The Conservative Dilemma in the Age of Social Media

How do conservative parties win power?

You may think I’m snide, but it’s a legitimate question. Their policies, particularly on economics, are unpopular, as are their oligarchic backers. People tend to prefer the version of society where they're not immiserated for the benefit of the powerful. And, since we live in a (kind of) democracy, where voters (kind of) get to say which policies they like, it would seem as though conservative parties face quite the dilemma.

And indeed they do! Political scientists even have a name for it: the conservative dilemma (no points for creativity).

In their book Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson explain this dilemma. Synthesizing and building on a vast set of research of conservative parties in 20th century Europe, they proceed to lay out the solutions available to our put-upon defenders of aristocratic interests.

So what are those solutions?

The most straightforward is to moderate on economics: Allow taxes on the wealthy to be a bit higher. Give the downtrodden a bit more help. Maybe even spare a bit of healthcare. Sure, this doesn't make the party's plutocratic funders happy, but it's the surest route to winning power. Plus, we live in a (kind of) democracy, don't we? There's got to be some give and take.

Or maybe just take. Assuming the plutocrats don't want to pay more in taxes or relinquish their privileges — which, it turns out, has been a safe assumption for *checks notes* all of recorded human history — they need to get creative. The next route is to distract from extreme inequality by whipping up religious, ethnic, or nationalist grievances among a majority of voters. (Unless, of course, you run a conservative party in America, where you can win power with a minority.)

Since the process of whipping up grievance is abstract, allow me to let Lee Atwater, the legendary Republican strategist, explain how the GOP has evolved its approach over time:

"Y'all don't quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying, "N*****, n*****, n*****". By 1968 you can't say "n*****"—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this", is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "N*****, n*****". So, any way you look at it, race is coming on the back-burner."

Or, if you need a more recent example, here's Hillary Clinton running against Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic Primary:

"I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on," she said in an interview with USA TODAY. As evidence, Clinton cited an Associated Press article "that found how Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me." (emphasis mine)

In the book, Hacker and Pierson present the grievance path as a kind of Pandora's box — useful to crack open in any given election but ruinous in the long-run. Demonizing the opposition leads naturally to anti-democratic conclusions. Eventually, it becomes justifiable to strip away voting rights or, I dunno, make dubious claims of election fraud.

Plus, like Pandora, party elites have no way of controlling these forces once they’re unleashed. Although Atwater's dog whistles might have worked in 1980, by 2016, they'd apparently grown too abstract. The base needed something rawer, meaner. The old dope didn't hit like it used to. When Trump rode down the Trump Tower escalator and delivered his tirade about rapists from Mexico, they'd found it.

And possibly more. In many ways, Trump in 2016 was a hybrid between the dilemma's two solutions: he was one-part economic moderation, two-parts grievance. Indeed, voters saw him as an unusually moderate Republican, who flouted conservative orthodoxies on infrastructure, entitlement spending, and the War in Iraq.

Of course, once in office, Trump proceeded to jettison his economically populist instincts and allow the plutocrats to write policy. But that merely strengthens the thesis. The Republican elite could have stood up against Trump's race-baiting, norm-breaking behavior (as the most successful and principled conservative parties do when dealing with an autocrat). But so long as those elites were passing extremely unpopular tax breaks and appointing extremely conservative judges, they were content for Trump to be, well, himself.

Thus, for four long years, the forces from Pandora's box raged, eroding our democratic virtues. It’s fitting that the Trump Presidency will end with Trump refusing to concede as the GOP leadership watches along impotently.

When George W. Bush tried to privatize Social Security at the beginning of his second term, he was punished — badly. Democrats dominated the 2006 midterms, winning control of both houses for the first time since 1994.

Many Democrats were hoping for a similar result in 2020. Alas, the election refused us a straightforward narrative. For many liberals, the most shocking aspect of 2020 was that Trump earned more votes than he had in 2016 (at least in absolute terms). They were doubly shocked that he expanded his vote share among minorities. How, they wondered, could more than 70 million of my fellow Americans vote for this man — this party — after everything they'd seen?

The answer, at least in part, relates to our changing media environment. It's simply become much easier for conservative parties to solve their dilemma.

In the past, they had the challenge of aligning on a particular message — one that struck the right balance between economic moderation and cultural grievance. On economics, party leaders had only so much room to moderate, lest donations from their backers dry up. This left them grievance, which, in turn, required calibration: If their nativist appeals were too crass, they would turn off voters they needed. But overly subtle appeals would fail to activate the aggrieved. Plus, the country is increasingly diverse. Regardless of how well-calibrated their messages were, they would need to expand beyond their demographic base eventually.

Hard to develop a unified message that accomplishes all of this! 

But, of course, in the age of social media, messages need not be unified. Indeed, I've come to view social media — and our modern information ecosystem more broadly — as a kind of cheat code for solving the conservative dilemma.

Since grievance is now personalized, conservative strategists can open individualized Pandora's boxes for every microtargeted group. For Cuban- and Venezuelan-Americans worried about socialism, that might mean transforming the Democratic Party into a stalking horse for Bernie-style radicalism. For other Latino groups, it might mean playing up anti-Black sentiment in their communities (perhaps particularly salient in the wake of this summer's Black Lives Matter protests). For conservative intellectuals, it might simply mean saying, again and again, "Hey, aren't these college kids, like, super annoying?"

The upshot is that the modern Lee Atwater has a much easier job than his predecessor. No longer must he rely solely on Fox's grand unified narrative of grievance (although he relies on that, too). He can distract you from the plutocrat picking your pocket in a myriad of ways and through a multitude of channels. The algorithms will sort through his messages, choosing the ones that maximize engagement — which is to say, the threat you feel. Whether it’s QAnon, AOC, or inner-city riots, you’ll get your perfect hit.

Is this too tidy an explanation? Sure. The real world is more complicated than we'll ever know. And Republican strategists can’t meme in a vacuum. But algorithmic media is the water we swim in now, and conservative parties have found that water inviting. Trump is only one example. Jair Bolsonaro grew up on WhatsApp, as did Narendra Modi. Fish can't tell when the water around them is acidifying, but eventually, they die.

We keep looking for explanations for Why This Is Happening, but maybe it's simple: Our environment has changed, and it's selecting for new traits — traits that right-wing movements have always had, traits that make them uniquely well-suited to our acidifying oceans. Not in a nefarious way, mind you, but in a banal one: Conservatives have always solved their dilemma by leaning, at least partially, on tribal appeals that demonize the other; those happen to be the same appeals that maximize revenues for technology companies. As ever, the medium is the message.

Next time, we'll discuss why liberal parties can't win power in quite the same way. We'll also speculate on what this means for the future of American politics, particularly in light of Trump's return to private life.