The only organ to which secular progressive political activists make little appeal these days—one could consider it America’s only understimulated organ—is the cerebrum. The brain. But when progressives do appeal to voters’ rationality, they wisely do so more primarily through story than through argument.
Yet, unfortunately, the progressive story is a “story” not only in the sense of a narrative but also in the sense of a lie. It is not based in reality and does not achieve what it promises. For that reason, over the next four years, American conservatives must out-narrate the political left.
Central to being human is the reality that our lives are shaped by some narrative of the world. We interpret and make sense of our lives through stories. We are more immediately and intuitively affected by narrative than by linear argument. This is not a glitch in our wiring, but a God-given expression of our humanity. If God is personal, as Scripture vouches that he is, our world is already a storied world.
Secular progressivism compels many people today, in large part, because for the last few decades, they have “out-storied” conservatives. The progressive story goes something like this: “We are compassionate and conservatives are not. We are progressive and conservatives are oppressive. We are open and conservatives are closed.” This leaves conservatives in the unenviable position of being seen as cold-hearted, oppressive, and closed-minded. Which most conservatives are not.
The progressive narrative ascribes redemptive status to those persons in society who have most achieved their “potential”: judges, social scientists, bureaucrats, professors. They believe that these redeemers can draw upon their reservoir of brilliance to create a new and better social order, replete with freshly minted and just cultural institutions.
The progressive story is inspiring. It is also misleading, disappointing, and untrue. In reality, the implementation of the left’s vision has practically shuttered the humanities, paralyzed society with the policing of language, and derailed a coherent foreign policy.
Most conservatives would happily agree that the progressive narrative tells lies about reality. However, we should temper our self-congratulatory rejoicing. Yes, the progressive story is false. But the conservative story has too often been uninspiring. We haven’t usually been able to cohere around a substantive and inspiring narrative. President Trump was a storyteller, a major reason he won in 2016. Yet, his narrative was flawed, ironically, on identity politics.
So what should drive the conservative narrative over the next four years and into the future?
Not economics. Economics, while important, cannot be the beating heart of conservatism. I know of no “purple” voter won over by the narrative elegance of economics. Nor will the masses find themselves breathlessly inspired by trumpeting free markets. For most Americans, economic theory replaces transcendent realities of life with the yawn-inducing “invisible hand” of the market. Our story must be respectful of free markets, but it cannot be anchored in economics.
Not small government. Small government may be a traditional hallmark of conservatism, but it cannot be conservatism’s heart. After all, some of the “big” aspects of government are not bad in-and-of themselves (many conservatives are quite happy to speak in favor of FEMA and ICE, are they not?). There are compelling reasons to keep government limited. But one is wrong to think small government is the solution for today’s most pressing social and cultural issues.
What, then? What inspirational conservative story can transcend economic theory and political science?
Order—in the state and in the soul.
Whereas progressivism eschews the transcendent moral order of Western civilization; whereas the left’s story assumes that human nature is malleable and that society’s best social managers can help us make a great leap forward; and whereas progressives think the great leap forward will involve revolutionary actions that clear society’s decks and create new and ideal cultural institutions; the conservative narrative must beg to differ.
At the heart of our civilizational order must be the recognition of a transcendent moral order, and we must ensure that we stand open to receive it. Thus, it is always and everywhere wrong to promote abortion-on-demand—the homicide of society’s weakest and most vulnerable. It is always and everywhere foolish to think that a person’s gender—his or her XX or XY identity—can be changed via hormone therapy or gender reassignment theory. It is always and everywhere ugly to demean or disadvantage an entire class of human beings—black or white, rich or poor, male or female.
This moral order also recognizes that human beings are both finite and fallen. Even society’s best managers are cognitively limited, unable to predict the unintended negative consequences of revolutionary actions that subvert our cultural heritage and seek to institute a New Order.
Moreover, these societal managers are also morally limited, unable consistently to put others’ interests before their own. Neither they nor everyday citizens possess the ability to take a great moral leap forward. “The moral limitations of man in general, and his egocentricity in particular,” Thomas Sowell wrote, “[must be] treated as inherent facts of life, the basic constraint in [our] vision.” Political programs must, therefore, seek reform toward a realistic ideal rather than revolution in the search of the ideal reality.
The conservative story contains an element the progressive story lacks—the principle of social and cultural continuity. We must seek to preserve order in the soul and the state, and use existing institutions to do so. Nevertheless, we must constantly reform our institutions, correcting inefficiencies and injustices as much as possible, and must implement such reform in a gradual and discerning manner rather than clearing the decks of society through revolutionary action.
How must the narrative be told? By striking emotional chords, speaking in the vernacular, and using wit and humor.
First, we must take into account the heartfelt emotional concerns of everyday voters. Voters are swayed by intuition and emotion rather than reason alone. Again, this isn’t a bug in the human system. This is part of what it means to be human. We must strike emotional chords if we wish to motivate, persuade, and inspire.
Second, like President Trump did to great effect, we must use the vernacular, unfolding the conservative narrative in the language of the people rather than in the jargon of the specialists. We must avoid unnecessarily complicated economic and political arguments.
Third, we must practice the discipline of reframing issues with language and categories we choose, rather than simply answering critiques in the language and categories of our opponents. We do not help voters by ceding language to the left when we believe their terminology is tilted.
Finally, we would be well-served to put on display the fine sense of humor cultivated by some possessors of the conservative mindset, exploiting the unreality of the liberal narrative, the ineptitude of its social managers, and the negative consequences of its solutions. And even turning that humor toward ourselves, proving that conservatives can take issues very seriously while taking ourselves much less so.
Telling a great story doesn’t automatically mean society will believe it. The progressive mind often exhibits amazing resilience under the assault of logic and common sense. That is because prevailing cultural stories are not easily replaced. But if we believe in our principles, we must do more than argue for them. We must arrange these principles into a narrative that is creative and compelling.
Conservatives need this narrative. But so does our nation. Let’s make the conservative story great again.
Bruce Riley Ashford is senior fellow at the Kirby Laing Centre and author of Letters to an American Christian.