'Radical Son' Reveals Art of Political War
by Ari Armstrong, March 16, 2000
Why, when the unrefuted evidence proves that civil arms reduce crime and that gun restriction laws such as those mandating storage increase crime, do many of the public side with Bill Clinton, Bill Owens, and Wellington Webb in calling for allegedly "common-sense gun laws that keep guns out of the hands of criminals and children?" Why did the public support Bill Clinton, a liar and a rapist, and blame Republicans for unleashing "the politics of personal destruction?"
It's the politics, stupid.
That's what leftist-turned-conservative David Horowitz told the audience gathered December 2, 1999 for the Independence Institute's 15th Annual Founders' Night Dinner in downtown Denver.
The Institute purchased copies of Horowitz' booklet, The Art of Political War, for those who attended, a crowd which included many of the state's Republican politicians. Apparantly, not many read the booklet, and, if they did, they just didn't get it. Many Republicans got their butts kicked in the arena of public opinion early this legislative session. To the extent they won, it was only because a dedicated few outside of politics made the case for civil arms to the public.
Horowitz subtitled his booklet, "How Republicans Can Fight to Win." However, the booklet describes political strategies useful by any activist, whether Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or whatever.
Horowitz begins with a simple observation. Those who publicly advocate individual responsibility also tend to blame others for their political shortcomings. "It's the biased media!" "People are too morally corrupt to support good policies!" Instead of blaming others, Horowitz suggests one look in the mirror. It's the politics, stupid.
Horowitz lays out his six principles of political warfare:
1. Politics is war conducted by other means.
We might further distill Horowitz' message down to two main principles, one applicable to the activist's relation to the people, the demos, and the other applicable to the activist's relation to political enemies. I'll discuss several of Horowitz' points within the framework of these two simplified principles.
1. Distill and market your message in a way that resonates with the fears and hopes of the common people.
People support fairness, they don't support those they perceive as mean-spirited or in the pockets of special interests. Fairness includes helping the underdogs in society -- the minorities, the poor, the trampled.
However, most people are politically unsophisticated. Opinion polls can be radically skewed merely by a subtle change of wording. Most people vote according to personality and superficial characteristics. Hardly anyone actually follows the arcane details of policy debates. To take the example of firearms, most people cannot define an "assault rifle," a "Saturday Night Special," or an "illegal gun" -- even fewer have actually read any of the relevant literature, such as John Lott's More Guns, Less Crime.
Therefore, those who wish to win the hearts and minds of the public cannot rely upon detailed statistical studies, policy papers, and sophisticated arguments. Instead, they must distill their messages into sound-bites, chants that are easy to remember and repeat.
For instance, Bill Clinton beat removal from office by accusing the Republicans of "the politics of personal destruction." Clinton is now lying through his teeth with junk statistics pertaining to firearms, but he makes the news calling for more "common sense laws to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and children." Of course, there's nothing sensible about Clinton's proposals, which will actually increase innocent deaths at the hands of criminals. But politics isn't about truth, it's about perceptions. And Clinton is perceived as caring about "the children" (despite Waco).
Horowitz gives an example of a good sound-bite that supports lower taxes. Democrats support higher taxes by describing cuts as "tax breaks for the wealthy on the backs of the poor." A good counter-sound-bite is, "taxes for bureaucrats out of the pockets of the people."
An important correlary of the fact that most people are politically unsophisticated is implied by Horowitz' third rule: the aggressor usually prevails. That is, once a particular sound-bite is popularized, most people just tune out opposing viewpoints. Now, many accept as fact that newly proposed laws will "keep guns out of the hands of criminals and children." By definition, then, those who oppose such laws want criminals and children to have guns. Of course, that's utterly false: Clinton's proposals will actually increase crime and endanger the lives of children. But this is politics, and Clinton has defined the issue.
The complete and utter failure of the NRA to stop the onslaught against the Second Amendment can be explained entirely in terms of that organization's inability to mount an effective offense. Instead, the NRA perpetually compromises, perpetually cowers, perpetually redraws the line in the sand. Many of the unconstitutional gun laws on the books have been written by the NRA. Fortunately, there are signs of hope: NRA leaders have recently blasted Clinton for politicizing tragedies and for violating the bill of rights. Clinton is whining, and let him whine for once!
Other civil gun rights advocates have been more effective in their political warfare. Lott's simple title, More Guns, Less Crime, pretty much sums up the case. Rallies with signs like "Guns Stop Rape" have made the Denver papers. And the renaming of "Project Exile" into "Project Gulag" or "Project Gestapo" has made obvious the actual purpose of that propaganda campaign.
The second main principle we can draw from Horowitz' booklet doesn't pertain directly to his six rules. But it is implicit in much of his discussion.
2. Destroy your enemies while seizing the moral high-ground.
The Republicans tried to detroy Bill Clinton, but they did it in a way that made them look mean-spirited. Their main problem was in relying on arcane rules pertaining to sexual harassment laws that most Republicans don't even really support. As Horowitz points out, the Democrats are the true originators of "sexual McCarthyism" (such as with Clarence Thomas), yet they painted the Republicans with that brush. Insteading of bringing down Clinton, the Republicans were themselves embarassed and charged with political abuse and "personal destruction."
Another example Horowitz discusses is the fall of Newt Gingrich. The Democrats leveled 74 distinct ethics charges against Gingrich, and one finally stuck and killed him politically. Horowitz says the Republicans "should have filed charge for charge until the Democrats gave up their attack."
