Thursday, June 14, 2007

Political Education v. Political Advertising

No news story this go-round. Instead, a bit of essay writing which might end up in a book project, if I ever get time to write it.

Not too long ago, the executive director of the Libertarian Party of Texas, Wes Benedict, challenged my position opposing the Libertarian Party's role as an "educational institution." In particular he pointed to the radio ads from my 2006 campaign for the state legislature: "wasn't that education?"

From its very inception, many people in the Libertarian Party, including David Nolan, the man who is generally credited with founding the party, have considered the party's primary purpose as educating the public in libertarian thought through the use of the political process. A public, once exposed to and persuaded to the libertarian philosophy, will demand libertarian-minded candidates from the two establishment parties, leading to more libertarian government.

The theory makes two assumptions: first, it presumes that actually electing people to office is either unimportant or impossible; second, it presumes that the electorate actually take their ethical, moral, and philosophical tenets from the guidance of politicians. Both are, at best, flawed. The first point ignores the fact that both Democrats and Republicans are controlled by strong private interests that have a vested personal interest in expanding government and using its power for their own benefit- and thus neither party will ever truly favor liberty and small government. The second assumption flies in the face of all historic evidence: every time a candidate has tried to indoctrinate the voters into a believe they do not share, that candidate has failed and failed miserably.

It is worth noting that Abraham Lincoln was elected on a platform of tolerating slavery in the Southern states, merely banning it in the western territories- because even a majority of Northern voters, never mind Southerners, endorsed slavery in 1860. Lincoln wanted slavery abolished and believed it was inherently wrong- but he knew he could not get elected President on a hard-line abolitionist platform. In 1856 James Fremont, the first Republican Presidential candidate, tried it and lost several vital northern states- including Lincoln's home state of Illinois.

It's also worth noting that Eugene Debs ran four times (1900, 1904, 1912, 1920) for President, in generally good economic times, on a socialist platform and lost, whereas Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran four times- the first time twelve years after Debs' last run- on a platform quite similar to Debs' during bad economic times and won. What was the difference? In bad economic times voters are willing to risk new and drastic change, but in good times the voters would rather maintain the status quo and reject radical change. The Great Depression- not Debs' campaigns, and not the long-collapsed Socialist Party- had convinced enough voters that radical government intervention was necessary that Roosevelt's policies and promises were accepted and celebrated.

By comparison, look at some examples of Presidential campaigns which attempted to indoctrinate the voters. William Jennings Bryan famously campaigned on "free silver" in 1896; what's less remembered today is that he also campaigned as a moralist, a Biblical expert,and a Prohibitionist. His famous Cross of Gold speech was a rarity in a career built more on ideology than on actual political ability. His best performance was in 1896, during an economic depression in which "free silver" was already a popular position... and yet he lost. In 1900 and 1908, years of prosperity, he did far worse.

A more recent example is that idol of far too many Libertarian Party members- Barry Goldwater. Granted, Goldwater already had two strikes against him in 1964, with his campaign effectively running against the ghost of John F. Kennedy. He didn't help his own cause by campaigning mainly to promote the idea of conservatism. Rather than persuading the public that he would better fit their ideals, Goldwater challenged the voters to change their way of thinking and turn to what Goldwater felt were the true ideals of the founders- limited government, federalism, and free enterprise. Goldwater did not merely lose, he was hammered in the election- in no small part because Lyndon Baines Johnson successfully painted Goldwater as a radical ideologue willing to do anything to support his beliefs- up to and including the use of nuclear strikes to fight the Cold War.

But, Libertarian Party hard-liners will counter, the Socialists got their platform eventually, the Prohibtionists had their own political party- do these cases not prove the success of the tactic? In a word, no. Socialism gained power due to the apparent failure of capitalism- that is, that successful capitalists work to crush the free market in favor of an economic system that keeps the rich wealthy and the poor vulnerable to economic crisis. Prohibition gained traction not by the action of a political party but by the action of thousands of religious leaders on the local level. Neither political party achieved its goals by educating the public- and both political parties, in their prime, were much more powerful and influential than the Libertarian Party has ever been.

What about advertising, then- to get back to the start of this article? There's a difference between political advertising and political education. In my two radio ads, I presented a couple of quick mentions of my opponent's actions while in office and followed with three or four of my own campaign positions. These were educational only in that they informed voters of what my platform was, as contrasted with my opponent. I designed my platform and presented it to appeal to the people in my district- tailoring moderate Libertarian positions to appear identical to the fundamental beliefs of those who would elect me. At no point in my campaign did I ever tell the voters how they should feel about anything- I only told them that, if elected, I would best represent their feelings on the issues.

Since the dawn of American politics campaigns have focused on personalities, not issues. War heroes who appear as examples of courage, leadership and commonality have always proven popular, as witness Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Dwight Eisenhower and others. William Henry Harrison won election more as the Indian fighter of Tippecanoe than as the representative of the Whig platform. Harry Truman, despite political unpopularity, won election in his own right in 1948 primarily due to his personal popularity as an honest and upright individual. Even George W. Bush, possibly the worse President on civil liberties issues of them all, won election in 2000 not because of issues but because of perceived personality traits. All of these campaigns triumphed, among other reasons, because of this strategy: convince the electorate that you, as an individual, best represent what they already believe in.

This is the proper goal of political advertising. Campaigns that portray the candidate and the party as the champion of what the public already are the norm- they're what most campaigns outside the Libertarian Party do. Campaigns that attempt to teach the electorate how they should think, that exist primarily to educate people on the issues, fail almost universally- and fail hard.

Unfortunately, for over thirty-five years the Libertarian Party has focused its efforts on running campaigns to educate and indoctrinate- not to actually get people elected. In order for liberty to survive, either this tactic must change, or else a new political party must be formed to perform the task the Libertarian Party has so miserably failed to accomplish.

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