by Whitney Pitcher
I started writing this post about two weeks ago. In light of this post at Legal Insurrection today (which I encourage you to read) about low information voters and how we as conservatives should reach out to them , I thought I should finish it. I’m going to stray from my typical writing style with this post and get a little bit personal by sharing a bit about my life politically prior to 2008. I don’t want this post to be about me, and I apologize if this post ends up being a bit long. I’m just a Midwestern rube with a blog. I just want to use my recent past as a case study of sorts.
I was born into a middle class farming family to conservative parents during Reagan’s first term. My parents were your typical Republican voters. They weren’t super involved in elective politics, aside from my mom serving as an election judge during most elections. Most of my formative years were during the Clinton administration, whom my parents didn’t particularly like. They even named one of our cats Clinton because, as my dad would say, “one more thing and he’s out!”. Clinton also happened to be our first black cat. I was involved in student government in junior high and high school, but I didn’t really pay any attention to politics at any other level, aside from once helping stuff envelopes for a family friend running for county board .
The first election I could vote in was in 2002. I voted primarily because my mom always said growing up, ” if you don’t vote, you can’t complain”. I didn’t necessarily want to complain, but I did feel like I should vote, even if I didn’t really know who I was voting for. I do remember voting for the GOP nominee for governor in 2002 primarily because my parents were Republican. During the 2004 general election, I was a senior in college. My political knowledge was confined to headlines in the school newspaper, brief news segments I would occasionally catch watching TV, and whatever my professors would talk about. Since I was a microbiology major, my professors didn’t talk much about politics, aside from a 20th century American history professor who spent a big chunk of each class bashing Bush about Iraq. In that election, I ended up voting to re-elect President Bush, and I voted for Barack Obama for Senate. The little bits I picked up about John Kerry showed to me he was a flip flopper, and I appreciated how President Bush handled 9/11 which happened during my freshman year in college. When it came to the Senate race, I was aware that the GOP’s original nominee was gone and they had brought in a candidate from out of state to replace him–Alan Keyes. I didn’t really know anything about Keyes, but I didn’t understand why the GOP had to go out of state to find a new candidate, so I voted for Obama. In 2006, I was getting a master’s degree in community health. Most of my professors sympathesized with universal health care policy, and me, being at the time, naive and easily persuadable, agreed. So, in 2006, rather than vote for Blagojevich or the GOP candidate, Judy Baar Topinka, I voted for the Green Party candidate who believed in universal health care as public policy. Plus, his last name was Whitney, and my first name was Whitney. I thought that was cool.
You don’t have to register with any particular party in Illinois, so when the 2008 primaries rolled around, I toyed with the thought of voting for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary because I thought it was cool that a woman was running. Ultimately, I decided to vote in the Republican primary and voted for John McCain, mostly because as a short, grey haired veteran in his seventies, he reminded me of my grandpa. I didn’t pay attention to the election again until Senator McCain picked Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate. I thought it was cool that he picked a woman, and I had caught enough of the news to know that she was a runner, former high school point guard, and a flutist (all the things I was too). I decided to catch her VP nomination acceptance speech on TV, and I was impressed. It was the first political speech that I had watched in its entirety. I started to pay attention to politics that election. I’d catch a few interviews or clips of rallies. I kept hearing this phrase, “energy independence”, but I had no idea what it meant. I began to learn more about Governor Palin’s record of taking on corruption and being fiscally responsible. She was the opposite of the Illinois politicians I typically ignored. She spoke in ways that made sense to me.
Following the election, I began to read because politics began to intrigue me. I happened to catch a segment on FoxNews that S.E. Cupp was on, and it highlighted her book Why You’re Wrong about the Right. She put aspects of conservatism into a language and a format that I could understand by weaving in cultural references and quotes from athletes. I don’t always agree with her now, but I’m grateful for that book because it spoke conservatism at a level that met where I was at the time. Now, I feel that I’m a reasonably informed voter who is now a political junkie. It wasn’t because Sarah Palin was well versed in explaining the nuances of the Fed’s interest rates or the geopolitical history of the Middle East; it was because she spoke of conservatism in concepts that were relatable in my everyday life.
In his recent speech at the National Prayer breakfast, Dr. Ben Carson noted that Jesus spoke in parables and how that was an effective teaching mechanism. I’m very hesitant to mix politics and religion, but I do think that if one is trying to reach people on an ideological level, be it with religion or with politics, relating those concepts to their audience’s daily lives and culture is effective. Jesus spoke to those who weren’t of the religious establishment be using parables about farming, fishing, and weddings. Good political communicators– the Reagans and Palins–do the same thing. They use rhetoric that speak to their audience. This seems like a very basic thing, but it is important. Often it’s the most rhetorically wonkish politicians who get the most praise. They may be very smart, but their approach doesn’t resonate with everyday Americans.
It’s not just the language conservatives use that makes a difference. It is the platform that we use. This is what makes Governor Palin prescient with her use of Facebook and Twitter and for and her family’s involvement in TV shows aside of the political commentary. She knows as she noted in her interview with Breitbart following her decision to not renew her contract with Fox, ” we can’t just preach to the choir”. It may be taking the GOP more time to see that she is right 99.9% of the time, but at least hopefully people are truly grasping it. We may mock Buzzfeed for having posts featuring 10 cats who look like Lady Gaga or the top 20 quotes from Full House, but low information voters eat that stuff up. It’s a part of culture now. This is why sites like Twitchy and Breitbart (especially Big Hollywood) are important because they push back against the cultural narratives, but they also engage the culture. There is a great opportunity for us to do even more though, as the Legal Insurrection post suggests, but we first have to fully realize that it is important. This doesn’t mean we abandon our principles. We must continue to embrace them. We don’t try to make a bigger tent by driving the stakes of the tent into swampy, unstable ground. That will only make the tent collapse, no matter how many people are inside. We make the tent bigger by making it attractive to enter, and for low information voters, this means that we meet them where they are politically and culturally. This does not mean all will choose to enter, but we do want to make conservatism attractive to them. Again, not by changing conservatism, but by making our message appealing.