Monday, October 31, 2016

What do voters think?

There is a popular video on YouTube right now, a skit from Saturday Night live about a game of "Black Jeopardy."  If you haven't seen it, you should, both because it is funny and because I think there are a lot of things about race relations in America to learn from it (though perhaps not always the things that most people take from it).

But I don't want to talk about race relations; I want to talk about politics.  At one point, Tom Hanks's character responds to the Jeopardy "answer" "They out here saying that every vote counts" with "Come on, they already decided who wins even before it happens."  And in the skit, it is axiomatic that this is a standard view of blacks in America, as well as an assumption shared by many whites.  This strikes me as extraordinary.

I say it is extraordinary, although I grew up among people who thought along similar lines.  What is extraordinary is that no political analysts that I am aware of ever discusses this segment of the electorate.  No politician aims campaign ads or slogans at people like this.

Still, there are people who believe this.  Not just a few members of fringe groups, but relatively large swaths of potential voters.  Wouldn't some smart political strategist want to tap into these voters?  I suspect that there are many who are aware of them (how could they not be?), but they don't dare on the grounds that news agencies and pundits would mock them out of contention.  You are supposed to stick to serious points, and how do you appeal to paranoid voters with serious arguments?  Or at least, with arguments that pass as serious among the cognoscenti?  So to the extent that politicians try to appeal to these voters, it is indirectly, by implying things:  we're going to clean up Washington, we're going to end corruption, etc.

It is probably obvious that this description closely fits Donald Trump's campaign.  Trump has few specific things to say, but he has been emphatic that he is an outsider and he is going to fix the corrupt political system.  The fact that reporters and other politicians hate him increasese his appeal among voters who think things are rigged.  And the fact that he thumbs his nose at these other people and insults them feeds the image that he is different.  Only someone who is truly not a career politician can make a credible claim that he is going to do things differently.  Reagan had something similar going; although he had been governor of California, he had never been an official in Washington, and the elite looked down their noses at him.  Of course, Reagan was very educated about politics, had thought deeply on the issues, and had a much more moderate approach, so his campaign was much different in tone than Trump's.  One of the advantages of Reagan's approach is that he alienated few people, and therefore was very successful.  Trump has alienated as many voters as he has attracted, but his supporters are even more emphatic because they know their man will not mix with the existing political class on any terms except his own.

Trump's two signature issues, immigration and trade, are symptomatic.  I have said for many years that politicians could win great support by pushing a hard line on these two.  (For the record, I agree with enforcing existing laws on immigration, but I oppose tariffs or other restrictions on foreign trade.)  I'm glad trade restrictionism has never caught on in my lifetime, but I am continually surprised that no one has pushed for stronger action on immigration.  Sure, some politicians on the Republican side have campaigned for tougher immigration laws, but no one has made it a signature issue.  And there is that odd phenomenon that even those who do make a point of supporting immigration enforcement, such as Marco Rubio, seem to melt when it comes time to craft actual legislation.  It is so frowned upon in the public square that no one dares to risk his political career arguing for a point that, in my opinion, is a sure electoral winner.

Someone like Tom Hanks's character in Black Jeopardy, as well as many others of his ilk -- and we have to include a lot of blacks in this group -- are going to support Trump because they think the system is rigged, and any politician who says he is going to fix it is too much a part of the system to be truly credible.  There is no way to paint Trump as part of the system, and that makes him exactly what these voters are looking for.

Stepping back a moment, however, from specific candidates and elections, I would like to ask why we don't discuss these voters on a regular basis?  And by "these voters," I mean not just those who think that elections are rigged, but anyone holding views that would never get accepted in national journals or newspapers.  Some of these views are, of course, odious, but I don't think it does any good just to dismiss the people who hold them and pretend they don't exist.  This ties back to my last post about "realms of ignorance":  vast portions of the electorate simply don't think about politics that much, and therefore have very unsophisticated, and sometimes stupid, views.  But that doesn't mean they are stupid people.  Perhaps they do have a point if there are elections every two years but nothing ever seems to change from their perspective.  What a revelation it would be if politicians started talking about issues in terms that mattered to these people rather than debating ever more obscure policy points.  Obviously, we need people who understand the finer points of policy; that's how good laws get made.  But we also need an electorate who has a reason to care about different policy choices, and if little or nothing that the government does resonates with them -- if they feel that everything is more or less fixed and their vote counts for nothing -- then we need to address that, too.

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