Bringing what is said in private into the open.
Blue America’s Messaging Problem
Fighting the impulse for national divorce with spousal abuse
On December 19, 2021—less than a week before Christmas—the Biden White House issued a statement containing the following extraordinary sentence, which astonished even the Administration’s harshest critics and alarmed many inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt:
For the unvaccinated, you’re looking at a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families, and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm.
It’s rare to employ this kind of undiplomatic language even against America’s global adversaries. Against American citizens? Hence so many shocked and angry responses.
But few should have been surprised. Blue rhetoric toward Red America—unquestionably the target of the above outburst—has been unrelentingly punitive since at least 2015, and increasingly so in recent months. As one illustration, when offered the opportunity to “walk back” the above statement, the White House doubled down, and its media allies followed suit. Clearly, they’re committed to this kind of talk. To what end, we shall see below.
Political Messaging 1.0
Time was, a political “message” was crafted to appeal to people: either to the broadest possible majority (think FDR in ’32, LBJ in ’64, Nixon in ’72 and Reagan in ’84) or to a committed base that can eke out a narrow victory (G. W. Bush, twice, Obama’s reëlection, and Trump in 2016).
A good message may be positive, negative, or—like Biden’s in 2020—both: “I’m not Trump” and “Let’s get back to normal.” (A message does not have to be truthful to be effective.) In fact, political consultants generally agree that a dual message—why I’m great and the other guy is awful—works best. But they also emphasize that the positive one—what I’m going to do for you—is more important than the negative: what the other guy will do to you. A negative message by itself typically leads to defeat.
Broadly speaking, consultants recognize two kinds of “messaging problems”: no message, and a bad message. As to the former, there’s Hillary Clinton in 2016. She was clearly animated by no issues, no burning concerns except her own lust for power. For a bad message, look no further than Terry McAuliffe’s 2021 campaign for Virginia governor. Highlights include telling parents they should have no say over their children’s education and asserting that one of the state’s great crises is too many white teachers; i.e., mounting a direct assault on his party’s key constituency.
One type of message consultants never discuss is the negative message aimed at those whose votes you’re ostensibly trying to win. Call it: here’s how I plan to screw you. This would seem to be, in political terms, the quintessence of the “bad message”: not merely ineffective but downright counterproductive.
Yet this is Blue America’s consistent message for Red. One may reply that since no Blue politician honestly seeks any Red votes, the observation is inapt. But elite Blues are seeking something from Reds. Not votes, to be sure—they know that Red votes are immaterial to Blue success—but acquiescence. Acceptance. Quietude. Compliance. Obedience. Fealty. Even gratitude. And they’re trying to catch Red flies not with honey but with oceans of vinegar.
We Need to Talk
There has been, lately—and mostly but not entirely from the Right—a great deal of talk about some form of separation, ranging from the late Angelo Codevilla’s call for “radical federalism” to David Reaboi’s bolder proposal for “national divorce.” The latter, obviously, would split the Union but the former is designed to keep it together, by reducing domestic tensions that presently threaten to tear it apart.
The responses from Blues to both proposals were instantaneous, furious, and uniform: Hell, no! and How dare you! Under no circumstances may Reds have any degree of independence, self-determination, or control of their collective destinies. We know what would happen then: “the accelerated subjugation of women and people of color in a new, adjacent Red America,” the rejection of climate orthodoxy, and endless attacks from our religious zealot neighbors. Ed Kilgore, the author of this admirably frank screed, concludes even more bluntly:
I won’t let you go. I have no illusions of compromises yet untried or “third ways” left unexplored. So let’s have it out right here in America as peacefully as we can manage. Perhaps if we continue to battle for control of our common country, one side or the other might win a popular mandate to exercise real power and change the facts on the ground, breaking the perpetual stalemate. If not, then let’s consider the wisdom of those who crushed the Confederacy in the belief that the misery of political conflict is better than the literal civic death of national disunion. [Emphasis in the original.]
Won’t let you go … have it out right here … battle for control … exercise real power and change the facts on the ground … misery of political conflict … and, the coup de grace, crushed. You will stay in this marriage forever whether you like it or not and do what you’re told.
