There is a lot of talk about the “Republican brand problem.” I think this focus is imprecise. The problem facing the GOP is a problem of capital — namely, a lack of social and intellectual capital. The social capital problem is the GOP’s inability to expand its audience. Just about the entirety of GOP audience gains over the last two decades has been in the intensification of its already existing audience, with little in terms of expansion into new audiences.
But this problem can be fixed. Only, the fix requires greater intellectual capital: specifically, knowledge of audiences through effective data collection and analysis. GOP pundits, who to a large though not total degree control the party’s intellectual capital, show no inclination to expand this form of capital. Instead of learning how to use knowledge to better understand and communicate with audiences, they are inclined to live off tired tropes and code words only their already existing audiences find compelling.
Case in point is a twitter interaction I had this morning upon the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act. In my twitter feed was this, by a National Review writer named Charles C. W. Cooke:
As someone who lived under socialized medicine for 26 years, today isn’t funny. It’s just very, very sad.
— Charles C. W. Cooke (@charlescwcooke) October 1, 2013
There are lots of informed ways to critique the ACA; one of them is not by calling it “socialized medicine.” The ACA is not that. It is a re-structuring of the marketplace. It is also the expansion of subsidies to low-income citizens, paid for mainly through the individual mandate, which forces cheap, mainly young people to pay for care. It is those three things —- a re-structuring of the market, broader coverage, and the individual mandate — none of which is described well by using the phrase socialized medicine.
Socialized medicine is a code word, a lazy person’s way of saying I am against something even though I know little about it. A lazy person’s way of saying, in fact, I am so against it, I refuse to learn anything about it. All I need to know is the code word. There is incentive for this kind of punditry, as evidenced by the 241 retweets this demonstrable falsity received.
This kind of laziness has further implications. For example, many GOPers are misreading Obamacare polls. Because they assume Obamacare = socialized medicine, they assume all critics of ACA are on their side: that is, in favor of going back to the status quo. But this is not the case. We know a certain chunk of Americans oppose Obamacare because it doesn’t go far enough. In other words, a number of Americans would prefer socialized medicine — or some kind of universal coverage — and know that Obamacare isn’t it. Pressed, no doubt these same Americans do not favor drastic actions to rid the country of Obamacare (like, say, a government shutdown), even though when asked they claim that, yes, we would prefer something bigger and “more liberal.” These people are not on the GOP side.
By using code words like socialized medicine as stand-ins for reality, the GOP tricks themselves into believing they have more support than they actually have, and that they have less need to learn about audiences than they actually have. They misread the data, and act according to their flawed analyses.
The Obamacare showdown has highlighted the GOP’s intellectual-capital deficit. It’s a real deficit. Which they can, and should, fix right away. Little sign yet they will.