Respected pollster Scott Rasmussen recently admonished Republicans to change their tune, not their message. He’s dead right, and that advice applies to issues across the board, not just the debate on tax rates.
The left says, “The rich should pay their fair share of taxes!” Well, who believes in unfair taxes? The debate should be over what is “fair,” not over fairness. Is 30 percent fair when half of all working adults pay no taxes at all? Is that “fair”?
The problem is, of course, that fairness is a slippery standard. But in truth, even if we hate to admit it, politics has always been about words and rhetoric as much as the concrete reality behind them.
Let’s admit it: Conservatives need to get smart about the rhetoric of “fairness” – fair taxes, fair trade, fair immigration reform, fair education opportunity. If we do, we can win on that battleground.
We hear how we need “immigration fairness” for the children of illegal immigrants who were brought here at age 6 or 10 or 12. That sounds nice: Many people think it isn’t “fair” that immigration law requires that at age 25 they be deported back to the place of their birth in Mexico, Peru or Brazil. OK, but let’s apply the fairness standard to all of immigration law.
If we want all immigration law to be “fair,” is it fair that their parents escape the adult consequences of their adult decision to enter our country illegally? Is amnesty for those parents fair to the millions of immigrants who waited five or 10 years to enter lawfully? How fair is that?
Fairness is an elastic term that can be a two-edged sword, and conservatives need to become more innovative in using it.
- Is it fair that “gun-free zones” allow criminals to shoot innocent, defenseless people at a school, shopping mall or movie theater?
- Is it fair that parents must pay taxes to support a broken public school system and are not allowed to use that money to send their children to a school of their choice?
- Is it fair that union thugs can threaten and intimidate people in public assemblies without any accountability for their actions?
- Is it fair for the son of an affluent bond broker in Manhattan or San Francisco to get an affirmative-action advantage in admission to Princeton over a white male from a working-class family just because his great grandparents were slaves?
- Is it fair that a small business owner on Main Street must compete against a business that is only operating because of a government-subsidized loan?
- Is it fair that everyone must pay higher utility bills because utility companies are forced to purchase higher-cost “green energy”?
We need to accept the fact that the political world is not a level playing field. Yes, the left dominates the mass media and the universities and the public schools. That means the left controls the language of politics, which is the language of political correctness. Yes, that is a huge disadvantage for conservatives. But there is no political solution to bias in the media. And since recognizing the problem is half the battle, let’s quit whining and deal with it.
The bigger problem is that Republicans and conservatives have become complacent and self-delusional with regard to the depth and scope of the underlying cultural problem. There has been a slow but steady shift in beliefs and attitudes about individualism and dependence, a cultural change that produces wide susceptibility to the new language of government entitlement.
To be blunt about it, the United States is no longer a “center-right” nation. Our goal must be understood not as “preserving” constitutional liberty but recovering it.
A majority of Americans now think that soaking the rich is fair and just public policy. In the 2012 presidential election, 52 percent of voters preferred a candidate who would raise taxes on the rich, while only 34 percent preferred candidates who opposed all new taxes.
What this means is that conservatives are not losing elections because of mistakes on campaign tactics or “messaging.” We are losing because the ground has shifted. We are in a new game, with new rules, and the rules are Saul Alinsky’s rules, not Horatio Alger’s. Unless conservatives adapt to this new reality, they will continue to lose ground.
This does not mean this condition is irreversible. What it means is that the tea party and all constitutionalists must become more sophisticated and more creative in the language of political education and public debate. “Limited government” means something to conservatives who have studied history, but it is not a slogan or a rallying cry that moves soccer moms or unemployed blue-collar workers.
What all this means is not that conservatives should abandon their principles. It does mean that conservatives and constitutionalists have to bring their principles down to earth and into the living rooms and into the everyday lives of ordinary folks.
The new battlefield is not over public policy; it is over the ground rules for public policy. In a word, it is a battle for our culture.