Rebecca Solnit likens Red reluctance to accept the Blue agenda to a dam that will inevitably be breached, with everything on the other side overwhelmed and washed away. She charitably admits that, therefore, Red fears are warranted in the sense that their direst predictions are fated to come true—but also illegitimate, because they deserve what’s coming to them. “Birth can be violent and dangerous,” she concludes, “and sometimes one or the other of the two involved die,” leaving little doubt as to who will be sacrificed in the emergence of coast-to-coast Blutopia.
Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Accentuate the Positive?
By contrast, Blue elites don’t hesitate to promise their own followers candy and flowers: universal health care, universal preschool, universal free college, universal basic income, free housing, student debt forgiveness, the Green New Deal, mask and vax mandates, decriminalization of everything except entering the Capitol without first getting a tour pass, etc.—all the stuff romantic lefty dreams are made of. They’ve come through only on the latter two, and don’t seem close to making good on the others. But from the perspective of messaging, that’s irrelevant. The point is, Blue voters (and camp followers) hear a positive message.
What is the positive Blue message for Reds? What do Blue elites promise to Middle America—even things they have no intention of delivering? How do they try to convince the Heartland that the coastal agenda will benefit them?
I hear only crickets—apart, perhaps, from occasional rhetorical appeals to the “middle class.” Which are immediately undercut, indeed belied, by Blue elites’ constant attacks on whites, who still make up the bulk of what’s left of that class, by their fanatical adherence to an environmental agenda that kills Red jobs and jacks up living expenses, and also by their woke-left vanguard’s shrill insistence that “middle class” as a category is inherently exploitive and oppressive.
Bill Clinton and (to a lesser extent) Barack Obama together won four national elections in part by convincing millions of flyover Americans that they had their best interests at heart. Clinton promised them cheaper health care, higher wages, less crime, and welfare reform; Obama, even cheaper health care, infrastructure, extrication from Iraq, and better race relations.
Joe Biden sort of attempted something similar. But the incoherence of his 2020 campaign rhetoric illustrates the present problem. On the one hand, Biden (or his handlers) tried to campaign as the sensible alternative not just to the allegedly unstable Trump but to the fringes of the Democratic Party. It’s me—or Orange Man to my right, or else the socialist Bernie or the vituperative Fauxcahontas way off to my left. But the other part of Biden’s message was crafted to appease the woke left at every turn: “structural racism,” “mostly peaceful protests,” Jussie told the truth, Medicare for illegal immigrants, full speed ahead with transgenderism, etc.—to which, as president, he has added such unifying gems as “21st century Jim Crow,” “greatest threat to our democracy since the Civil War,” and the like.
How Dare You?
The Democratic Party and its intellectuals try to make a distinction between “anti-whiteness” and “anti-white,” the former being legitimate, necessary opposition to entrenched privilege and racism, the latter being the kind of hatred of actual people that nobody, of course, could ever countenance. Except it’s hard, conceptually or rhetorically, to separate the two. The very suffix “-ness” presupposes some category or quality to which it’s applied. If there can’t be “whiteness” without whites, how, logically, can one be against the former but for—or at least not hostile toward—the latter?
They don’t have a coherent answer to this question. Part of the practical point seems to be to distinguish what John Derbyshire calls goodwhites from badwhites. Only the latter are infected with “whiteness,” or at least refuse to repudiate it. The former, though still white, feel sufficiently guilty about that and are eager to be good “allies” by making amends.
But none of this matters for present purposes. The point under consideration is: what do badwhites hear? What’s the message of “Critical Race Theory”—which, as we know, (a) doesn’t exist, (b) is only the routine teaching of accurate history, and (c) is absolutely crucial to fairness and justice in contemporary education?
