Hope and Staying the Same
Last week, President Obama ended his superlative DNC speech with “Thank you for the incredible journey. Let’s keep it going!” — a distinct contrast to the hope and change he preached on that same stage 8 years ago. Not surprising as he is now a two-term incumbent, but it signals an important shift in the traditional messages delivered by each party. Last Thursday’s message was also hopeful, but the hope of continuity — the idea that he has begun the work but needs Hillary Clinton and his party to continue it.
This time around the Republicans via Donald Trump are the change agents but hope is noticeably missing in the message, replaced by fear. Given that fear is generally at odds with change, the change Trump trumpets is not forward-looking, but rather reactionary, promising a return to an undefined and intangible glory day when things were better. It’s a bigger gamble to bet on reversing course than on shaping the road ahead — particularly for the United States who’s role in the world is so strong that it has the power to dictate what twists and turns that road may take. More importantly it puts the previously pragmatic, consistent Republicans in uncharted territory as advocates of radical measures aimed at uprooting the status quo.
Jonathan Haidt, professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business and my former Psych 101 professor at UVA, has done extensive research to generate a unique profile of conservatives and liberals based on their views concerning morality. Haidt’s research shows empirically that conservatives are less interested in new experiences and more resistant to change: they seek out stability and continuity. Conservatives across all continents, races, and cultures also have much higher regard for authority and preservation — preservation of institutions (Congress, military), preservation of history (Constitutionalist justices), and preservation of social norms (traditional marriage). They believe in the idea that a great union takes time and effort to build and any change should be heavily examined and scrutinized lest it dismantle that union. The political equivalent of measure twice, cut once. To the point about respect for authority and institutions, look to the two conventions and consider that the DNC featured more members of Congress, more former Cabinet, more law enforcement, and more military — the last two especially signaling a shift in traditional party convention themes.
The Republicans are doing their best to try and champion Trump and his upheaval rhetoric but it feels labored and disingenuous when Reince Priebus goes on Meet the Press and advocates for an “earthquake in Washington,” or Speaker Ryan takes the RNC stage and calls for a “clean break with a failed system.” Sweeping change is the province of the liberal party, as evidenced in the massive support for Bernie Sanders among the base and the vocal appreciation for his movement among the establishment — including every single DNC speaker. It’s not superficial, there is a genuine admiration for the Bernie Revolution and one can imagine a young Obama, Bill, or even Hillary joining the ranks, but the base liberal desire for revolt has given way to the pragmatism of electability — as it should in an advanced democracy whose stability means so much to the world.
The Republicans find themselves in a precarious situation now as the Democrats have expropriated the message of practicality, stability, and continuity that has always been so central to the Republicans’ voice. And the dems will, de facto, be more successful in leveraging stability the longer they retain the Presidency. If the Democrats can successfully use the message of hope to inspire liberals and simultaneously the message of stability to pull in conservatives then what do the Republicans have left?
It would appear only fear and reaction. This can work. Historically it has worked…but usually not in democracies. In democracies the conservative party generally takes power by appealing to an optimistic nostalgia, by touting sound fundamentals with the need for new leadership and incremental change. In Ronald Reagan’s 1980 convention speech, accepting his nomination, he used the word ‘change’ only once, but the word ‘renew’ seven times, while Trump was seven for ‘change’ and none for ‘renew’ — though the two words are synonyms, the difference in tone is so stark that the similarity fades. Fear and reaction generally give rise to dictatorial governments but Trump is fooling himself if he thinks things are so bad in America today that that could happen. He is trying though — all of the visuals at his campaign stops, his penchant for nepotism, his admiration of authoritarians, and of course his “Only I” moment at the RNC all carry the hallmark of an aspiring autocrat.
Despite Trump’s strongman tendencies, he is not a candidate that exudes control but rather a volatile, petty beast who can become unhinged at any time. This is in fact a selling point for Trump — his unpredictability, he claims evoking Nixon, is an asset when it comes to defeating our enemies. Trump advocates for change in a chaotic world but chaos naturally demands organization. To contrast the organization between both campaigns look again to the conventions. The DNC has been a coordinated effort with each speaker having a different role and each executing it well — Bernie the reconciler, Michelle the fellow White House mother, Bill the biographer, Kaine the folksy nice guy, Barack the grandiose Orator. The RNC was disjointed with speeches repeatedly hitting the same 3–4 themes and no clear overarching message— aside from perhaps “lock her up.”
All of this is not to suggest that conservatives will hear the talk of continuity and patriotism, see the deference for long held American institutions, and flock to the Democratic Party, but at the least it will give them pause when considering their alternative. The last time a Republican presidential candidate won the popular vote by more than two-and-a-half percent was in 1988. If the Democrats can appeal to the natural conservative proclivity for stability, even for a minor portion of moderate republicans or right-leaning independents — a group that might feel orphaned by their current nominee and message — it could be enough to cover that gap for the foreseeable future.