Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's widely discussed Politico article this week certainly provoked a strong reaction. And you can see why: Whereas Jindal had previously suggested that Republicans ought to engage in some much-needed soul searching (and stop being "the party of stupid"), he has now basically declared that "the time to hesitate is through."
As Slate's Dave Weigel observed, the article read "like a stump speech — like a speech by someone who hasn't debated the other side in a while." This is true, but Weigel's point was quickly undermined when his colleague and fellow boy bander (I use the terms lovingly) Matthew Yglesias made the mistake of tweeting this: "Is Bobby Jindal's reputation for intelligence anything other than ethnic stereotyping?" (Jindal is, in fact, one of the most accomplished and qualified young political leaders in the nation. I defy you to find someone with a better resume — academic or professional.)
Still, Weigel was on to something. There are systemic problems that plague modern parties that are out of power, and consequently, have no de facto leader. In this paradigm the inmates run the asylum. So the way to become the leader isn't to challenge his followers, but instead, to tell them what they want to hear. Jindal's Politico column might be interpreted as a signal that he has gotten with the program.
This, of course, is leading from behind. Real leaders stake out a path they believe is right and has their followers' best interest in mind, and then persuade followers to follow. (This is what Marco Rubio has at least attempted to do with immigration reform.) But real leadership is risky. The pioneers always take the arrows. When a leader attempts to speak tough truths, he is always vulnerable to being undermined by the next guy who wants to replace him. In other words, get too far out on a limb, and the guy who wants to take over can pretty easily give you a push off the tree.
In the short term, what Jindal is doing is probably a win/win. The base feels good because its positions have been reinforced. And Jindal (who tells conservatives what they want to hear) is celebrated and elevated, at least among true believers.
But there are consequences. As long as everyone feels good about themselves, there is no need to change. The permission structure grants permission… to do nothing — to remain the same.
This is fine, unless you believe that stasis is death. And that's pretty much where we're at today. If anyone should understand this, it should be conservatives. If you believe in metrics — in wins and losses (as opposed to the wimpy notion that everyone deserves a participation trophy!) — it should be clear that it is time to adapt and overcome. How many times do Republicans have to lose the popular vote in a presidential election before they accept there is a problem?
I am not suggesting conservatives betray first principles, but rather, apply them to 21st century problems — and then communicate them in a language that might appeal to an increasingly urban, ethnic, and sophisticated audience.
As I've long argued, the GOP should modernize, not moderate. (Interestingly, Jindal used that same verbiage, too.)
But again, conservatives who seek to actually lead put themselves in peril. And this is true for both politicians and pundits. It's a moral hazard. The incentives are bad. It's as if the world is saying, "You can be Lucinda Williams if you want. You can be interesting and edgy and nuanced. But Carrie Underwood is what gets radio airtime. She's the one with the big audience. She's the one everybody loves...."
And so we have a lot of Carrie Underwoods on TV, and a few Lucinda Williamses, mostly relegated to the print world, where cynicism and rebellion are more valued commodities.
Of course, we should at least acknowledge that the music snobs prefer Lucinda, just as the juice boxers can see through the phoniness of Jindal's base pandering. And they are even less tolerant of it coming from someone who ought to know better — someone who is transparently attempting to "dumb down" his message. A politician can survive without these nattering nabobs. But the problem is that there is an increasing dichotomy between what the base gobbles up and what our larger society is buying.
Unfortunately, as I have said before, this has consequences.
"Jindal isn't talking to independents or Democrats in this op-ed. This is solely about telling Republicans what they want to hear," writes Ezra Klein in the Washington Post. "That's how the GOP becomes the stupid party: Republican Party elites like Jindal convince Republican Party activists of things that aren't true. And that's how the GOP becomes the losing party: The activists push the Republican Party to choose candidate decisions and campaign strategies based on those untruths, and they collapse in the light of day."
The problem is similar to the "tragedy of the commons." It is in everyone's collective interest to change, but individually, it's better to keep on keeping on.