The Conversation

Gordon Ramsay's Party Nightmares

It occurs to me that after the 2012 election the GOP is in the position of one of the failing restauranteurs on Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. In the show, which is worth watching (especially the British version), Gordon Ramsay comes in and does a business intervention on a failing restaurant. Inevitably the owner of the failing establishment is holding tightly to some element of his past--the bad menu, the ugly decor, the chef who can't cook--while fewer and fewer people fill the place for lunch and dinner. Here's a brief example (language warning):

The man in that video is convinced that his decor is an important part of his restaurant instead of a distraction and quite possibly a hindrance. He'd rather have the art (and his ego investment in it) than have customers, which is sad. He's so wrapped up in it that he kicks his last, best hope for success right out the front door. That's a pretty good metaphor for some of what's happening on the right at this moment.

If you watch Kitchen Nightmares week after week, it's amazing how many restauranteurs gradually forget the most basic lesson of any business: The customer is always right. Even when he's wrong, he right. Restaurants aren't in the business of telling customers what to like. They're in the business of delivering what customers already like.

The same is true of political parties. The GOP doesn't get to tell the electorate what the principles are for the nation. That happens at the cultural level. Political parties get to appeal to the principles already embraced by the people. So it simply won't work to have our party telling people they like the wrong things. We can try but it's a recipe for disaster (pun intended).

I'm a conservative. I wish people embraced individualism and shunned government largesse in overwhelming majorities. I think it's better for them as individuals and for us as a nation if they do. But the GOP is in the service industry. It has to prepare a menu that will draw more customers than the other guy. That can be a challenge when your competitor is offering big portions of lard-laden food and free drinks. How do you compete without becoming part of the moral hazard?

The answer is you can't. Not completely. We can't--metaphorically speaking--succeed by offering people steamed broccoli. Is it better for them? Yes of course. Will they line up for it? Uh...no. Welcome to the marketplace where people don't always like what's best for them. As conservatives, we defend people's choices--even unhealthy ones--when it comes to Bloomberg's soda ban or smoking. We can't do less in the political marketplace.

The GOP lost in 2012. Minorities and young voters abandoned us like patrons abandoning a failing restaurant. Winning in future elections means doing something to win those voters back. I'm not saying we need to side with Democrats on every giveaway or social issue. But teaching people to love broccoli is not a winning strategy. We need to offer people something they want, even if we're not completely convinced it's what they should want. Politics is ultimately part of the service industry.

I don't know who the Gordon Ramsay is going to be in 2016, but I do know he'll be counseling change in some ways that may make us uncomfortable. If we want to succeed we'll need to embrace it.


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