Rebranding GOP: It’s the Culture, Stupid

This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion
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Conservatives and Republicans Shouldn’t Ignore Contemporary Cultural Issues

The late Andrew Breitbart reminded the world that politics is downstream from culture. In other words, people don’t drive political ideas, but rather ideas drive people to think and act accordingly.

Unfortunately, the American Conservative leadership ignored Breitbart’s warning as a reactionary oversimplification and continued to underestimate the power of culture in American politics. By examining today’s state of American politics and the broader culture, it has become clear that they ignored this advice at the country’s peril.

The election of Barack Obama was a pivotal point in many ways for the Conservative movement. After losing the 2008 presidential race, the GOP establishment had to rethink its brand value in order to attract key demographic groups. Women, minorities and the youth supposedly had abandoned the Republican Party for a fresh and reinvigorated Democrat Party led by a relatively young, charismatic, and culturally likable president.

In 2016, Donald Trump may have saved the Republican Party from another political disaster.

Instead of seeking for a new brand of conservative leadership to respond in kind, the GOP machinery (assuming the GOP and Conservatives constitute the same cohort) decided in 2012 to return to business as usual through a rather mundane duo, namely Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. We all know how that turned out.

The GOP Establishment Consists of Slow Learners

Nevertheless, as President Obama continued to weaken the United States at home and abroad, Conservative thinkers, political consultants, and the RNC hierarchy still refused to learn from past mistakes. In addition, they struggled to decide what sort of branding would be efficient in the next election cycle.

Luckily, their ignorance, political ineptitude, and inability to act didn’t matter. That’s because arguably the greatest brand-building figure in the world — Donald J. Trump — decided to respond to what many American voters wanted to see and hear from a candidate and ultimately their president.

Consequently, culturally savvy President Trump, the real estate mogul and reality TV star, a former Democrat and independent, may have saved the Republican Party from another political disaster in Election 2016.

Life After POTUS 45

The new radicalized Left has mastered the art of rebranding its Socialist ideology and hence its political narrative. In contrast, Conservatives continue to ignore the role of culture in political discourse with the justification of focusing on more important areas.

Even the Conservative youth voice and previous Never Trumper Ben Shapiro maintains that albeit important, culture in politics ought not to detract from GOP’s principled ideological agenda: lower taxes, deregulating American business, maintaining a strong military, and keeping the ever-growing government on a tight leash. Although highly respectable and necessary political goals, these principles won’t deliver electoral success on a consistent basis in the 21st century political environment.

Frankly, an average voter is unlikely to seek inspiration, for example, from Cato Institute research on disciplined fiscal policy or the American Enterprise Institute’s round-table discussions on optimal tax rates.

If the average voter did pay attention to such public policy details and immerse himself/herself in the minutia of basic economics, Bernie Sanders would still be unemployed slacker writing bizarre rape fantasies as opposed to competing for the presidency in the United States. Culture, therefore, clearly matters more than policy.

Although sensible independents and Conservatives recognize the Left’s attempts to rebrand their narrative as, at best, political pandering, we cannot deny the effectiveness of their PR channels. As painful as it may be, perhaps there’s something we can learn from the nefarious Leftist political playbook.

From Gramsci to Grammys

In today’s hypersensitive society, everything and everybody must have a clear political message to please a broader audience. Whether in the entertainment industry or sports, politically correct propaganda or corporate virtue signaling is constantly bombarding the audience.

Albeit nothing revolutionary within the sphere of political communication, the method has evolved from subtle and somewhat equivocal messaging to unabashed cultural brainwashing. And let’s no forget America’s indoctrination camps education system and the public intellectuals’ growing appetite to reinterpret failed and bloody ideologies.

How did we get to this situation? It stems from the influence of progressive culture and perhaps the inspiration from the teachings of one influential Italian Communist.

Neo-Marxist Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) gained notoriety among some Conservatives in both Europe and the United States. He argued that political status quo within a society emerges from cultural norms, which are left unquestioned because the public has accepted these norms as natural (i.e., fixed and unchangeable) rather than cultural (dynamic and changeable).

Therefore, if cultural forces foster such ideas as victimhood, obsessing about perceived unfairness, and envying success, future political discourse will be dictated by these premises.

Think back to the roaring 80s and Ronald Reagan era of Conservative culture. Hollywood produced movies where American power — both soft and hard diplomacy — was admired, not ridiculed. American citizens did not express explicit scorn toward Wall Street because American culture was compatible with the pursuit of financial success. Recall the popular television show Miami Vice, which depicted American machismo culture as opposed to today’s feminization of men.

