Friday, July 1, 2016

The era of arguing about big government

Update 7/4: Happy Glorious Fourth and Welcome Mike's Round Up Fans—Thanks, Batocchio!

Charles Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925). Via somebody's Tumblr.
David Brooks ("The Coming Political Realignment", July 1 2016) gives us yet more hints on his reporting techniques during his voyage into the heart of whiteness last spring, after his sudden realization that he didn't know how to do his job and decision to leap across the chasms of segmentation and get socially intermingled with the white working-class voters, telling us what he did on his investigative visit to Pittsburgh, in addition to interviewing factory owners and school principals:

I recently got a tour of it from the mayor, Bill Peduto. We visited a beautiful, tight Italian community with family-owned businesses stretching back generations. We visited a resurging African-American community where local activists were building a cultural center in the home of the great playwright August Wilson. Mostly we just saw acres and acres of new development: new restaurants, new museums, new loft-style office spaces and several gleaming new hospitals.
This reconnaissance was evidently over by 11:00 or so, leaving him the afternoon for a more explicit hunt for white working-class voters, which he conducted by driving around looking for a steelworkers' lunch spot where he would be able to get socially intermingled with some of the chaps, but unfortunately he failed to locate one:

I drove through the steel mill towns along the Monongahela and other rivers. The storefronts and banks were boarded up, the downtowns deserted. The mills are still operating, but they are so efficient they’re eerily empty of human presence. The towns still have residents, but not much is going on. I drove for miles, unable to find even a diner for lunch.
Let alone a properly constituted Applebee's, if you know what I mean. Still, he had witnessed enough to enable him to draw some tentative conclusions:

one Carnegie-Mellon type layer of prosperity and innovation had grown on top of the old working-class layer, which was still there and in bad shape.
"Elementary, my dear Watson! There appear to no working-class white voters here because these unhappy fellows have been literally buried alive, beneath..." Carnegie-Mellon type? My brain invaded by the picture of hordes of distressed steelworkers huddled in underground warrens beneath the campus of the famed university. But what Brooks means is to display his advanced knowledge of the history of Pittsburgh, whose Great Men in the past included Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon, and to suggest that there are probably some other Great Men running the place today.

The steelworkers, in any case, may well be in pretty bad shape, but he still hasn't met any of them.

Evidence so far is that he has met just one white working-class person in his travels, the West Virginia woman who didn't want to give a speech in church. I'm afraid the long and the short of it is he still hasn't learned how to do that job.

Coincidentally, the Trump went to Pittsburgh too, where he spoke to large numbers of what I guess must have included some white working-class people, though I doubt he listened to any of them, and this is what enables Brooks to bring it up and shoehorn a few hundred words on the city into his column. What Brooks actually wants to write about is a sort of interesting idea, which is that the era of big government may not be over, but the era of arguing about big government is over, thanks to the Trump, to be replaced by a new era of arguing over what he refers to as "open/closed":

Trump’s only hope is to change the debate from size of government to open/closed. His only hope is to cast his opponents as the right-left establishment that supports open borders, free trade, cosmopolitan culture and global intervention. He would stand as a right-left populist who supports closed borders, trade barriers, local and nationalistic culture and an America First foreign policy.
He won't succeed at that, Brooks thinks, but he will succeed in fundamentally altering the political debate in the United States.

It's fun to note that there's a conservative, traditionalist, Burkean side to that equation, and a liberal, cosmopolitan, relativistic side, if you ignore the hint that the "closed" side is opposed to military adventures (hardly true of Trump and his "USA!"-shouting fans, and not at all true of Burke himself, who strongly favored the ideologically driven war against France, for example) and the open side favors them (not true of the rank and file of the Democratic party any time since 1968, in spite of the occasional tumble on the part of leadership). We know which one is the home of bigotry, but I'm damned if I can figure out which side Brooks likes.

I, as you know, don't believe the debate has ever been honestly about the size of government but about who gets the benefits and who feels the boot, and about the efforts of the very wealthy class to free itself from regulation and taxes by building a coalition with relatively poor white racists (who now seem increasingly not so much poor as just deeply anxious to preserve their sense of superiority to black people and immigrant populations), with people who want to take away benefits from the poorest, people who want the weight of government to be felt by the irreligious or libertine, people who want to be allowed to say the N-word in public, and so on.

The alternative story Trump is telling is really not very different from that, or very original either: it's the story that's been offered for years by Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot in particular. It's downvaluing the importance of the conservative-Christian element in the Republican coalition, who want big government to oppress women and gay people, and upvaluing the importance of the isolationist element, who want big government to oppress recent immigrants and people who speak languages other than English, which has been an essential part of the conservative coalition since pretty much forever.

Brooks thinks the difference is that there is now a Buchanan-Perot constituency on the left, among the people who believe in equality among the genders and races and who want regulation and higher taxation for the wealth class:

On trade, for example, 60 percent of Republicans, 49 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of independents believe that trade agreements are mostly harmful, according to a Brookings Institution/Public Religion Research Institute study.
"On trade, for example," because there aren't any other examples.

I think that is a ludicrous misreading of what anti–trade agreement sentiment among Democrats is about. It's not people who are afraid of foreigners; it's people who are (not without reason) afraid of capitalists, who they believe (not without evidence) try to suborn the negotiating process for their own benefit. It's not supporters of an America First foreign policy; it's people who want more diplomatic engagement and less military engagement (which Trump, in agreement with Sanders and Clinton, actually promises, though unlike them he clearly doesn't have a clue what he's talking about). The same young people who are deeply (and I think to some extent wrongly) enraged by the history of NAFTA and the prospect of the TPP are online lamenting Britain's departure from the greatest trade agreement of them all, you know.

Brooks may well be right to think that the advent of Trump has destroyed the basis of the traditional Republican alignment, and that something partly new may arise to take its place. But whoever's left will still be muttering (disingenuously) about "big government" no matter what. He's wrong to think he knows how it will pan out, and utterly wrong to think that whatever happens among Democrats will be its mirror image.

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