…Until They Know You Care

The recent election results suggest that if classical liberals,libertarians and conservatives, and free-market advocates want

From the December issue of CEI UpDate


The recent election results suggest that if classical liberals, libertarians and conservatives, and free-market advocates want to win the policy debate, we must consider a new framing of the issues that resonate with the electorate. 


People are rational. In elections, people do gain satisfaction from voting, but they also realize that only rarely will their votes be decisive. As a consequence, they spend little time educating themselves about issues.


In standard political science terms, people are “rationally ignorant.” The late political scientist (and one of my mentors) Aaron Wildavsky suggested that in this situation, a vote is not linked to any direct personal benefit, but to the cultural values one holds:


Individualism – will a candidate or policy advance or restrict my freedom?

Hierarchicalism – will a candidate or policy promote an orderly society?

Egalitarianism – will a candidate or policy make our society fairer?


The major political failure of classical liberals, I believe, is their inability to articulate any sort of egalitarian appeal. Since the progressive revolution of the early 20th century, this value has been owned by the progressive left, whose claim that they care about the people, while we (“conservatives”) only care about money, has largely gone unchallenged. Gore plugged this during his campaign: He “cared” about the little guy, the poor, the elderly, the children.


Bush, on the other hand, broke new ground with the theme of “compassionate conservatism.” Unfortunately, he never fleshed out the concept, and he blurred it with many of his own big government programs. Still, it was a start, one that Bush might well develop if he is to build alliances between Republicans and Democrats.


Part of the overall problem is that more is involved in a presidential campaign than simply providing a positive value message. A value appeal can be made positively (how electing me will advance your values) or negatively (this is how my opponent’s policy will threaten your values).


Sadly, fear often trumps hope. Gore was far better at demonizing than Bush. He made inroads into the individualist community by arguing the abortion issue (“Bush would take away your rights to choose”) and the hierarchic community (“Bush is incompetent and will run America badly”).  Gore was most effective at frightening folks–women, blacks, immigrants, the elderly–using egalitarian means. Liberal third party groups from the NAACP to NOW ran highly negative (and very effective) advertising campaigns to convince many that their values would suffer if Bush were elected.


Bush ran as the “nice” guy. He wasn’t eager to frighten the electorate about Gore, which was almost certainly a mistake. Focusing attention on Earth in the Balance, the extremist eco-catastrophe book written by our “Arch Druid,” would have shown voters their interests were threatened by a Gore presidency.


The minor candidates–Nader, Browne, and Buchanan–weren’t much better. Buchanan portrayed a complex mix of populist egalitarianism and nationalism. Nader sought to frighten people about the growing power of “bigness” (while paradoxically calling for ever more powerful government–run by whom, we might ask?). Browne never found the egalitarian voice, focusing as most libertarians do on freedom as the only value worthy of discussion.


If classical liberal ideas are ever to gain traction in America, if we wish to be taken seriously as a political change force, then we must find ways to communicate beyond our normal economic and individual liberty framework. We view freedom as an intrinsic value, and this is important. But others may be more sympathetic to freedom as an instrumental value–a way of advancing the stability and order and fairness of our society. Ideas matter. They have consequences, as Richard Weaver famously noted. So we should keep in mind that bad ideas matter too. If our side continues to accept the left-right framing of the policy debate, then we cannot possible prevail. I often say, “People don’t care what you know, until they know that you care.” If we don’t let them know that, then we might as well give up.