Manipulating Cultural Norms

Who constructs and establishes these cultural norms, and why does it even matter? Gramsci argued that organic ideas emerge first from public intellectuals who openly discuss different topics and questions. In Gramsci’s day, however, these topics weren’t as accessible to the general public as they are now through the entertainment industry.

Through public intellectuals and entertainment, educational institutions adopt these ideas and begin to teach them to younger generations. Consequently, as young people grow to adulthood, and educational institutions have promulgated specific ideas from public intellectuals, a general societal philosophy influences future voting trends.

Hence, if culture is formed via public intellectuals’ discussions and distributed through educational institutions to guide political culture, how well have Conservatives fared in such in the last 15-20 years? Not very well.

Can you think of any university campuses that have welcomed Conservative faculty, student organizations, speakers, or even students as eagerly as they do their liberal counterparts? For every Turning Point USA, there are dozens of Young Democratic Socialists chapters and Communist student clubs mentored by professors and financed by various community organizers.

Political scientist Samuel Abrams argues that since 1984, the ratio of Liberal to Conservative professors has increased by 350%. Today’s American students are clearly not exposed to different sets of ideas or ideologies.

How about the public intellectuals and pundits? For every Tucker Carlson or Ben Shapiro, there are hundreds of liberal “journalists” churning out “news” at the Washington Post, New York Times, TIME Magazine, CNN and so forth. How can Conservative culture or values even stand a chance against a Liberal machinery that has perfected the art of cultural constructivism a la Gramsci?

And Counterculture for All

The answer may be found in a rather uncomfortable figure: Milo Yiannopoulos. This young Conservative firebrand had his moment in the spotlight during the 2016 election year (and before) when he became a vocal Trump supporter while infuriating Liberal professors, students, and media to the point of meltdown. His book Dangerous put forth facts and premises on how to fight back against far-Left culture. Although Milo fell from grace due to inappropriate comments, we must give credit when it is due.

Milo maintains that Leftist culture grew exponentially during the hippie era because embracing Liberalism at the time was considered an act of rebellion. Complying with the existing Conservative cultural status quo in the hippie era was seen as conformist behavior and thus not considered “cool.”

Over the decades, this Liberal culture among the younger generation transformed from rebellion to generally accepted cultural norms. Even being gay went from being taboo to conformist normalcy.

Conservatives are the Edgy Nonconformists

Therefore, who is then today’s ultimate outcast and rebel? The answer is a right-winger within a Liberal enclave. Being a vocal young Conservative is the ultimate act of rebellion in today’s culture. Conservatism is therefore modern counterculture. The GOP leadership unfortunately doesn’t understand this and thus fails to capitalize on the possibilities.

Reversing the Gramscian structure discussed above is a difficult long-term initiative, given that the far-Left’s intellectual class, educational monopoly, and political narrative controls the prevailing culture. It is by no means an impossible undertaking, however.

For instance, GOP think tanks need to focus on popularizing trade schools and above all entrepreneurship over a four-year indoctrination period college degree. Making business ownership “sexy” again via start-up culture should be a Conservative branding effort.

Furthermore, Liberals have emphasized how the Republican Party is the party of business. For some odd reason, GOP leadership has shunned that image to some degree. This is a mistake. The business of America has always been business, and GOP should be carrying that banner with pride, at least insofar as small business is concerned. Small business entrepreneurship is an important contingent in the MAGA movement.

Another potential mistake is for the GOP to align itself with crony capitalism or corporatism, i.e. joint ventures between Big Business and Big Government. Most importantly, the GOP needs to reach out to important voter groups now, instead of few months before crucial elections.

Life after President Trump will be different for Conservatives. Will the RNC finally come to terms with what Andrew Breitbart said and what the conservative movement anxiously waits? Or will we fall back to mundane establishment leaders who are culturally unsophisticated and timid policy wonks? In other words, will the future Conservative brand go in reverse, as it were, to the Ford Pinto or morph into a new Ford Mustang?

Author Profile

Henri Erti
Henri Erti
Henri Erti is a writer for NRN. Born in former USSR Estonia, he escaped communism to neighboring Finland where he learned first hand about the atrophying effects of socialism. Erti studied international business in Brevard College (NC) and completed graduate studies in international political economy at Dubrovnik International University (Croatia).