BURNET, Texas – In the 1960s Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian educator and philosopher, coined the phrase “the medium is the message.” He meant that the method used to convey a message, the medium, becomes part of the message itself and affects the way the message is perceived. His ideas about technology and human communication were revolutionary. He predicted the advent of the World Wide Web, even though he was writing 30 years before the web and social media like Facebook and Twitter blossomed.
Anyone trying to explain libertarian ideas should remember that “the medium is the message.” They should also keep in mind that the messenger is a medium, so you could say “the messenger is the message.” In many situations the libertarian messenger may be even more important than the message.
People won’t listen to you if they don’t like you, or if you don’t present yourself well. They won’t listen to you if you project an attitude of superiority, if you sound like you think you’re smarter than they are. They won’t listen to you if you call them stupid, or ignorant, or summarily dismiss whatever they say. They won’t listen to you if you argue instead of trying to persuade, or if you are loud or abusive, if you rant and rave.
As I’ve said many times, libertarianism is more than a political philosophy; it is a way of life. We must be it and live it. The libertarian promise of peace and prosperity is one Americans are longing to hear. We don’t need to soften, refine, modify or craft our message to appeal to conservatives or liberals in order to win votes. Instead, we must embrace our beliefs and wear them proudly. Our messengers must be as radical as our message, but in a nice way.
Our messengers must realize that how people receive and understand libertarian ideas depends on their background and upbringing. As any good libertarian communicator will tell you, not everyone gets the libertarian message right away. For many, it takes time. Even for some of the great libertarians I know, it took years for them to fully embrace the philosophy.
Just because someone doesn’t immediately see the light doesn’t make them evil, doesn’t mean they’re the enemy. It’s natural for people to cling to the ideas and ways of doing things they’ve known and believed all their lives. That doesn’t make them sheeple, or Statists, just human. There’s a difference between being ignorant and stupid, but we don’t win any converts by calling people either.
Libertarianism is about tolerance. How can we claim to be principled libertarians when we don’t tolerate those who disagree with us? Who was it that said a libertarian society would tolerate a socialist community within it, but not the other way around? Surely it is a true statement.
Everything we libertarians believe, we believe because we honestly think it’s best for all people. If it truly is the right thing, most people already know it in their hearts. Everything we libertarians believe can be packaged and sold to the voters in a way that invites them to agree with us and join us.
“Don’t teach, sell.” That’s the key to good communication for libertarian candidates. My good friend Sean Haugh once wrote, “You just have to find that sentiment of Liberty already within people’s hearts and connect with it. You can take the most hardcore Libertarian position on any issue and get the majority of people to agree with you, because you make them feel they always agreed with you.”
But sell gently, with calm and compassion. Politics is the art of the possible, as Sean reminds us. That means we must listen to people and present ideas and public policy proposals that make sense to them, in language they understand. We must identify and connect with their goals, their wants, their needs and their aspirations, claim them as our own, and then present to them reasonable, rational — and libertarian — alternatives that will achieve those goals, and meet those wants, needs and aspirations.
Libertarians can make a difference, but only by being different. One of the most important ways we’re different is that our core value is the belief in the individual human being. We dishonor that value by treating any person as less than ourselves in any way, including by demeaning them with our words or dismissing their concerns and ideas.