Selling a Positive Culture War Message
Politics is about not looking like a loser
It’s looking likely that entrepreneur and Strive founder Vivek Ramaswamy will soon be running for president.
I’ve long thought that the 2024 Republican nominee will be Trump, and the only way it won’t be Trump is if there’s consolidation around DeSantis. I still think it is highly unlikely it will be anyone else. That being said, I do think Ramaswamy’s coming campaign is worth thinking about, as I believe that there’s something notable about his message that others in conservative politics should pay attention to.
It looks like the campaign pitch is going to be similar to this speech recently given at Hillsdale College. Ramaswamy does one of the best jobs I’ve seen of walking a fine line, denouncing wokeness and being able to explain in clear terms why it’s bad, while also doing so in a constructive way that provides solutions and avoids being too pessimistic about the current state of American society.
Many reasons have been put forward for Republicans’ historically disappointing performance in the 2022 midterms. I’m not the first to note that this was clearly to a large extent a matter of candidate selection, as Republican politicians running on the same ticket often had major differences in results. The Republican primary system is broken, but the question is what exactly is wrong with the people it elevates. I think too much of the debate has focused on substance, like whether candidates are “too extreme,” and not enough on aesthetic factors that are more likely to influence swing voters, who generally tend to be poorly informed about policy.
One important thing to understand about politics is that the “discourse” is shaped by a tiny minority of voters. The same is true for participation in the primaries. For example, in 2020, 158 million Americans voted in the presidential election. In the Democratic primary that year, there were 37 million votes cast. Even that number exaggerates how many people meaningfully participated in the process, as the primary was mostly settled after South Carolina, or at least whittled down to a two-man race. At that point, there had only been voting or caucusing in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, and just over 1.1 million people took part. In other words, the number of voters who participated in the Democratic primary process before it came down to Biden and Bernie would be less than 2% of the number of people who voted for the Democratic nominee in the general election.
You can do the math for other elections and find a similar story, albeit with less extreme numbers. Presidential elections are weird because so much depends on the results in a handful of states. For more apples-to-apples comparisons, one can look at individual senate races, and see that, for example, in Ohio the size of the Republican primary made up about a quarter of the electorate in November.
The fact that primaries are decided by a minority of voters should be kept in mind alongside the fact that in primaries without an incumbent, the candidate who ends up winning often doesn’t even get fifty percent of the vote or anything close to it. It’s normal for a Senate candidate to be someone who received a third of the vote in a primary in which a quarter of the electorate took part.
Primary voters are one thing, but staffers, people who come to rallies, Twitter trolls, etc., are an even smaller portion of the population.
The job of people in politics should be to realize that they are a tiny, highly-selected group, rather than project their own biases onto the rest of the country. Moreover, even when they try to get real feedback from the world, the people that they interact with, including primary voters and those on Twitter, are also highly unrepresentative. To succeed, politicos need to be able to predict how a massive silent majority is going to react to their candidate or issue, yet without much help in the form of direct experience.
How does this bias our politics? I think that it makes people in politics think that the public is much angrier than it actually is. For example, here’s a poll that might surprise you, revealing overwhelming levels of support for various federal government agencies.
There is good data showing that more ideologically extreme candidates do worse than moderate candidates in elections. That’s hard to reconcile with the fact that most voters are poorly informed, which raises the question of how they know who is more or less extreme in the first place. I think one can reconcile all of this by noting that candidates don’t adopt political positions at random. Rather, it’s that more ideologically extreme candidates tend to be the angriest ones, or those that play to an angry base, and it’s the anger that voters respond to and are repulsed by.
Republicans are increasingly in their own bubble, which is why the rhetoric of the party gets crazier and more alienating to voters. Think of talk of stolen elections, using the Second Amendment to protect against tyranny, or taking the relatively minor story of a train derailment in Ohio and using it to try and stir anger at helping Ukrainians getting bombed and Turkish earthquake victims being rescued under rubble.
It’s interesting to think about how political candidates and their supporters talk compared to others who are trying to sell you something. Coke commercials usually aren’t about how bad Pepsi is, or how it is ruining your life. They don’t try to convince you the world is falling apart and Coke is the answer. Politics is of course different because it’s a zero-sum game. Coke making Pepsi less popular doesn’t necessarily help Coke, as it could just lead to people giving up on soda completely. In contrast, Republicans destroying the Democrat brand does automatically help the party achieve its goal of getting elected. But there are zero-sum markets out there, like for example, car insurance, where a set population has to get the product from a limited number of sellers. Here you do find some bashing of opponents, although it’s of a different tone than what one finds in politics, being more positive and constructive. More “we’ll save you money” than “the other guys hate you and will destroy your life.” Whatever benefits one gains from bashing a rival, they’re often offset by sending the signal that you’re a negative person who is prone to criticize others, which tends to be low status behavior.