There is a distinction here which Horowitz doesn't make explicit. In the first case, with Clinton's impeachment, the battle was primarily public, and secondarily legal. In the second case, involving Gingrich, the battle was primarily legal and only then did it become public. In legal battles, ruthlessness isn't much of a detractor, politically speaking (the Democrats won). But in public battles, ruthlessness must be cloaked in righteousness.
Why does Handgun Control, Inc. constantly spew forth junk science? Why do they perpetually and knowingly lie about gun ownership? Why do they demonize gun owners? It's because they know it's the politics, stupid. They can't win on the facts, but they don't have to.
Disputes with Horowitz
I have hit only some of the highlights of Horowitz' short work. It contains a wealth of insights of value to all those who want to use the political process to help restore liberty. However, I have problems with several of Horowitz' arguments and presumptions.
First, he only discusses modern American democracy. But our country did not start out as a democracy -- it began with severely limited privileges of voting and with a Constitution meant to restrict the scope of voting. Most of what the Federal government undertakes today violates the Constitution. The danger with Horowitz' presentation is that it encourages the reification of the present order.
There is a deeper criticism: many libertarians, especially Objectivists, hold out hope for a more rational world, one in which sound-bites don't play very well. However, that simply isn't the world we live in today, and there's good reason to think that a majority of the populace will always remain intellectually unsophisticated. Yet, again, we must not wrongly universalize modern society.
Certainly libertarians do not hold up democracy as a political ideal. As one old saying puts it, democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner. The libertarian ideal is one in which society bans the initiation of force -- which means most of what government does today. Indeed, many libertarians refuse to vote or pursue politics on principle. I think that's wrong. Of course politics is not the only or even the best means of social change. But it is an important means, and one which doesn't threaten personal safety (much). Thus, using the democratic process to restrain democracy is a good thing. Along those lines, Horowitz' strategies are useful even (or especially) for libertarians.
The next problem with Horowitz' argument is that it doesn't take into account the inherently defensive nature of libertarianism. Though there were important exceptions, our nation started out essentially as a free one. It is unfortunate, then, that, as Horowitz puts it, "in political wars the aggressor usually prevails." Statism has been the aggressor since the Civil War. As the Public Choice economists have discussed, power tends to perpetuate itself, and special interests tend to corrupt civil society. I suppose the silver lining to the modern state is that it gives libertarians plenty of opportunities to aggress against the abusive state. End the drug war, repeal all federal firearms laws, repeal the income tax, repeal government funding of schools, and so on.
Of course I have problems with certain of Horowitz' particular proposals. But he's a conservative writing for a Republican audience, whereas I'm a libertarian. Horowitz favors spending more federal money on schools (even though federal involvment in schools per se is unconstitutional), though spent on vouchers. That's a terrible idea. He also supports the NRA's "Project Exile," which I have called "Project Gestapo" because it is a propaganda campaign intended to induce people to turn in their neighbors who are suspected to have "illegal guns," whatever that means.
This points to a general problem that Horowitz completely ignores. It's not enough to win the debate with the public. One also has to prevent the other side from perverting one's programs. For instance, "Project Exile" started out as a way of getting violent felons off the streets. But now it is merely a vehicle for harassing honest gun owners. Vouchers are supposed to be a way to break up the school monopolies, but, as Marshall Fritz has argued, if vouchers ever succeed on a wide scale, the teachers' unions are bound to pervert them to bring now-private schools under tighter government control. We might call this the "be careful what you wish for" principle.
In general, Horowitz' readiness to compromise will not sit well with most libertarians. However, that doesn't make his general political principles less useful for libertarians. It does suggest that his political principles must be appropriately modified for libertarians, though. Here's what Horowitz has to say about compromise:
A word now about the relation between principles and politics. It is always complicated. Politics is about winning elections and implementing programs. [!] Because there is no majority in America that agrees on all the important issues, politics is about forming winning coalitions and holding them together. It is about getting people who disagree with each other to form an alliance to make things happen. In short, it is about compromise. This doesn't mean that it is not also about principle. That is how you form your faction in the coalition. If you are not willing to go to the mat for your core principles, you will lose your base and eventually lose the cause as well. The art of politics is to know how to get your principles implemented without compromising them too much. (57-8)
Perhaps Bill Owens better read that bit about "losing his base" again.
The problem, of course, is knowing how much compromise is "too much." I have yet to meet a libertarian who wouldn't like to see the U.S. Constitution reestablished as law of the land. But even that document contains several onerous provisions, from a libertarian perspective. In general, libertarians are significantly less willing to compromise than is Horowitz.
And that's ok. After all, right now our primary battle is for hearts and minds, not for political office.
I have to believe that truth is not wholly irrelevant to politics, even in today's climate. Horowitz has convinced me that truth with bad politics will always lose to lies backed by good political strategy. However, if we use effective political strategies to advocate the truth, surely that has some advantage. It's been said that lies can travel halfway around the world before truth even laces up her shoes. That just means it's time to put truth through resolute conditioning.
Ultimately the human soul yearns for freedom. But it may take the art of political war to rescue that soul and lead it to triumph.
David Horowitz' The Art of Political War can be purchased from The Committee for a Non-Left Majority, singly or in bulk, at 800.699.3313 or www.noleft.com.