With the decay of American values across a wide section of American institutions—academia, media and the entertainment industry—it is vital for informed patriots to learn to better transmit their ideas.
In President Ronald Reagan’s last speech to the American people he said, “I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation–from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries.”
Reagan was being humble in his ability to transmit the message of limited government conservatism. He was a master at connecting to the American people, bypassing negative media and getting Americans to believe in his principles. Without his ability to communicate, Reagan would have probably been just another forgotten political loser in his era.
It should be no surprise then that Reagan always spoke glowingly of President Franklin Roosevelt, a seemingly bizarre connection given that Roosevelt advocated for many big government policies that Reagan attacked throughout his political career. But Reagan’s admiration isn’t so strange when one understands the ability of both men to connect to and move the American people. Reagan examined Franklin Roosevelt’s example just as Roosevelt looked to his cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, and his ability to use the “Bully Pulpit” to enact policies.
Political movements have often lived or died simply on the merit of their spokesmen and messengers.
There is no better example of that than Thomas Jefferson and the Jeffersonian Republican Party of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In an era when the only form of mass communication was newspapers, Jefferson mastered the art of connecting with the American people. He combined both an incredible capacity to create succinct and penetrating phrases—such as the one about the tree of liberty having to be watered with “the blood of patriots and tyrants”—and a simple “republican” manner of speech and dress that highlighted, perhaps falsely, that he was a “man of the people.”
Jefferson understood that to be effective he had to communicate differently to different people. With powerful politicians Jefferson would bring them to his Monticello home and wine and dine them, but he would also show up at the White House door to greet strangers while dressed in a simple coat and slippers. It was a powerful combination of sophistication and simplicity. And everyone knew that Jefferson had a specific set of ideas—he wanted minimal taxes, decentralized government, expansion into the west, strong relations with France and strict adherence to the Constitution.
Jefferson’s mastery as a politician and communicator made his party the dominant force in American politics for a quarter of a century and many of his policy ideas came to fruition. Even when Jefferson and his successors ran into political trouble and their ideas foundered, their political power endured because they had won the message war with the rival Federalists.
On top of strengthening a political movement, the sincerity of a leader is often based on how capable he is at articulating his views.
For instance, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner was blasted in the recent budget deal with Congressional Democrats and President Obama for not sticking to his conservative principles and being an ineffectual leader. This criticism has been thrown at Boehner for a long time. However, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), who voted with Boehner on the budget deal and has amassed an equally moderate voting record, is often considered, rightly or wrongly, a Tea Party champion.
Why is Boehner maligned and Ryan given a pass for transgressions against conservatism? It is because most Tea party supporters know where Ryan stands on issues, they hear him clearly articulate a plan for carrying out his principles and believe that he is constantly working to promote an agenda that they favor. Boehner, despite his seemingly good intentions, doesn’t have that ability to gain the trust of and rally his supporters. The difference is the communication gap, and the gap between the successes and failures of those who can and can’t properly articulate their principles is enormous.
New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who was quite popular with grassroots conservatives until very recently, endeared himself to staunch conservatives with his common sense, straight-talking style, even though he was only a moderate conservative at best. Christie’s ability to connect to his constituents and perfectly fit his style to the angry, popular reactions to the abuses in public spending gave him the ability to be an effective and popular leader in New Jersey, even as his support is weakening nationally.
American history is filled with leaders who succeeded mostly through their ability to communicate a message, even if that message was not original. Kentucky statesmen Henry Clay succeed in negotiating the compromises of 1820 and 1832 in his favor because of his ability to make dramatic speeches with his golden voice. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, who laid the philosophical groundwork for preserving the union before the civil war, was such a talented orator that many thought he could have been one of the best actors of his time. In 1858 Abraham Lincoln challenged Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas, one of the most powerful men in the nation, with powerful rhetoric and a coherent philosophy in the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates, setting up his successful presidential run in 1860.
It is no wonder that young leaders like senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) are so prized. The ability to communicate to the American people and connect to them in a personal way is an invaluable skill that cannot be replaced by wonkish knowledge of issues or even pure ideological purity.
Ronald Reagan succeeded not because he was simply the staunchest conservative or most militant adherent to principles of limited government, but because he convinced enough of the American people that the principles were bigger than the man, and that regardless of failures, setbacks and compromises he would relentlessly fight to see his principles triumph.