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As Sanders and Trump Push the Right Buttons, the Liberty Movement Must Wake Up

Four years ago, Ron Paul filled stadiums with tens of thousands of people. His natural heir to those numbers – and in fact, his natural heir – is Rand Paul.

But in this presidential cycle, the huge excited audiences that are filling stadiums for an insurgent, anti-establishment presidential candidate are mostly coming to see Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

As an activist for liberty, I am pained by the failure of the similarly anti-establishment and still-largely-insurgent liberty movement to replicate either Ron Paul’s successes of four years ago, or the successes of its present political opponents – a democratic socialist, Sanders, and an I’m-not-sure-what-to-call-him, Trump. This failure arises from the movement’s consistent blind spot for strategic political communication.

There are many fundamental truths about human psychology and political strategy that the liberty movement has to learn before it can succeed. I discuss them at length in my seminars on political persuasion. This article is about only one – the one laid bare by Sanders and Trump – which is broadly captured by a rather nice quote:

“Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.”- Jose Ortega y Gasset

Recently, Bernie posted a nicely produced, animated video about economic injustice:

The first 5.5 minutes of this video simply present facts about some of the more shocking truths about wealth and income distribution – truths that disaffected Americans hear only from the Left. They are facts like…

  • Today, real median family income is $5,000 less than in 1999;
  • In the last two years, the wealthiest 15 people (that’s not a typo) in this country have seen their wealth increase by more than the total wealth of the bottom 40% of the population;
  • In the last decade, the typical middle class family has seen its wealth decline by 31%; and
  • In the last three decades, the share of the nation’s wealth owned by the bottom 90% of Americans has fallen from 36% to 23%.

These are statements that both resonate with people’s experiences and are, at first pass at least, outrageous; so they are very powerful and they cause those who hear them and care about them to gravitate to those who share them.

But these statements are as true for a libertarian or a conservative as they are for a socialist, and they are felt every bit as much by the voters that libertarians and conservatives need to court as those needed by progressives – because, obviously, we are all fighting for the same voters.

Until people start identifying these facts, which signal concern about economic justice with the liberty movement, the movement will not gain the popular traction it seeks. Until we start clearly expounding the injustices that are actually felt by millions of people, including the economic ones, those people will simply not believe we are the people with the solutions.

Put another way, if we are not regarded as the people who really understand the problem, then no one will care enough to listen to our solutions. They will not care to listen when we try to explain that most of this injustice arises from cronyism, corporate welfare, the treating of non-persons as persons, and the making of markets less free; they will not listen when we complain that true capitalism – which is voluntary exchanges among individuals for mutual benefit at the expense of no one else – is being mistaken for state-sponsored financial corporatism.

Until we start clearly expounding the injustices that are actually felt by millions of people ... those people will simply not believe we are the people with the solutions.
The essential error exhibited by most liberty activists is the idea that the most important thing in changing people’s political minds is what you say about various issues. It isn’t. More important is what you choose to talk about – the facts and issues you choose to lead with. That’s the Ortega’s quote above, applied to politics.

To a first approximation, most politics are the politics of identity, which means that either I can broadly imagine what it feels like to be you and to see the world as you see it (I identify with you), or I cannot. If I can, then when I listen to you, I will be subconsciously asking, “can I believe you?”… and if I can, you may persuade me. If, on the other hand, I cannot broadly imagine what it feels like to be you and to see the world as you see it (I do not identify with you), then when I listen to you, I will be subconsciously asking, “must I believe you?”… and I will only be persuaded if I cannot fault any problem with your position at all – which is never the case if I didn’t already start by agreeing with you.

This important because we get people to identify with us when – and so open them to persuasion – when we reflect back to them what they are already thinking or feeling.

And the most effective feelings to reflect back in politics – and especially non-mainstream politics – are feelings of injustice that are not being adequately addressed by the political establishment/mainstream.

Accordingly, Donald Trump speaks bluntly about immigration and immediately connects with a very large minority of voters who have been feeling that there is something essentially both unjust and important about what is happening to the country in this area. Similarly, Bernie Sanders speaks bluntly about economic injustice and immediately connects with a very large minority of voters who have been feeling that there is something essentially both unjust and important about what is happening to the country in this area.

At times of great political disaffection, such as these (with the membership of the Republican and Democratic parties in secular decline and the number of those registering Independent/unaffiliated increasing), speaking stridently about issues that are seemingly impossible for the mainstream to deal with elicits “identification” on another level too: it reflects back to the average voter his disaffection with the political process, itself.

This combined response to injustice and feeling understood is extremely powerful – immediate and visceral. Consider the speed with which both Sanders and Trump have gone from being obscure or entirely absent as politicians, respectively, to near political celebrities. (Obviously, one orders of magnitude more than the other because of the huge difference in media attention that is being paid to both.)

