Further Reflections on the 2016 Election
At this point, being honest with oneself is the highest form of patriotism.
I have previously written about an important development whose durability will only be tested by subsequent elections – party realignment. I have, together with scores of other people who have written on this topic, hypothesized that the main development we are likely observing is the blue collar workers’ movement towards the Republican coalition. For this change to hold, the Republican party would have to deemphasize its support for free trade. Based on some of the first steps that Mr. Trump announced (his rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal), this seems to be happening. Ordinarily, party realignment involved subsequent rebalancing. For instance, whereas African Americans abandoned the Republican party in favor of the Democrats during the New Deal era, many Democrats in the South turned Republican in the 1960s. Clearly, these were processes that took years to shape but the lesson here would be that there is usually some rebalancing in sight. Now, I am not entirely clear about what this rebalancing might look like after 2016. The usual Republican coalition has largely held and yet added disaffected blue collar workers from the Rust Belt. The immediate speculation would be that highly educated, country club Republicans who support free trade, American leadership in the global arena, and fiscal responsibility might turn Democratic. The problem is that the new Democratic Party, as I wrote in my previous article, is likely to react to the election by turning to its liberal wing. Frankly, even among those Republicans who sat out the election, there is little chance they would join such party. Somewhat surprisingly, I can imagine further strengthening of the current Republican coalition, one that would see minority voters crossing the party line. If Mr. Trump delivers on his fiscal expansion through infrastructure spending, the blue collar worker might indeed benefit. Minority voters, too, might suddenly realize that the party they had long seen as “theirs” has done little to improve their lot. Once it will be clear that the minorities’ support for the Democrats rests to a large degree on habit and emotional attachment, first the attachment and then the electoral support might erode.
As always, there is ground to believe that I might be wrong in my predictions. First, Donald Trump, quickly showing flexibility on some of his signature pre-election promises, is a poster child populist. That, not some immalleable flaw of character, is what we should worry about. Ideological dogmatism is frustrating and at times dangerous, but it is predictable. The unpredictable whim that governs the populist’s compass is perhaps more worrisome. In any case, populists are good at exploiting the establishment’s weaknesses but they are much worse at delivering real solutions. If no sensible solutions are delivered, the populist of yesterday will be defeated by another opportunist, no doubt at a great cost to our democracy. Second, the liberals could engage in some soul-searching and genuine reflection to find out why it was that their core constituency abandoned their party. They could also realize that the more they talk about expert opinion and the worshiped “facts,” the more they forget that many of Mr. Trump’s voters did not need more informational leaflets, government handouts, or treatment for their alleged bigotry. What many of them likely sought was mere understanding, respect, and genuine attention to the problems they face. If the emotional reaction that many liberals have displayed since the election is any guide, this reflection is long in coming.
I can recommend two pieces that discuss the striking lack of self-reflection among the punditry: one by David Brooks and one by Mitch Albom.
To conclude, the Trump presidency is still a big unknown. The underlying reasons to be worried remain. Mr. Trump’s populist instinct could turn him in any direction, his openness to isolationism could make the United States weaker. On the other hand, the Supreme Court might be less activist. A few more thoughts on this: although the Supreme Court has undoubtedly been a crucial institution responsible for preserving and enhancing American democracy (adding a check on the other two branches of government in Marbury v. Madison, all the civil rights cases starting with Brown v. Board of Education), it has in the last few years made a number of activist decisions which, in my view, simply do not find support in the Constitution (Citizens United v. FEC, the gay marriage decision in Obergefell v. Hodges). Note that I am not necessarily questioning the substance and direction of these decisions (although here, too, I have my opinions), I am rather concerned with the way in which these far-reaching changes were forced upon the American society. It was not at the ballot box that gay marriage was legalized, it was at the behest of nine unelected judges that an important social institution was redefined. In other words, the process matters and even good ends do no justify the means.
Ultimately, we will need plenty of reflection, constructive self-criticism, and an open mind capable of admitting that we were wrong. In fact, we might need to do that more than once in the years ahead.