is obviously a gamble—usually a bad one. For example, Democrats may accuse Republicans of being anti-intellectual Bible-thumpers, and a Republican responds by promising to implement creationism in schools and tells his supporters that God verbally endorsed him in a dream. In the case of a primary, this may actually work, but this tends to fizzle in general elections (see Roy Moore).
The second way, admitting a narrative’s truth, has the appearance of moderation and reason, but is also weak and unpersuasive. There is also something petty about it: “Yes, my colleagues could care less about the poor, but I’m a good Christian and feel differently.” Politicians, usually of the #NeverTrump variety, who take this tact, look like RINOs and pushovers. They may win respect, but they will ultimately lose elections or prove politically ineffectual (see Paul Ryan).
The third way, arguing with a narrative, may work for the already converted, but does little to sway independents and opponents. As Reagan said, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” Cruz eviscerated O’Rourke in the two debates they had—O’Rourke weaseled out of a third debate—and still had to hustle in order to overcome the popular narratives that he was ugly and annoying.
That leaves Republicans with the fourth way to head off liberal narratives: create a counter-narrative. If Democrats say Republicans are racist, corrupt, incompetent, unlikeable, or whatever else, Republicans respond by saying they same thing about Democrats. This sounds childish, but if President Trump proved anything, it is that this strategy works—especially because Democrats are usually far guiltier of these charges than Republicans.
The Kavanaugh confirmation and the protests that followed gave Republicans a great narrative that even the liberal media couldn’t smother: Democrats are crazy and dangerous. Trump smartly adopted this narrative, which gave Republicans a fighting chance in the midterms and enabled their gains in the Senate.
Taking The High Road To Defeat
Instead of deriding all this as shameless demagoguery, conservative intellectuals need to get over themselves and face a crucial fact: debates about policy and philosophy mean little if your party doesn’t win. Writers funded by AEI or Rupert Murdoch may not mind writing scathing critiques of Obama or the Clintons, but their readers have grown tired of losing all the time.
Besides, there is nothing dishonest in pushing a conservative narrative. “Make America Great Again” is something all voters need to hear and something all Republican candidates should embrace. It turns the tables and makes Republicans, not Democrats, the party of hope, the party of the little guy, and the party of strength. Whining, however eloquent, is still whining. Conservatives should leave this to the snowflakes who have doctorates in such things. More than anything else, the 2018 midterm elections prove that Republicans will need to take back the narrative if they hope to take back the country in two years.