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Brief and Direct: An Answer from the Ayn Rand Institute

Self-interest is also Public Interest

How is it possible that we lose to Democrats?

Perhaps you have been asking yourself that question. After all, we win the debate on all the big issues, as verified by polls as recently as today, with questions in the form of “Do you agree with President Obama on…?” The majority of respondents don’t agree with him on anything except defense in general, while they disagree with his specific policies, including those regarding defense.

The Flagstaff Tea Party was host last week to Yaron Brook, Executive Director and President of the Ayn Rand Institute. He spent over an hour answering the question, “Why are we losing?” not just the most recent election, but the war for public opinion for the last fifty years or so. The answer is intuitively obvious once revealed, but it doesn’t easily convert to a sound bite, so we don’t hear it in the popular media (nor would it be helpful if we did). And it involves cultural psychology.

Self-interest vs. selflessness

Our culture teaches us to revere those who give of themselves (the selfless ones), and to scorn those who make a lot of money (the self-interested ones), at least until they start to give it away. Although we suspend those prejudices when we go to work ourselves, we still hold them and apply them to public figures, including political candidates, so when one party convinces “us” that it’s the party that gives to the needy, and ours is the party that says we can’t afford to keep doing it that way, guess who wins. The subconscious prejudice frequently overwhelms logic, especially when we don’t point out that our principles will make it easier to help the truly needy than theirs will, that self-interest promotes the public good far more than altruism does.

I note the parallel question, “How can President Obama’s personal approval ratings be so high when his policies are all unpopular?” This wasn’t addressed by Brook, but it has the same answer. Why is President Obama looked upon as “likable,” while Mitt Romney has been called “unlikable,” to say the least? It isn’t all because of the advertising hatchet-job Obama’s campaign ran against Romney.

A brief comparison of the two men: Barack Obama has had a career in politics, preceded by a stint as a lecturer at the university level and a job as community organizer. He had no experience that relates to making hard decisions or even of doing the hard work of being President. He was never highly compensated until he was elected to political office. He was Constitutionally qualified to become President. He is a Democrat.

Mitt Romney is almost precisely the opposite. He has worked in profit-making concerns since he was young (excepting his Mormon mission time), even while starting his family and going to college. He ran his own company and was compensated well enough to be considered rich, to become Governor of Massachusetts, and to run for President. He was prepared by experience to be President. He is a Republican.

Each epitomizes his party as it is connoted in the public mind, and that is the key to Brook’s answer–we are losing because the Republican Party is perceived to be the party of self-interest, frequently morphed into selfishness. The Democrat Party is perceived as the party of selflessness.  Selfish Republican Romney loses to selfless Democrat Obama in the hearts of enough voters to make the difference.

To close out my presidential metaphor, we couldn’t have had two more stereotypical candidates running for office last time if we had tried, and our society is predisposed to prefer both the image and the facts of Obama over those of Romney, even though both the image and the facts are misleading. The attributes we liked in candidate Romney were much less highly regarded by the general population, and the baggage they carried with them hurt him.

What can we do about it?

Brook admitted it will take time to change a cultural norm, but a start would be for our side to start standing up publicly for our own principles. For those principles that would make it hard for a politician to explain during a race, let our non-politicians talk about them.

The left has been using this tactic against us for years; we should be following their example of success.

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