Say What You Will, Rick Santorum May Be the Hippest Conservative Out There
Here is the biggest bombshell to emerge from Saturday's regional Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC): Rick Santorum was the hippest, most media-savvy speaker in the room.
Photo: Mike Appelstein Santorum to CPAC faithful: "As conservatives we have to get better at telling stories."
This was not at all obvious during his 2012 presidential campaign. But, speaking in St. Charles at a conference whose general theme was "America's Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives," he was one of the only speakers all day who really tackled, head-on, the Right's problems with communication and messaging.
It's a timely message. Conservatives complain, often accurately, about the dumbing down of popular culture. Frequently, though, the response is not to provide a viable alternative, but to merely disengage. This essentially cedes the territory to the Stephen Colberts and Jon Stewarts of the world. It also leaves conservatives less able to defend themselves against the conventional slurs as A) plutocrats who only care about money and to hell with everyone else; B) racists whose every criticism can be traced to the president's African American heritage; C) anti-gay bigots; or D) all of the above.
When the Right has tried to engage in the pop-culture arena, the results have often been mediocre at best. There's a compelling Republican message of self-reliance, personal freedom and merit-based success, as well as an oft-overlooked history of opposing slavery and supporting the 1965 Civil Rights Act. This ought to make for good storytelling regardless of affiliation, but you'd be hard pressed to find it in the past decade or so of attempts.
Consider some of the highest profile efforts. Filmwise, neither of the Atlas Shrugged movies reached above a 30 percent score on Metacritic. Musically, Ted Nugent hasn't made a listenable album in decades, and you'll grow very old waiting for an outwardly Right-leaning band to get even a bad review on Pitchfork. On television, there's Dennis Miller on Fox and Greg Gutfeld's Red Eye, but they alone can't compete against the talk shows and comedy shows. You can blame some of this on the natural bias that exists in media toward conservatives, but let's face it: There is no modern-day Frank Capra out there at the moment. If conservatives wish to attract younger voters and better compete in the war of ideas, this must change.
That's what Santorum is attempting these days. Since losing the 2012 Republican nomination to Mitt Romney, the former Pennsylvania senator has gone into the film business. He's started EchoLight Studios, whose stated goal is produce "faith-based" movies. EchoLight's debut production, The Christmas Candle, is due by year's end. At CPAC, Santorum was obviously in promotion mode -- he hosted a screening of The Christmas Candle, and he closed his speech with its trailer. However, he was also the only speaker to explicitly encourage conservatives to get more involved in popular culture.
"Republicans play defense, protect ourselves, guard our eyes. But the issue is: Why?" he asked. "We're the ones with truth. My message to you is: as conservatives we have to get better at telling stories. Because, like it or not, the American people are increasingly relating better with emotions."
Consider the difference in debate styles, Santorum suggested: "A Republican gets up with a pie chart and statistics. Democrats use pictures. We tell the American public why we are legitimate, and we try to prove it. Democrats tell the American public how they relate and care. The best communicator, the best storyteller...that's who wins.
"The Conservative movement does not need to change to win. We need to understand and relate with people."
Santorum related this to a broader point: that the liberals live and breathe their politics, and this is evident in their embrace of popular culture. "Why do they win elections? Are there more of them?" he asked. "Every poll suggests that 40 percent of the American people identify as conservative. Only 20 percent identify as progressive or liberal. Yet they are moving the needle. Why?"
The answer, he suggested, could be found in the country's very founding. "The British army was better equipped and better armed. But look at the end of the Declaration of Independence: 'We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.' In short, we wanted it more and we lived it in every aspect. That's what liberals do. And we sit back and do nothing."
Santorum's parting advice: "Engage! Quit cursing the darkness! We can win!"
It's a message that many in the audience found refreshing. Writing online, journalist Kira Davis called Santorum's speech CPAC's highlight. "Despite all the ridicule and snark about his faith/social conservatism, Santorum is one of the few Republicans taking concrete action and putting his own capital behind an effort to influence the culture in significant ways," she wrote. "He is putting his money where his mouth is, something that the GOP and other conservatives need to start doing immediately."
But will it succeed?
Continue on for more from the speakers at CPAC's St. Louis summit.