Conservatives Have All the Best Talismans

Mitch McConnell is the GOP's shrewdest politician, but he's not exactly beloved by the party's base; he's got a Tea Party challenger in his re-election race this year, and he's regularly pilloried by hard-right conservatives as an establishment sellout. So he'll take whatever opportunity he can to do a little strategic outreach to that great grumbling mass that is, to paraphrase Howard Dean, the Republican wing of the Republican party. Fortunately, that yearly ritual of spittle-flecked rage, breathtaking extremism, and passionate theological debates about how many Reagans can dance on the head of a pin known as the Conservative Political Action Conference is going on right now. And when it was his turn to speak, Mitch made quite an entrance. Check this out:

OK, so he doesn't exactly look like a rough 'n ready cowboy. But I'm sure the display was greeted with many chuffs and snorts of approval. Which got me thinking: Liberals really lack any talismanic physical objects they can display to their supporters to demonstrate their ideological bona fides. If a Democrat went before a liberal audience and wanted to offer a quick, easily understood visual to demonstrate to the crowd that she's one of them, what could she hoist over her head in defiance of the people they all hate?

There really isn't anything. And that extends to the other parts of campaigning. If you took away all the narration and on-screen text from any Democrat's campaign ad, you wouldn't be able to tell whether it was a liberal or a conservative. Sure, there might be shots of the candidate talking to doctors to show she cares about health care, or shots of her talking to kids to show she cares about education, or shots of her with people of all colors to show her commitment to diversity. But you'd see those things in Republicans' ads too.

On the other hand, if you watched a hundred primary ads for a hundred Republican candidates from across the country, I'd bet at least 30 or 40 of them would have a gun in there somewhere. Sometimes the gun is by itself, sometimes the candidate is holding it, and when things get really good, the candidate actually shoots something, like a paper copy of a law he doesn't cotton to, or maybe a jug of water or some fruit (seriously—click that link and you'll see).

As a matter of fact, conservatives have lots of these kinds of identity markers that can easily and quickly communicate a whole set of beliefs to an audience when they're mentioned, like the Bible or Ayn Rand or country music. The fact that Democrats don't have these things is probably because their coalition is more diverse, made up of people with a variety of cultural backgrounds and life experiences. The markers that may unite certain portions of the Democratic coalition—like, say, the music of the recently departed Pete Seeger—are not anything close to universal within that coalition, so politicians can't use them so easily.

Of course, nothing is truly universal, even within the conservative coalition. Irving Kristol didn't take young Bill out to shoot varmints just like his pappy did with him. But even elite Northeastern Republicans have accepted that theirs is the party of the South, and they're just going to have to keep holding up the accoutrements of that culture over their heads, whether they like it or not.

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