Strong But Wrong: The Conservative Story

January 18, 2009 at 2:47 pm

Conservatives have argued for years that it is better to be strong and wrong, than weak and right. Recent events may put this notion to the test.

One thing I will have to admit, however, is that the conservative story is strong.

This story is, I believe, the main reason some 58 million people still voted for John McCain despite the Bush presidency.

Conservatives are down right now because of recent events, but if the rest of us are ever to truly forge a long term government that is “by the people and for the people,” we are going to need a story that is just as compelling.

This is what led me to look at what makes the conservative story powerful.So sit back and relax. Don’t judge while we look at how conservatives were able to sway 58 million people to their point of view despite overwhelming evidence that their core beliefs have driven the economy off a cliff.

Simple.This is the first principle in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath.At the heart of the conservative story is personal responsibility and the self-made man – Ben Franklin if you will.

In bare bones form the narrative goes like this:

  • If you work hard, you will become successful

Who could disagree? No one disagrees with hard work and personal responsibility. Part of what makes the conservative story so convincing is that it starts with simple premises which speak to seemingly common values.

Other principles which form the spine of conservative thought:

  • Limited government
  • The “free market”
  • Traditional values and morals
  • Strong defense

In the conservative story, the role of the government is to create and foster the “free market.”

Most conservatives I know can tell you in less than a minute what they stand for and it will be some version of the above principles.

Now, I know I’m paraphrasing here and not all conservatives believe these exact things, but I think I’ve managed to state the core principles.

Note how simply these principles are stated and consistently restated in conservative arguments.

Let’s look at a randomly selected National Review article. Pulling up the website, the first thing that grabbed my eye was Frank Lowry’s Do We Really Want Another New Deal?.

In the article, Lowry writes “FDR had failed to foster a business climate strong enough for recovery.”

There it is. He states it as a negative, but it still comes through. The primary role of the government is to foster a strong business climate. Simple.

Unexpected.The second principle is unexpectedness. Ann Coulter pioneered the use of this principle. Her hypothesis was that if you can get liberals angry, you win. So she deliberatively made provocative statements.

Looking at Lowry’s article, his hypothesis that the New Deal didn’t pull us out of the Depression is unexpected because it goes against what has been established as historical fact.

But he has your attention.


Lowry’s article lets us down in terms of concrete details. But the conservative story typically features many concrete stories about individuals to help make the story believable.

The most recent obvious example is Joe the Plumber.

The Obama campaign focused a proposed tax cut for 95% of Americans. The plan was to offer a plan to broadly appeal to most Americans. To counter this, conservatives would either have to argue that they were against this plan that has popular appeal or find a way to explain their opposition in a different way.

Joe the Plumber explained that he wanted to purchase a business that made $250k a year and was worried that he would be taxed more as part of the upper 5%.

The conservative story became that the Obama plan was going to penalize those who worked hard to get into that upper 5%.

His personal story added concreteness to an otherwise more abstract argument. Here was a normal, blue-collar worker who felt the tax plan was against his best interests.


People have certain expectations depending on who is speaking. Credibility is assigned based on experience, education, familiarity, etc.Different weights would be given to articles appearing in a newspaper versus those in The National Enquirer.

Conservatives have spent a great deal of time making their arguments credible. They have invested in business schools to develop their ideology, sponsored chairs at prestigious universities, claimed bias in newspapers to seat more conservatives, and sponsored science that supports their beliefs.

Lowry, in his article, uses two methods to increase his credibility. First, he claims that the “Left has admitted that the New Deal in fact did not—as all Americans learned in their schoolbooks—end the Great Depression.

“Second, he cites another conservative author, Jim Powell.

Third, he cites an article from two UCLA economists Harold L. Cole and Lee E. Ohanian: The Great Depression in the United States from a Neoclassical Perspective.

These three “outside” sources make his article more credible.

Looking closely, however, credibility is probably the weakest area of the article. Nowhere does Lowry cite a reference to his claim that “the Left” has admitted the New Deal did not end the Depression. It is simply an assertion.

Jim Powell works for the CATO Institute, a conservative think tank.Lowry also avoids an entire library of work from scholars discussing how the New Deal helped end the Depression and instead focuses only on 2 UCLA professors who published a paper supporting his conclusions.

His article could gain credibility were he able to explain other viewpoints and how his view is different. Credibility tends to be the weak point in the conservative story, but conservatives have recognized that most people don’t have time to investigate and dig deeper.

This is why conservative articles typically have what I will call the “air of credibility.” They will cite one or two academics with the same views, a conservative think tank study or author, and then use these sources to make their assertions sound more valid.

Often, this is all that is needed, however, as who has time to do more than the most preliminary of research.


Lowry does a great job in turning the emotional dial in his story to fear and self-interest.

“Should he [Obama] demonize investors?” he asks. “Should he triple taxes, hiking excise taxes on common consumer goods and imposing an entirely new payroll tax on employment?”

Translation: If Obama rolls out an assistance program, bad things are going to happen.

These two emotions seem to be the most often used in the conservative story.

The standard line goes something like this: X is trying to stop you from being successful. They are going to take your money and give it to someone else. You are under attack! DEFEND YOURSELF! (See also: Conservatives and Their Enemies.)

Powerful stuff.

The only worry for conservatives is that they have used this line so many times, it may be starting to sound a little dated. Perhaps this is why a story that appealed to hope instead of fear gained more traction during the 2008 election.


Since Barry Goldwater, conservatives have done a great job refining their story to the point where it has tremendous staying power.

They have been able to build their story by financing think tanks such as The CATO Institute, arguing for equal time in academia and in the media, and by promoting business schools as an alternative to a traditional liberal arts education.

If “we the people” are to build a lasting and sustainable movement that goes beyond the Conservative/Liberal dichotomy, we are going to need an equally powerful story.