Here’s what they hear: you (and your children) are evil because of your race, because of what your ancestors did or are alleged to have done—and for what you have done and continue to do. Even if you think you’re innocent, at the very least you benefit from a system designed to help you unfairly at the expense of others. And, let’s face it, you’re not innocent. You may not be able to name your specific sins—the guilty always insist they’re innocent—but just ask us; we’ll tell you. There’s no way for you or your progeny to escape this guilt or discharge your debt. You earned none of what you have. Everything you believe you or your ancestors built, you didn’t. Either that, or your “accomplishments” are merely cogs in an oppressive system and must be entirely remade. Your heroes were in fact villains. Their statues must come down and anything memorializing them renamed. There is nothing in your past of which to be proud, only ashamed. Your proper place in the new order is one of permanent penance and subservience. And your refusal to confess is further evidence of your guilt.
Rarely is the “argument” stated so directly or concisely. But the logic of every woke discourse—from Twitter flame-wars at the low end to the mega bestsellers of Coates and DiAngelo at the “high”—all lead inevitably in this direction. To see that, all one need do is dare them to deny it. Try getting a wokester to say, “White people aren’t uniquely and inherently evil” or “the United States is no longer structurally racist” and report back on how it goes.
Against any other demographic group, such rhetoric and tactics would be condemned as proto-genocidal. But anti-white venom not only gets a pass; the person who points it out is condemned and even canceled—cancellation being, like Critical Race Theory, another thing the official narrative insists doesn’t exist. What both tactics have in common is effectiveness at rallying the woke masses to preserve elite power. But they also risk rousing the retrograde domestic enemy, who might be provoked to organize in opposition. That cannot be allowed, and so the perceived threat must be denied and dismissed with vehemence—even as it continues to be made in order to rally ruling class shock troops. This is the core reason for the ubiquitous spectacle of simultaneous affirmation-denials. The ruling class needs to say both, for entirely different, but equally necessary, reasons.
Blue America’s message problems don’t stop there. The remainder boil down to the ruling class’s stance on democracy—both with respect to specific issues and to the overarching concept itself.
As to the former, Blues insist that any policy Reds want that Blues don’t is ipso facto illegitimate, or worse. Border wall? Workplace enforcement? Skills-based immigration? All not merely unacceptable, but “racist” and evil. Tariffs or some form of protection for American workers and industries? Unacceptable, unworkable, economically illiterate—and also racist, if only because everything Reds want is. Ditto the Red desire to stop fighting endless, pointless, winless war and to reduce America’s overseas commitments. Strategic folly, a betrayal of allies and of our “core values,” collusion with our enemies, even “treason.” (And, of course, it’s racist to doubt the efficacy or strategic value of democracy wars in the Third World.)
It’s important to understand, lest one fall into a common Blue propaganda trap, that these policy positions favored by millions of Reds are not “conservative” as that term has been understood for at least a generation. The “conservatives” have consistently supported open, or at least lax, borders, rigid free trade, and ground troops wherever a single Islamic extremist might wistfully contemplate striking the West. As for the slander that these positions are somehow “far right,” one need only be over 40 to remember a time when Democrats were the party of protectionism and peace, when even Bill Clinton and the New York Times professed support for limiting immigration.
Suddenly all that is not merely unacceptable; it’s fascism. Blue America makes very clear to Red: you deserve and will get none of this. There will be no compromise. You are evil merely for wanting it, much less voting for it. Should you manage, against our every effort and precaution, to elect people who threaten to enact these things, we will be justified in “resisting”—i.e., blocking implementation by any means necessary—to protect “our democracy.”
On New Year’s Day, the New York Times—arguably the most powerful institution of any kind in America—thundered that all opposition to the Blue agenda is violent insurrection. Hilariously, the Times intones that a “healthy, functioning political party faces its electoral losses by assessing what went wrong and redoubling its efforts to appeal to more voters the next time.” Really? Was that the Democratic response to 2016? Or that of Stacey Abrams and all her supporters—none of whom, including the vice president of the United States—has ever conceded that she lost in 2018?
But the rest of the editorial makes clear that no Democratic loss nor Republican win is ever legitimate. When we win, that’s “democracy.” When you “win,” that’s “authoritarianism.” This is the view not just of the New York Times but of the constellation of elite American institutions and Blue true believers, very much including the entire Democratic Party, for whom the Times speaks.