Political messagings stand out because people in politics are probably angrier about the state of the world than most who work in advertising, which is why they became activists in the first place. In a two-party system, the side that gives in less to the temptation to indulge in its grievances is at an advantage. Right now, this is the Democrats. Republican governors do less playing to the right-wing media bubble than national politicians, which can explain why they tend to be more popular than them too. Increasing wokeness hurts the left electorally, but it’s been balanced out by the rise of grievance politics on the right — if the Republican Party of 2000 or 2010 could run against the Democrats of 2022, they’d win easily. And a major difference between the two sides is that while major Democratic politicians like Biden avoid the most extreme woke whining and are something of a moderating force in their coalition, on the Republican side the politicians are themselves pioneering new forms of grievance.
Generally, being happier and calmer in an interaction is a way to signal higher status (“u mad, bro?”). If you are going to be angry, it’s higher status to be angry over something that’s being done to someone else, rather than portraying yourself as a victim. Democrats claim the mantle of the oppressed, but the difference is in Republican messaging it’s they themselves who are the victims, because they have elections stolen from them, the media treats them unfairly, or not enough people see their tweets. Sometimes these grievances are getting at something true (and sometimes they’re completely made up), but even when they have a point these are often unseemly things for politicians to prioritize. Should political leaders really be letting people know that they pay close attention to their follower counts? It’s hard to imagine Obama or Biden doing so.
There seem to be two types of opposition to wokeness. One is simply negative and reactive, getting angry at pronoun announcements and talk of white privilege without putting these things into any larger context than “this is dumb.” This appeals to the unhappy and mentally unstable, and alienates a lot of people who otherwise share the concerns that many conservatives have. It signals “I’m a loser, the world is scary and confusing, join me too if you’re scared of what all those smart people in American cities and on university campuses are doing because it’s too hard to understand.”
The other way to oppose wokeness is to be angry at the phenomenon because it gets in the way of a more positive vision, whether that’s the Enlightenment project, national greatness, or getting to Mars. It would be nice to have commercial rocket ships and clean cities, but unfortunately misguided emotionalism and poorly aligned incentives get in the way. The high-status way to oppose wokeness runs away from conspiracy theories, which are not only false and stupid, but have the added effect of portraying one’s opponents as extremely smart, successful, and competent. High-status opposition to wokeness is not only better electorally, but will bring higher quality individuals to the cause that will be willing and able to focus on making important policy changes.
This explains why economic populism usually doesn’t do as well as many expect. Yes, people don’t understand or trust markets, so they’ll tell pollsters that they want higher taxes, more redistribution, etc. It’s challenging to make the case for those things without looking like a loser though, especially when it’s combined with culture war grievance. I have a theory that to be a successful politician, you must adopt at least one high-status posture, that is, be either socially liberal or economically conservative. If you agree with the proles on everything and combine nationalism, redistributionist policies, and social conservatism, the stench of being low status is too much to overcome, even if each one of those things might be popular in isolation.
Ramaswamy’s pitch does a good job of avoiding loser vibes while combining optimism about America, opposition to wokeness, and constructive theories about where it came from and what to do about it. He talks about ESG, not capitalism as a natural force for social revolution; the need to undo an executive order mandating affirmative action (wonder where he got that idea from?), not to fight a “deep state” cabal conspiring against Republicans; and the need for an immigration system based on merit, rather than a globalist conspiracy to flood first world countries. Again, it’s not simply that this kind of talk sells better. The conspiratorial worldview is actually incorrect, which is why it appeals to stupid and defective people in the first place.
This may not be what Republican primary voters are looking for, and even if they were the Ramaswamy campaign would still be a long shot, as he’s starting with practically no name recognition. Still, his campaign will hopefully get at least some attention, as it can provide a glimpse of what healthier anti-wokeness messaging might look like going forward.
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The problem is that finding an anti-woke positive message veers dangerously close to asking what the meaning of life is.
Wokeism smells like religion because it gives adherents an all encompassing, infinitely large mission that can absorb unlimited energies from unlimited people (at least, if you accept the axioms). It is a Meaning Of Life.
To compete with that you've got ... what? Going to Mars? Irrelevant to 99.999% of all people because Mars is cold and empty and they can't take part even if for some reason moving to an oxygen-free freezing desert sounded good. The Enlightenment Project? What does that even mean? National greatness? The best of a bad bunch but even so, it hardly means anything.
I felt for many years that at the root of a lot of social problems in our society is the realization that we're stuck here on Earth, that we explored the whole thing and that there's nowhere left to go. Why exactly are we here? What is it all for? What should we strive for? Very few politicians are willing to make a full throated pitch for technological utopianism, partly because that offers nothing to anyone who isn't a technologist and politicians rarely are. Traditionally Christianity offered answers, so discarding it has left a meaning-shaped hole that the culture war fills (but unfortunately, fills with bitterness).
Good points. I do have two questions:
1) Why do you think that South Asians (like Vivek and also Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley) seem to be more successful in American politics than East Asians, despite East Asians making up more of the population?
2) You say that social liberalism and economic conservatism are both high-status. Does that mean libertarians are the highest-status people? If so, why is the Libertarian Party not gaining much traction?