by JS O’Brien
Somewhere in the 1970s, the right had a stroke of genius.Â Cognitive theorists have long known that guilt-by-association or virtue-by-association is an effective persuasive technique.Â Tie a candidate to a scary image – like Willy Horton – and tie your own candidate to a beloved image – like the flag – and you stand a very good chance of winning.Â And if you can create a lasting negative image of your opponents by using a simple slogan (four words or less preferred, and the fewer syllables the better) that sticks, and that requires a complex argument to refute, you win.Â You win big.
Enter the phrase:Â “Tax and spend liberal.”Â The phrase is marvelous in its brevity and semantic weight.Â First off, no one likes to be taxed or pay taxes.Â “Tax” is a strongly negative word, even when we may know, on some level, that taxes are necessary to provide such services as police, fire, military, safe food, schools, and the like.Â “Spend” is also a negative word buried deeply in the American public’s psyche.Â Notice that the right didn’t call the left “tax and invest liberals,” or “collect money for necessary services liberals.”Â The word “spend” is short, to-the-point, and implies profligate behavior.Â Coupled with a secondary message attacking those who are “lazy” and on welfare – a program that was always a drop in the bucket in public spending – and the phrase was and is closely associated with taking money from hard-working Americans and giving it to the shiftless.Â Moreover, conservatives were also able to paint liberals as those who buy votes with giveaways from wealth transfer programs.
It didn’t help, of course, that there was a kernel of truth in the allegations.Â The most effective propaganda is always built on a kernel of truth buried in manure pile of big lies.
Liberals were very poor at responding to this.Â In their defense, Americans are so badly educated that they can be easily manipulated by demagogic statements like these, but that doesn’t excuse liberals’ misguided and amateurish message strategy.Â Â Some liberals tried complex messages in rebuttal and fell flat on their faces.Â Others went with the old tried-and-true strategy of offering ever more largess from government as a result of higher taxation, but the public mood had shifted strongly toward less taxation, and the strategy was clearly explained and discredited by the phrase, “tax and spend.”
The politics of giveaways wasn’t dead, however, and the conservatives understood this.Â Taking away government services takes away votes, and conservatives weren’t about to do that (remember the uproar when Newt Gingrich shut down the federal government?).Â Instead, they maintained government services while cutting taxes, effectively buying votes with tax cuts while maintaining votes with unfunded spending.Â The strategy even had a semi-intellectual underpinning in the Laffer Curve, the idea that reducing taxes leads to greater tax revenues, which it does if one is climbing the Laffer Curve.Â Unfortunately, this was not the case, and deficits increased under the conservative administrations of Regan, Bush I, and Bush II.
But what are deficits, after all?Â How can one explain to Americans the effect of burgeoning deficits on credit, dependence on foreign investment, the long-term effect of spending more and more tax dollars on servicing debt instead of on investment in infrastructure?Â I mean, the average American is voting for a president based on who he’d most like to have a beer with, right?Â The conservatives got to buy votes with tax cuts because it’s hard to attack popular things like tax cuts and maintain any political capital whatsoever.
What’s needed is a phrase all Americans will understand; a phrase that points out how badly the conservatives have been mismanaging America.Â We need a phrase that resonates with voters:
Something for nothing conservatives
It’s succinct (four words or less, remember?).Â The words aren’t inflammatory or even accusatory.Â They speak to common sense.Â Everyone knows you can’t get something for nothing, right?Â We all know that’s wrongheaded.Â The phrase allows liberals to talk about how conservatives have been buying votes by running up debt, and how that debt affects us now and will be a crushing burden for our children.Â It paints conservatives as being dishonest vote-buyers, using an entire course of action beginning in the Reagan years.Â It puts them on the defensive, and allows liberals to put forward taxes for investment in the common good while fending off the tax-and-spend labels with an equally effective slogan.
I’m going to start referring to conservatives as “something for nothing conservatives.”Â
Won’t you join me?