Democratic superlawyer Marc Elias—father of the Russia hoax and instrumental player in changing the rules of the 2020 election midstream—has “predicted” that, should Republicans win back either house of Congress in 2022, a litigation effort will be mounted to prevent members from taking their seats. The pretext would be Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, included to prevent literal Confederates from serving after the Civil War. “Insurrectionists,” you see, are ineligible. Who gets to determine who counts as an “insurrectionist”? Here’s one clue: not the people who vote for them.
It’s tempting to call “democracy” meaningless in today’s parlance. Except it has a meaning: the opposite of what its dictionary entry says. “Democracy” now means not the rule or sovereignty of the people but the fiat of elites and “experts.” When the people can be persuaded, duped, or bullied into ratifying expert insistence, so much the better. That extra pretense of legitimacy helps quiet and discredit dissent. When they can’t, no matter. The “right thing” will be done, come what may, and that too is “democratic” under the new meaning. The cloyingly disingenuous phrase “our democracy” really means “their oligarchy.” Reds are not included—except as subjects.
Like converts who, in their zeal, become more Catholic than the pope (admittedly, not hard to do with this pope), none are more aggressive or uncompromising in promoting the Blue message than ex-“conservatives.” Case in point: in a widely noted September op-ed, longtime neoconservative fixture and now Blue enforcer Robert Kagan declared that the only legitimate posture for Republicans going forward is complete acquiescence to the elite-leftist-Democratic agenda. From “government spending” to “defense” to “immigration” to “the persistent covid-19 pandemic” to ”election reform” to the filibuster, the message is the same: give us everything we want or you will be fomenting “mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves.”
We may indeed be drifting toward such terrible things. But it’s reasonable to ask: who’s more responsible for that drift? Those demonizing half the country and telling them that it’s our way or the highway, and if you object, you’re a Confedero-Nazi? (Perhaps unaware of Godwin’s Law, Kagan actually includes a Hitler comparison.) Or those who, unsurprisingly, object to being constantly called Confedero-Nazis and told that their role in our civic life is to get nothing and like it?
In another widely-noted essay, by another prominent ex-Con, David Brooks sermonized that “To be conservative on racial matters is a moral crime.” He did not specify what, exactly, constitutes conservatism-on-racial-matters. Jim Crow? Nearly all conservatives and Trump supporters would agree that state-imposed racial segregation is a moral crime; I add the qualifier “nearly” only because, as with anything, there must be an outlier somewhere. But if he’s out there, he has precisely zero voice in national affairs. To the contrary, the existence of an open, vocal racist would be a godsend to Blue elites, who insist racism is everywhere but consistently have trouble finding any. This is one reason why, for instance, disgraced buffoon Richard Spencer, with his faux-Adolf haircut, is still allowed 70,000 Twitter followers. The Narrative requires fascists, and better an Nth-gen mimeograph of a Klansman than their complete absence.
To most on the right today, “to be conservative on racial matters” means treating people equally, impartial enforcement of the laws, and no negative discrimination or favoritism, either for individuals or groups. This is, in fact, the heart of the American creed that Brooks (and so many other “conservatives”) once claimed to revere. But now he calls it a “moral crime.” Let the impact of those two words sink in. You are not merely misguided but immoral, and your transgression is not merely an error, nor even a mistake made in bad faith, but a crime. You are an immoral criminal for disagreeing with me, say the very same people who lecture us on civility and accuse us of divisiveness.
From their point of view, it makes sense. If everything Reds want is wrongheaded, immoral, even evil, how could it be any other way? How does a moral person compromise with evil? As the editor of the magazine where Brooks’s screed appeared sermonized, you can’t. The Republican Party’s “most recent, and most catastrophic, turn—toward authoritarianism, nativism, and conspiracism—threatens the republic that it was founded to save … [its] leaders … are attempting to destroy the foundations of American democracy,” bringing us “closer than most of us ever thought possible—to losing not only our democracy, but what’s left of our shared understanding of reality.”
