Opinion

Why 'owning the libs' might actually be good political strategy

Old-school conservatives must now recognize and accept the effectiveness of modern online outreach. And if that means "owning" a few libs along the way, then so be it.

If conservatives want to make inroads with young voters, they must shed the image of a staid, uptight movement

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley recently said that those on the right ought to engage in more persuasive, higher-order arguments instead of cheap memes and catch phrases. (Susan Ormison/CBC )

To "own the libs" or not?

That's the question with which conservatives are grappling in light of the remarks made by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley at a recent gathering of Turning Point USA, a conservative student organization. Haley argued that those on the right ought to engage in more persuasive, higher-order arguments instead of cheap memes and catch phrases intended to "own the libs" — in other words, to humiliate or debase liberals.

"I know that it's fun and that it can feel good," Haley said, "but step back and think about what you're accomplishing when you do this — are you persuading anyone? Who are you persuading?"

Many right-wing traditionalists applauded Haley for her comments. And that's the problem. This dated and fusty view of conservatism is part of the reason why the right has traditionally had trouble making inroads with young voters.

Changing tactics

The notion held by some that catchy slogans are of the Democrats' domain, and that Republicans must adhere to boring tomes by calcified thinkers to win voters' approval, appears to finally be changing in the wake of the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. So-called "principled conservatives" must now recognize and accept the effectiveness of modern online outreach — and if that means "owning" a few libs along the way, then so be it.

In a political context, "owning" one's rivals can be accomplished through memes (photos with amusing captions), trolling (deliberately trying to get a rise out of opponents and provoke a self-defeating response) or otherwise scoring a cheap, quick victory through provocative behaviour. It is irreverent piffle, designed solely to annoy the other side and earn laughs from supporters.

Trump effected this approach to great success during his candidacy for presidency, and even after ascending to the Oval Office. His Twitter posts commonly adopt these tactics: in one case, he tweeted a compilation video of election day meltdowns, and in another, a clip from his professional wrestling days, doctored to make it look as though he was pummelling a rendering of the CNN logo.

And each time, it works like a charm: his base — particularly his internet-savvy supporters— is delighted that the president is not so hung up on protocol or foppish solemnity, and his opponents are whipped into an apoplectic rage.

Perhaps Trump recognized what has long been a weakness of Republicans: the perfunctory ceding of cheap, effective slogans to Democrats. Barack Obama had "hope" and "change;" Hillary Clinton had "stronger together" — simple, clear messages to galvanize supporters. Former presidential candidates Mitt Romney and John McCain simply could not – or would not – compete at that level.

Trump's slogans — "Make America Great Again," "America First" and even "Lock her up" — are short, simple and effective. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

Trump, however, is nothing if not media savvy. His slogans — "Make America Great Again," "America First" and even "Lock her up" — are short, simple and effective. Not to mention his deft touch for nicknaming opponents: Crooked Hillary, Little Marco, Lyin' Ted.

Bolstering these are his online tactics— or antics, depending on one's view. Trump recognizes that many young voters will not be seduced by a 200-page treatise from dinosaur George F. Will, but an animated GIF of Hillary Clinton being felled by a golf ball might do the trick.

Predictably, not all conservatives are onboard with this changing dynamic. The usual Never-Trump conservatives — still smarting at being unceremoniously dumped from positions of influence in Washington — will sniff that "character matters" and that Trump's antics are beneath the dignity of the office of the presidency.

But this strange monarchical veneration of the presidency is outmoded and out of touch. To reach young voters, politicians must engage with youth on their terms – much the way the previous Obama administration did with initiatives such as his YouTube outreach, or even Bill Clinton's appearance in 1992 on the Arsenio Hall Show.

It is not to suggest that young voters are so shallow as to be won over solely with bland online pleasantries, embellished by the occasional saxophone solo. But such efforts at least break the ice, elicit voters' attention and get a politician's foot in the door. In the modern context, simply transposing one's campaign online is not enough: to engage with young voters, the message must evolve with the medium.

Ambassador Haley is right in one regard, however. Cheap online tactics alone are not a replacement for solid policy or persuasive argument, and they should not be used as a crutch to make up for shortfalls in that regard. To that end, a balance is needed.

Policy and parodies

Some unlikely conservatives appear to understand that. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example, has taken a liking to his "Cocaine Mitch" alter-ego. But at the same time, he has not lost sight of the importance of solid policy goals such as confirming conservative judges to all levels of the judiciary.

Even Canada's Conservatives, under the leadership of milquetoast Andrew Scheer, have waded into the meme game. But perpetually frightened of causing offence, this does not always go to plan.

Ultimately, if conservatives hope to make progress with young voters, they must shed the image of staid, uptight conservatism. Indulge in memes or other viral online tactics, but do so from a base of solid, defensible policies.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Allan Richarz

Allan Richarz is a privacy lawyer in Toronto.