This is a constant of human nature that works in different cultures, in different languages, and at different times.

Look at the rapid rise of the anti-austerity party, Syriza, in Greece, or even more interestingly, the anti-E.U. UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) in the UK. Both went rapidly from non-existence to a major force in their country’s politics by owning a large issue that offended the human sense of justice of a large minority of people who felt completely unmet on that issue by all of the mainstream parties.

I tested this a year ago on a trip to England, when I asked recent converts to, or sympathizers of UKIP (some from a completely different part of the political spectrum), why they favored UKIP. They usually did not respond that they firmly agreed with UKIP on various issues, or even one. Rather, they said, “they are the only people who are talking about …”

In other words, UKIP spoke to these voters because it spoke about a concern they already had, but was unacknowledged by anyone else in politics. In many cases, UKIP’s voters – like voters of all parties – couldn’t even tell what their party’s policies or solutions were. They knew only what the party cared about, based on the topics that the party chose to talk about.

And in the cases of both Syriza and UKIP, the parties were talking about something that didn’t offend any political ideology, but rather, offended a basic human sense of fairness.

In Greece, this was the ability of German policy makers to set economic policy in Greece for the benefit of non-Greek financial institutions, and in the UK, it was the ability of foreigners to makes laws for British citizens, on the one hand, and to come to the UK to receive welfare that they’d never contributed to – all exacerbated by the seeming inability of the British people themselves to change either of those things at the ballot box.

This point about “injustice” is especially concerning for the liberty movement. A feeling of injustice that can be effectively tapped into by insurgent or anti-establishment political movements never depends on a political ideology: rather, it precedes ideology. It is visceral.

Interestingly, experiments show that people will actually pay – i.e. hurt themselves – to rectify clear injustices in their close community, even among strangers, and their tendency to do so is unmediated by any particular belief.

Civil rights is an issue that should be owned by the liberty movement. We should be banging on about the abuse of rights that is endemic in our nation – not because we need to prove ourselves right but because it is outrageous, and we must connect with people’s outrage.

And to that point, we need to talk about the problem more than our solution because – thanks to our derelict media – most Americans don’t have a clue about the depth of the problem. But when they do find out – hopefully from us – they will be outraged, and they will seek the solution firstly from the people who informed them of the problem.

Economic justice similarly is an issue that should be owned by the liberty movement – and the movement shouldn’t be scared to use that pair of words, either. We should be banging on – like Sanders – about economic injustice – not because we consent to the Left’s definition of the term, but because when it is caused by state-corporate cronyism, favoritism, corporate welfare, and an unjust monetary system, it is indeed outrageous.

We are fools to allow the average American to hear about the economic unfairnesses in our society only from the Left. If that is from where America hears about the problems, then that is where America will go for their solutions.

Similarly, we are fools to allow the average American hear about the problems of unmonitored immigration only from Trump. If he is from whom America hears about the problems, then he is to whom America will go for their solutions.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we accept Sanders’ or Trump’s solutions to either of these problems. It means only that our solution becomes credible to people because we have shown ourselves to be as driven as them by the underlying injustice.

Consider these two statements.

  • I am a capitalist because I am for freedom, and capitalism is best way of reducing poverty.
  • I am for reducing poverty and so support the freedom of people to trade for mutual benefit. That, to me, is what capitalism means

Their factual contents are essentially identical. A libertarian could say both of them truthfully.

Yet one is about capitalism; the other is about poverty.

That is a critical point to understand.

Read them again if you have to.

The first statement doesn’t start with the perceived injustice. It only connects with people who are already interested in capitalism – or at least care enough to know what it really means. In other words, it connects only with those who agree with us. It has no political power.

The second statement starts with the perceived injustice. It connects with anyone who cares about poverty, which includes every progressive you’ll ever meet.

And frankly, good for them.

Because we should be concerned first with poverty and only then with capitalism. Why? Because poverty describes the experience of real people. And capitalism, like the liberty that it both serves and manifests, is ultimately valuable, precisely because of the good it does for people – who are the only true and moral ends of political activity.

With that in mind, here’s a sobering thought.

The liberty movement could do much worse than make a video about economic injustice – whose first five and a half minutes is exactly the same as the video made by Sanders. But ours might be voiced by Rand, who would then go into the real causes of this situation, and an explanation of solutions that don’t just treat the symptoms of the disease, but eliminate those causes at root.

We’d be changing nothing in our position or our principles – but we’d be talking about people and fairness, rather than philosophy and, say, regulations.

The choice is always the same: to win supporters or to win arguments.

The liberty movement, rather ironically considering what it stands for, is getting exactly what it is choosing.