You Can’t Live Without Me
I am tempted to agree with Goldberg (though not for the reasons he thinks) that left and right, Blue and Red, no longer share a common understanding of reality. But that only intensifies the urgency of the question: why are we still together? Especially from the Blues perspective: why not just let the baddies go? If not in a “national divorce,” then at least through “radical federalism”?
Blues have an especially hard time answering this one. It’s not obvious why anyone would insist on living, forever, with people she vehemently insists are despicable, are born irredeemably rapacious, racist, and oppressive, and can never reform. Yet nothing more quickly drives a Blue to mouth-frothing rage than the mere suggestion that the two sides of the partisan divide try to put some distance between one another. “How dare you!” they shriek. “You are an insurrectionist! You are fomenting civil war!”
Indeed, whole websites and a vigorous Twitter cult exist to identify, and denounce without argument or attempted rebuttal, expressions of Red dissatisfaction, as if simply pointing to the offending thought is enough to discredit it. Want the feds and/or their corporate partners to back off a bit? Saying so is sedition.
One especially amazing feature of our time is the clear astonishment of those who unremittingly spew hatred when their hatred returns disdain. They seem honestly to expect to be loved and are hurt that they aren’t. Somehow their own sense of self-worth as Reds’ natural superiors is tied to Red affirmation; they are, in a sense, slaves to the good opinion of those they despise.
Winston Churchill famously had nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. Blue America offers to Red nothing but scorn, contempt, hatred, insult, humiliation, calumny, outsourcing, open borders, layoffs, lower wages, opioids, losing wars, censorship, trumped-up treason accusations, surveillance, anarcho-tyranny, pre-trial detention, mask mandates, lockdowns, Critical Race Theory, and cancellation. And then not only gets enraged when Red America objects, but demands Red reverence and gratitude in return.
This is a winning message only insofar as our system no longer retains any of its formerly democratic character. No one on the receiving end of what Blue America consistently dishes out to Red ever votes for that.
But it’s clear that Blue America is not really trying to win over Red. Rather, its aim is to rally its side to permanent offense (in part to avoid infighting) and to guilt Reds into lying down and taking it.
The real Blue messaging problem, then, is that the logic of their rhetoric tends in the direction of … let’s call it “eliminationism,” whether by peaceful or other means. That the Blue’s leading spokespersons realize this is evidenced by their frequent tortured explanations for why their rhetoric does not really mean what it sounds like it means. Did we say we want to extirpate “whiteness”? That’s utterly and completely different from wanting to do anything bad to actual white people, and how dare you say otherwise, racist!
The reigning prince of American intellectuals, Ibram X. Kendi, recently bellowed that white uneasiness over woke rhetoric is only further proof of white racism. It’s ridiculous for whites to think they have anything to fear. No one wants to kill them—even though they deserve it, and know they do:
White supremacists probably fear revenge, retaliation, the tables turning—as they wipe the blood of democracy, of equality, of the dying and dead off their hands. Like the enslavers of old sleeping with guns under their pillows, they know the level of brutality they have leveled against people of color and their white allies.
But whites should nonetheless relax:
Indigenous anti-racists just want their land back and aren’t genocidal; … Black anti-racists just want reparations and don’t want to enslave; … Asian anti-racists just want to be visible and don’t want to render white people invisible; … Latino and Middle Eastern anti-racists just want to flee violence and don’t want to invade predominantly white nations.
Land, money, “visibility” (whatever that is), and perpetual free passage into the United States. The word for this is “expropriation.”
Expropriation has never, to my knowledge, been a winning political message with its targets. At any rate, there are two ways to do it: steal from the living, or from the dead. Supposing we take Kendi’s word that he and his allies have no intention of killing anyone; that means they’ll need to steal from the living. That may work, for a bit, if large sections of the country can be bullied into believing they deserve it. But for how long? When people know they are working for others—and who hate them to boot—how productive can they reasonably be expected to be?
We must rule you, punitively, forever—and if you so much as complain, you are literally Hitler. All shall love me and despair.
That is Blue America’s message to Red. Whether or not it can succeed, and for how long, are the core political questions of our time.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.