Last week, New York saw what could’ve been the biggest primary-election upset in recent history, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeating the number four Democrat in the House, Joe Crowley. Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old, self-identified democratic socialist, swung nearly 50 points in two weeks to unseat the 10-term incumbent in New York’s 14th district. Now, for those of us not in favor of socialism, the recent feeling of a surge in its popularity can be disheartening. Rather than sulk however, it’s important to see the positives every situation holds for your own cause, and in this case, we should be asking ourselves, what can a socialist victory teach us in our fight for freedom?
Since her victory, Ocasio-Cortez has been thrown into the spotlight, making appearances on shows like The View and receiving invites for interviews on just about every media outlet. During her interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, she was asked to define “democratic socialism”, where she said: “I believe that in a modern, moral, and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live.” It should come as no surprise that this was met with roaring applause, which, for libertarians, is our first place to learn a lesson.
Jason Stapleton often likes to say that, “in the arena of ideas, we cannot lose,” implying that we hold the truth on our side. The only problem is that, when winning requires swaying the emotionally-charged voting bloc of the American public, choosing facts over feelings at the wrong time can actually prove harmful to your chances; and knowing the time and place for it can be the difference between winning and losing. Sure, we can sit amongst ourselves and easily pick apart Ocasio-Cortez’s ridiculous answer simply by asking her to point out who in today’s society actually wants people to be too poor to live, but that does nothing to draw in interest to our own ideas. And when libertarians are asked similar questions, or even put in a corner about our unorthodox views, responding with a “what’s radical about non-violence?” can garner infinitely more attention from someone hearing our message for the first time than going into a breakdown of the Austrian business cycle theory.
I’m not saying we need to abandon our logic altogether, but libertarians have always fallen a bit short in their messaging, especially when it comes to strategy. This is partially due to libertarianism being a descriptive ethic, or simply pointing out the truth about how things are; as opposed to prescriptive, essentially claiming how things ought to be. And to an uneducated voter, that can lead to confusion and a rejection of our ideas. For example, libertarians often say that universal healthcare, when broken down, equates to theft and slavery. While this may be true, it only appeals to those willing to set emotion aside in favor of logic, which, unfortunately, appears to be the opposite of what most Americans are taught in school today. A prescriptive example could be Bernie Sanders saying, “no one should go without healthcare in the US today.” Although the latter lacks severely in actual substance, it manages to give people something to grab onto emotionally, essentially providing a hook for new audiences while also serving to lower their guard.
We can see the effectiveness of this strategy in both major parties today, too. Democrats love to pitch things like a “living wage” and healthcare as a right, as a way of appealing to the emotions of American voters. And how often do we hear them dissemble when asked to define what those mean? Yet, people attracted to that idea seem to repeat it ad nauseam anyway. And while it may be more prominent on the left, the biggest example of this technique comes from Donald Trump. His slogan of “Make America Great Again” could be the single most effective instance in recent memory. The obviously empty slogan gives republicans an idea to look forward to that is both easily digestible and impossible to disprove. Just like with Orcasio-Cortez’s empty definition of democratic socialism, you’d also be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t wish to make their own country “great” again, even though each person’s idea of great may differ widely. And that’s the attraction, it triggers a positive image in the voter’s head, and allows them to create their own specific definition. And as we can see, regardless of party, these emotional appeals work wonders by giving people an idea to cheer for that appears to be a higher cause; but in order to reach long-term success, you also need something else libertarians seem to be missing.
With each and every successful campaign, what inevitably must follow the intangible ideas are simple, concrete goals to measure success. Philosophical ideas are a good starting point to reel people in, but they’re only good for a short while. What keeps the momentum going is where the political rubber meets the road; people need something to rally behind. We saw this with Obama, where he followed up his “hope and change” idea with calls to close Guantanamo and end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Trump followed suit with his “build the wall” chants and his promises to bring back jobs. Even Bernie Sanders had his $15 minimum wage and Medicare-for-all promises. These are simple things that can give people something to work and fight for. And with the appeal to emotion starting them out, people are less likely to care if the follow-up ideas are actually workable. Did people care when we explained that Obamacare would fail, that higher minimum wages cause more unemployment, or that building the wall will be ineffective? No, because not only are they already hooked with an emotional investment, but they see themselves as the good guys either way, due in large part to the way these messages were marketed to them.
Now, which one of Gary Johnson’s slogans had any of that? Did “be libertarian with me”, “live free”, “#TeamGov” or “You in?” sound like grand ideas people will rally around? Of course not, and when you pair it with vague campaign promises of “we’re socially liberal and fiscally conservative”, or “we’ll let the market sort it out”, it’s no wonder we couldn’t even break 5% nationally against the two most unpopular candidates in modern history. On the other hand, what is it that everyone remembers from the Ron Paul campaign? End the Fed. It was everywhere. His “Restore America Now” and “Ron Paul Revolution” slogans reminded us all of the broken promises, endless wars, and out of control monetary policy we’ve come to hate, and also worked to inspire newcomers to feel like this was the moment to join and help change it. By coupling all that with the measurable goal of ending the Fed as a solution to those problems, it proved to be a center point for people to rally and organize around. And that’s exactly the kind of campaign we need again.
We’ve seen the continual success our political opponents have gotten already from these very basic strategies. If we hope to be competitive anytime soon in the political arena, we need to realize that not everyone who may come into libertarianism is going to be a rational economist who just powered through Human Action, and while having an objective, moral ethic is something that can win us arguments in the long-run, we need to “read the room” in regards to politics today, and react accordingly if we hope to stand a chance at the ballot box.