Friday, June 28, 2019

Why doesn't the left attack Trump from the right, and other dilemmas

William S. Hart in Hell's Hinges (1916), via Fritzi.

Well, here's an urgent question: how is the Democratic party going to get David Brooks's vote in 2020 ("Dems, Please Don't Drive Me Away")?
I could never in a million years vote for Donald Trump. So my question to Democrats is: Will there be a candidate I can vote for?
According to a recent Gallup poll, 35 percent of Americans call themselves conservative, 35 percent call themselves moderate and 26 percent call themselves liberal. The candidates at the debates this week fall mostly within the 26 percent. The party seems to think it can win without any of the 35 percent of us in the moderate camp, the ones who actually delivered the 2018 midterm win.

Brooks now identifies as one of those soccer moms, I guess. I'm just so fatigued with the one-dimensional view of politics—everybody standing on that line, with everybody else to their left or their right, and the politician's job being to capture a majority by dominating a particular line segment. You'd think if we'd learned nothing else from Trump, we'd have learned that that's not how it works.

Previous politicians for such a long time, starting maybe in the Nixon era, have generally believed in it and conducted themselves accordingly, offering a menu of attitudes and proposals they think will be tuned to the line segment they're aiming at, not too far left to alienate the voters at the right side of the segment and not too far right to upset the ones on the left, so it's a self-fulfilling prophecy that just about any politician who wins a big contest, Senate or presidency, is going to have a program designed that way, "center-left" or "center-right", which is then understood as proof that that is the right approach.

Then comes Trump with a list of things that makes no sense whatever in these terms, throwing stuff from the extreme right—the xenophobia focused on religion (Islam) and ethnicity (Latin American) and the authoritarianism—with stuff that seems classically center-right (the upper-class tax cut masquerading as a middle-class tax cut) or center-left (the closing of tax loopholes on "hedge-fund guys"), stuff in its own "horseshoe" spot (the belligerent isolationism), and stuff that seems impossible to place anywhere because the idea itself isn't stable: sometimes his fondness for tariffs sounds like protectionism, sometimes it sounds like mercantilism; sometimes his healthcare idea seems to be Obamacare with Obama's name removed, sometimes it seems to be doctrinaire socialized medicine. Of course it's now blindingly clear that he has little idea what he's talking about, picks up a range of slogans from people who disagree with each other without regard to contradictions, and adopts them according to how they test out with his rally audiences, so there's no reason to expect it to be coherent, but the political-science point I'd like to emphasize is that whatever it was it got a lot of votes.

What Trump was almost entirely unconsciously doing, it seems to me, was in fact abandoning the line segment approach in favor of something else that works better for making a majority: assembling a coalition of voters with different interests about which they felt strongly enough that they were willing to ignore, and I mean literally not notice, things they didn't like, from their feelings on tax cuts to their feelings on abortion. And this is in fact what successful politicians always do, Republicans and Democrats, but pandits since the 1960s normally don't notice it, because other politicians are more or less coherent, and it's rarely difficult to shoehorn the results into the line segment picture they prefer. Trump's success with an utterly incoherent program shows that's a mistake to do that.

Which brings me back to the thing I was wrestling with on Wednesday, trying to get a better picture (not poisoned by the "white working class" concept) of what our basic coalitions look like, in general demographic terms: a Republican coalition of mainly white Christian people, older and generally more prosperous, educated and not, animated by a sense of being overtaxed, or fear of the alien, or literalist religiosity, or all of the above; and an ethnically and culturally mixed Democratic coalition, younger and relatively more female, consisting of a working class in the traditional sense of the term (including the unemployed) and a cohort of relatively precariously employed professionals, animated by a desire to escape the oppression of the old.

Which is why I'm really not too worried about David Brooks's vote.
First, there is health care. When Warren and Kamala Harris raised their hands and said that they would eliminate employer-based health insurance, they made the most important gesture of the campaign so far. Over 70 percent of Americans with insurance through their employers are satisfied with their health plan. Warren, Harris and Sanders would take that away.
Harris walked that back pretty fast. I'm a little surprised that Warren hasn't done the same,  given how extremely cagy she's been up to this point, but there's some room for latitude still, as Kirsten Gillibrand showed when she didn't raise her hand to that question but did support Sanders's proposal all the same, explaining it more intelligibly than Bernie himself did (the gradual implementation of Medicare For All will leave the insurance companies in existence for a while, during which they are likely to find new markets, as they did with the original Medicare).
Second, there is the economy.... Democrats have caught the catastrophizing virus that inflicts the Trumpian right. They take a good point — that capitalism needs to be reformed to reduce inequality — and they radicalize it so one gets the impression they want to undermine capitalism altogether.
I don't think Brooks understands that capitalism's job is to increase inequality and that a millionaire tax isn't enough to reverse that.
Third, Democrats are wandering into dangerous territory on immigration. They properly trumpet the glories immigrants bring to this country. But the candidates can’t let anybody get to the left of them on this issue. So now you’ve got a lot of candidates who sound operationally open borders. 
That may or may not be a real rhetorical problem, though I think it's mainly one of figuring out how to respond to rightwing lies about this, since none of us do in fact support open borders; what we support is following asylum law as written.
Fourth, Democrats are trying to start a populist v. populist campaign against Trump, which is a fight they cannot win. Democratic populists talk as if the only elite in America is big business, big pharma — the top 1 percent.... But the big divide in America is not between the top 1 percent and the bottom 99. It’s between the top 20 percent and the rest. These are the highly educated Americans who are pulling away from everybody else and who have built zoning restrictions and meritocratic barriers...
There is something in that one, perhaps, though the people who respond to it strongly are clearly not the young people who don't have an equal opportunity as much as the old people who feel mocked culturally, who won't vote for Democrats anyway. I don't know how far actual plans, from free college or better free post-tertiary training of whatever kind to the terms of a Green New Deal and higher wages and improved social safety net can correct it, but the people gentrification mostly displaces are Democrats, and landlords are just as big as pharma.
Finally, Democrats aren’t making the most compelling moral case against Donald Trump. They are good at pointing to Trump’s cruelties, especially toward immigrants. They are good at describing the ways he is homophobic and racist. But the rest of the moral case against Trump means hitting him from the right as well as the left.
Well, nobody's stopping you, David.

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