Why Successful Movements Eventually Overreach

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Over at Politico Magazine, my friend and Bloggingheads.TV sparring partner Bill Scher has stirred up some discussion and debate with a piece titled “How Republicans Lost the Culture War.” While that’s a clickable headline, he mostly focuses on politics and flawed tactics (though, in fairness, he mentions Will & Grace). But politics is downstream from culture, the culture has been moving leftward for years, and that’s what matters most if you want to understand this phenomenon (for the backstory on how conservatives lost the culture war, read this).

That’s not to say Scher is wrong about how conservatives tactically botched the last decade. We could have potentially negotiated a temporary peace — or, more likely — better terms of surrender. Along those lines, it is worth examining some of the recent mistakes conservatives made in recent years.

First, Scher points to George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election strategy, which eschewed voter persuasion, and instead focused on base turnout. As Scher notes, “Republicans responded by spearheading ballot initiatives in 11 states banning same-sex marriage…” One lesson to learn here is that what makes for smart short-term electoral politics is often at odds with what makes for shrewd long-term politics. A movement that focuses solely on surviving today at the expense of tomorrow will eventually starve. It’s hard to blame a political strategist for doing what it takes to win an election, but that is why parties and movements and organizations must transcend the urgent and focus on the important.

Scher also implies that, when it comes to social issues, conservatives were once savvy, but have recently been guilty of overreaching. This is not an absurd argument, but it’s also not a surprising development. If you ever wonder why this inevitably happens, I think there are good reasons…

In a negotiation, you always ask for more than you think you can get. For example, if you’re selling something and $500 is the bare minimum you’d take for it, you might ask $750. This gives you some cushion; even if you “lose” the negotiation, you might salvage a deal you can at least live with. It’s also only natural to keep expanding on your successes and asking for more.

But when you’re selling ideas, you can end up being defined by the most ambitious (read extreme) things you ask for. This inevitably leads to defending the indefensible and expending capital on things which, at the end of the day, aren’t your core concerns.

You do this because, the theory goes, it’s a firewall to protect the things you really, truly, cannot give up on. Success emboldens us to ask for more things that enjoy less popular consensus. So we are often victims of our own success. You know the concept in management called “The Peter Principle” whereby individuals are promoted and promoted until arriving at a position where they are incompetent? I suspect this principle works for political issues, as well. Activists will inevitably promote an issue until it inevitably becomes a liability.

Consider the controversy over “legitimate rape.” When Republican politicians first adopted the pro-life cause, they knew the media and the culture would be hostile to them. This led to narrowly crafting their messaging — to allowing for exceptions for rape and incest and the life of the mother. Now, the problem is that these exceptions are intellectually inconsistent with the notion that life is precious and that abortion is murder. (For this reason, hard core activists never liked exceptions, but mostly tolerated the politicians, for a time, assuming they would be an incremental step toward further restrictions.) Exceptions were pragmatic and politically salable, and probably saved the lives of many unborn children. Moving away from these exceptions is more intellectually consistent, but also much less popular with the general public — especially once technology changes the definition of what constitutes an “abortion.” Politics is messy.

The fact that in a negotiation you always ask for more than you would settle for also explains why movements don’t tamp down on future losses by making preemptive concessions. Take, for example, the issue of gay marriage. As Scher notes, “Republicans never launched an organized push for civil unions as a way to compete for gay voters without alienating religious conservatives who wanted to cordon off marriage for heterosexuals.”

In hindsight, this was a mistake. Conservatives could have argued that all Americans deserve equal protection under the law, and yet that marriage is a special institution that should be preserved for one man and one woman. While it’s probably naive to think such a concession would have pacified gay marriage activists (more likely, it would have been a stepping stone emboldening them), this would have been an utterly defensible position that might have been viewed as a workable compromise by the public. At the very least, it would have been harder to argue the guy working hard to pass civil unions is “anti-gay.” But people who think they’re winning aren’t likely to make any concessions (which explains the Catch-22 for why Republicans could never pass immigration reform after winning an election).

Complicating matters is the fact technology is constantly changing the culture war, meaning that the lessons politicians think they learned in the past eventually become obsolete. The birth control pill was a game changer for our culture when it came out, and it hasn’t stopped since then. To be sure, the ability to post ultrasound pictures of your baby on Facebook probably makes people generally more pro-life. But what about the rise of in vitro fertilization? — or what about the morning after pill? All of these things defy the traditional political paradigms, complicate the issues, and muddy the ethical waters. At some point, we are no longer talking about stopping late-term abortions, but, as Scher notes, talking about defining human life “at the moment of fertilization, but before implantation…” Huh?

This speaks to another issue: Ignorance. As these issues become more technical and nuanced, what are the odds the Republican politicians were keeping up when the activists pushed them to take certain stands? If someone had asked me, “Do you think it would be a good idea to require women to get an ultrasound before having an abortion?” I might well have agreed. … But if they told me that, instead of the hand-held probe on a belly, this would involve a “transvaginal ultrasound,” well that’s a different story.

Do you think the male Republican politicians understood this? You could probably say the same thing about the “personhood” amendment, which sounds good to anyone who is pro-life, but has messy implications that initial supporters might not have comprehended.

There is no single person who “runs” the conservative movement. Nor are there any universally beloved or respected leaders who can keep things in order. In some ways, this is a good thing — it allows ideas to compete and win in a free market environment. But it also makes implementing a coordinated strategy impossible. To the degree Scher has identified tactical mistakes, they are more or less the predictable results of people responding to incentives. Whether you blame Rove or the activists or the politicians, most of these mistakes and missed opportunities can be understood as the product of rational (and possibly inevitable) decisions.

Matt K. Lewis