Playing the Trump Card: The Party Elite, Wonks, the Rest of Us
Jonathan Chait had a great essay this week on Donald Trump. The main point is that Trump is eventually going to lose because he is crazy. The real meat is a great piece of analysis about weaknesses in the party systems that led to Trump’s rise.
Chait notes that there is often a wide-range of differences between the party bases and the party elite. He writes: “By design or (more likely) by accident, Trump has inhabited a ripe ideological niche. Both parties contain ranges of opinions within them. And both are run by elites who have more socially liberal and economically conservative views than their own voters. (There are plenty of anti-abortion, anti-immigration, anti-same-sex-marriage Democrats not represented by their leaders.) But the tension between base and elite runs deeper in the Republican Party. Conservative leaders tend to care very little about conservative social policy, or even disagree with it altogether. Conservatives care a great deal about cutting the top tax rate, deregulating the financial industry, and, ideally, reducing spending on social insurance — proposals that have virtually no authentic following among the rank and file.”
I think this is basically correct, though I am not so sure about whether the disconnect is worse in the Democratic Party. I am old enough to remember when Paul Wellstone was very popular for saying he represented the “Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party.” I think the rise of people like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders is a direct response and rebellion against decades of Bill Clinton and DLC Triangulation and “all globalization is good.” The Davos Democrat who loves Larry Summers is largely dead. Though I do think Chait is wrong when it comes to social issues: I think the Democratic base and elites are probably more aligned on social issues than economic ones. The reason why someone like Jeb Bush can be a relatively pro-immigration Republican is that he is more concerned with how business elites want immigration for potentially cheaper labor over how a voter feels about possibly needing to compete with someone who is willing to work longer hours for less pay and fewer benefits. Trump’s anti-immigrant stance is xenophobic, but it is also connected to very real American concerns over decades of stagnant wages even if the math about whether immigration lowers wages is complicated. Truth is often irrelevant to sentiment and emotion. People know that their wages are stagnant. They don’t want to hear about whether this makes economic sense or not. They want to feel like their wages are going up or have their wages go up. People are often seemingly unconcerned or unconvinced by arguments over cheaper goods and services.
But the disconnect between working class Republicans and the party elite is huge. While “Keep government out of my medicare and social security” might be inchoate and misdirected rage, it does show how popular and well-loved those Democratic legacies are. The Republican elite can talk about why we need to raise the retirement age and privatize Social Security because it is much easier to be a white-collar worker until 70 as opposed to a construction worker who stands in the elements and develops a minor to moderate case of arthritis from swinging a hammer for eight to twelve hours a day.
Kevin Drum noted that Trump has a bunch of relatively to very liberal policy viewpoints which would normally sink any other GOP candidate. Ezra Klein notes that trump is the perfect “moderate” because his positions tend to be very conservative like his anti-immigration xenophobia or very liberal when he sounds like a Democratic candidate on Social Security. This is usually what happens when pollsters describe someone as a moderate. The pollsters are lazy and they just take the person who has some right-wing views and left-wing views and calls that person a moderate.
This is really why Trump is surging in the GOP field. I’ve long noted that wonky types are often great at writing well-researched papers about what should be the ideal policy on an issue but the problem is that they are horrible at interacting or enacting those ideas using the democratic process. One reason why I think people like Ezra Klein and Josh Barro went into journalism over politics is that they are seemingly unable to get their ideas enacted by the voting public. This does seem to be a bipartisan wonkery problem. djw is the transit and urban planning guy at Lawyers, Guns, and Money. Like many transit and urban planning people, he dislikes suburbs and exurbs, wants more people take public transit instead of cars, and even opposes park and ride because it leads to horrible land policy and encourages sprawl.
The problem as I see it is that djw and other wonks don’t know how to enact their policies in an electorate that seems to like suburban and exurban living. I get the arguments about why denser urban living is more popular. I get the arguments from the wonks that the reason it is popular is because the costs of sprawl are often subsidized or hidden from the voters. But the issue for me is that wonks don’t seem to understand that voters might choose to subsidize and hide these costs themselves because that is how they want it. The dense and walkable neighborhood brigade doesn’t know how to deal with the fact that the United States is not Japan or Singapore and we have a lot of livable space. The reason we have sprawl is because people probably do want a detached home for themselves more than they want a walkable neighborhood with restaurants and bars in walking diatance.
One commentator on the transit link thread made this argument:
Well, let’s find out! Let’s take one train station and see what happens if we abolish the free Park and Ride (paying parking is ok) and upzone the neighborhood for development. We might just see a dense, walkable village develop around the station*. After all, in the Bay Area at least, people are willing to pay a premium for city-living, so the demand for this kind of neighborhood is quite high.
I agree with djw that the only way to know if people are willing to pay the full cost of sprawl is to stop subsidizing their lifestyle. Are they really willing to pay for the Park and Ride, the roads, etc.?
The problem as I see it is that there is no way to run this sort of experiment in a democratic country where citizens can vote. What suburb are you going to pick and how long are you going to be able to run your experiment before politicians start receiving a lot of angry calls from voters in that area.
So this is all about Trump. He is basically telling people that this is a democracy and pointing out that the party elite basically takes their votes for granted. His billionaire status helps here because he doesn’t need to listen to anyone but himself. Interestingly this worked for Bloomberg as well but in a much more wonky way. As much as people thought Bloomberg was paternalistic, no one was able to defeat him in an election. Trump might be a summer entertainment but he speaks to very real frustrations.