'Radical Son' Reveals Art of Political War
by Ari Armstrong
[The following article originally appeared in the April 2000 edition of Colorado Liberty.]
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 demonstrated liar, 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. 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.
2. Politics is a war of position.
3. In political wars the aggressor usually prevails.
4. Position is defined by fear and hope.
5. The weapons of politics are symbols that evoke fear and hope.
6. Victory lies on the side of the people.
We might simplify Horowitz' observations into one main point: 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. Not hardly anyone actually follows the arcane details of policy debates. To take the example of firearms, the vast majority of the public is unable to define an "assault rifle," a "Saturday Night Special," or an "illegal gun," much less has it actually read any of the relevant literature, such as John Lott's detailed 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.
Some civil gun rights advocates have been 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.
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.
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.