Alex Castellanos is a Republican strategist and regular CNN contributor. He is a founding partner of Purple Strategies, a bipartisan political communications firm.
Harvard Political Review: How have you seen the media’s political coverage evolve in the years since President Obama’s 2008 election?
Alex Castellanos: I think media coverage of politics has devolved. Now that coverage in print and cable is competing with social media for attention, it has gotten shallower. It has gotten shorter. And it has learned to set its hair on fire more. Everything is breaking news, and everything is a crisis. We’re seeing less depth and more fire.
HPR: Is the media simply sensationalistic? Or has it also grown increasingly polarized?
AC: I think the entire country has gotten more polarized. The moderates in both parties have become less so. I think that’s primarily because we’re at a point where we’re trying to choose two very different approaches––an approach that wants to manage society the old way, top-down, with mandates, regulations, and laws, and an approach that wants to manage society bottom-up in a more open way, with incentives.
There is no compromise between those things. I think the news media is covering a more polarized battle. This is trench warfare.
HPR: How would you advise a politician to navigate this politically charged environment?
AC: Republican principles are good for more than saying no, and they need to be. If you’re going to compete for leadership, you can’t just say, “don’t touch the hot stove.” You have to cook something for people.
Our idea is that government isn’t just the old factory in Washington. Government is a lot of social institutions, media institutions. Republicans aren’t necessarily against government; Republicans are against old, big, top-down, factory-style government that doesn’t work anymore in an increasingly complex world.
What I would advise politicians now, certainly on the Republican side, is that if your principles can’t take people to a better place, if they’re only for saying ‘no,’ get out of politics. I think that Republicans have to have more confidence in their ideas. Big, old, dumb, top-down things are dying everywhere. What’s working in the world: Google, Facebook––bottom-up institutions that adapt, that have relationships. Making the big, old factory bigger and belch more smoke is not the answer to our governing problems.
HPR: Regarding the Googles, the Facebooks of the world, do you think that Republicans have to play catch-up in terms of harnessing these web platforms?
AC: I think that Republicans have to play catch-up on technology and social media. But if we think that’s our problem, then we’re dead. That same technology, social media, was available to Republicans just as it was to Obama. Why did it work for him and not for us? Because he was “hope” and “change” and “yes we can.” He was part of a cause that people wanted to be part of.
[Republicans] didn’t have anything to self-organize for. We weren’t a party that people wanted to join. We weren’t a cause. You can have the comfiest seats in the theater, you can have the best popcorn, but if the movie sucks you’re just not going to sell a lot of tickets. So yes, we’re way behind on technology. But if you build a church without Jesus, you’ve got a warehouse.
HPR: How will Republicans’ social platforms evolve in upcoming elections?
AC: I think that social conservatism is important to the Republican Party. I think that every road needs lines painted on the side. Freedom without values is anarchy. You run into the ditch if you don’t paint some lines on the side of the road.
However, Republicans cannot be big, old, factory government on social conservative issues; it’s contradictory. When we cheat, and we embrace the factory to embrace our values, we legitimize it to embrace others’ values. We can’t say that big, dumb, slow, top-down, politically, artificially-determined government in Washington is a bad idea for everything in your life except for social issues. We cannot be big government social conservatives.
There’s a great book called Freedom Nationally, Virtue Locally, and I think that’s a good slogan for the next Republican Party. The idea is that yes, values are terribly important, so important that you have to let people live their own lives. If you want to get married, find a church that loves you, but don’t look for government to say who can and who can’t. That’s not their job. That’s your job. I think we have to be consistent.
HPR: Any thoughts for 2016?
AC: Hillary is looking awfully strong. I do think that the Democratic Party has moved left of her. She’s the era of “big government is over”; Barack Obama is the era of “big government is back.” The Democratic Party is animated by social media, which is much more to the left than the old, Bill Clinton party was. I think she’ll see some restlessness on her left, which might challenge her. I think the party is much closer to Elizabeth Warren or Bill de Blasio than it is to her, but she’s so strong that I think she’ll probably survive it all.
On the Republican side, none of our fruit is ripe. None of our candidates have quite evolved to that level yet. We’re three years out. Every one of them has some terrible flaw or shortcoming or undeveloped part. The good news is that campaigns don’t pick candidates—they make candidates. These men and women fight, struggle, fall, and grow through this process. And our team needs to grow. It could be Jeb Bush if he decides to run. It could be Scott Walker, who is very underrated but has a huge social media presence and a great fundraising capacity, and he’s done a good job as governor. I think you could see Jindal. He has some challenges: does he have “it,” whatever “it” is? But I think he’s certainly competent and intelligent enough to do the job.
We’ll see. There’s a ripe field on the Dems side, young shoots on the Republican side.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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