Pollster Scott Rasmussen makes a very cognet point on the ongoing “fiscal cliff” negotiations:
"For Republicans to succeed, they need to recognize that most voters don't care about limited government. But voters care deeply about the type of society a limited government makes possible.
Applying that logic to the current debate over the fiscal cliff, Republicans in Washington need to recognize that few voters believe this is a serious debate about deficit reduction. The president has made it instead a debate about fairness, and they need to respond on that level."
While commenting on a specific topic he actually defines the existential problem facing conservatism today: the inherent inferiority of selling features to a customer who is only interested in benefits.
If you've ever been involved in sales of any type, from selling a product to applying for a job to dating, you know that selling benefits is superior to selling features to all but a very small audience. People, whether they are customers, employers, or a love interest are more interested in what the product does for them than in what it has. You may compare yourself or your product to your competitors in terms of features but those features are only useful to the extent that they provide the customer with a benefit. The next time you see a supermodel accompanied by a hunchback dwarf, think benefits not features.
So while inside the conservative movement we often talk and argue about limited government, etc., and what it looks like, during an election it can be more than a little unclear to the politically disengaged person how those features make their life better.
In a crude way, Mitt Romney's comments about the “47%” and Obama buying voters with free stuff are actually correct. Progressives have mastered the technique of selling the benefits of their programs (cheap college loans, guaranteed medical care, 99 week of unemployment, etc.) while downplaying or ignoring the features (intrusive government, dependency mentality, national bankruptcy).
In the areas where we have sold benefits, we have been successful. Witness the queasiness of Democrats when they are confronted with advocating a tax hike. Everyone understands this means money taken from their family. School choice wins because the benefits of children having an alternative to failing schools is obvious. Increasingly right to work laws are making headway because people don't understand why you should have to pay unions... who are now largely synonymous with corruption and malfeasance... in order to have a job. When we sell features (e.g. shut down the Department of Education) without benefits (less federal interference in local schools, more money available to states for education by eliminating federal overhead) we inevitably lose. If you ever wonder why the left and the media, to the extent they are different, perpetually demands that our side deliver “specifics” they are really demanding that we defend features while their side describes benefits.
The difficulty we face comes in when dealing with various entitlement programs. Why shouldn't the government step in to save my house? Why should getting a degree in jazz clarinet at Julliard be an impediment in getting a student loan? Why should I have to pay back my student loan? Why should I not receive unemployment benefits while I look for a self actualizing job, no matter how long it takes? Why should I have to pay for my mother's medical care? Or my child's?
Unless we learn to effectively communicate the benefits of our positions rather than harping on “conservative principles” to an audience that is unfamiliar with conservative or progressive theories of government we will lose more than we win.
There is a quote that originated with Henning Webb Prentis, Jr, a little remembered corporate executive:
"The historical cycle seems to be: From bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to apathy; from apathy to dependency; and from dependency back to bondage once more."
Charitably we are crossing that threshold from selfishness to apathy. Unless we, as conservatives, stop talking about the features of our philosophy to the voters and begin talking about the benefits we will inevitably lose to a philosophy that champions free stuff and hedonism.