Make politics about government again

In theory, we elect public officials to run the government.

The government does a lot of things, and public officials make a lot of choices about what it will do. Other choices they make affect how well the government does those things, and how much it costs. But these matters have become less and less central in American politics.

I see two diverging trends.

One is a fixation on small concerns that have little or nothing to do with official actions of governments, such as whose statues should be displayed in public and what NFL players do during the national anthem. The other is a fixation on concerns so large and amorphous they cannot obviously be addressed by public policy: for example, the more expansive versions of the ideas of white supremacy and structural oppression for the left; a sense of “losing our country” for the right.

Both trends have led to a politics that’s not very much about government anymore — and a politics where politicians make promises about cultural matters outside their control, setting themselves up to disappoint the voters.

Voters asked for this

I’m not sure how to allocate blame for this among officials and the electorate.

Hillary Clinton, for example, certainly seemed to want a presidential campaign about public policy, and she produced a long list of policy proposals. Arguably, she had too many policy proposals, and the clutter made it hard for any to stand out.

I think the bigger issue is that so many of the proposals were esoteric and disconnected from voters’ daily concerns. One of her key proposals to boost economic growth was a reform of corporate governance to discourage ‘short-termism’ in business investment. There was a lot of substance in her platform, but it was often hard for voters to envision how it would affect them.

Clinton trumpGettyRepublican presidential nominee Donald Trump (L) and Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the town hall debate at Washington University on October 9, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.

Whatever the reason, both Clinton’s supporters and her opponents seemed more interested in talking about how she made them feel than in what she said she would do.

This was even more true for candidate Donald Trump, whose most-discussed policy proposal — a border wall, to be paid for by Mexico — was widely acknowledged as more about symbolism than border control. Only 48% of Trump’s own supporters believed he would build a wall and get Mexico to pay for it, according to an ABC/Washington Post poll from last September.

But that didn’t stop him from winning the election.

Arguably, the sweeping nature of President Barack Obama’s vision — hope and change — set him up for failure, too. A president can fix some policy problems but he’s unlikely to change the country that much.

The electorate has been reactive to social trends, not policy

The Obama administration’s main economic policy legacy is a shift of America’s fiscal structure away from the rich and toward the poor.

Obama imposed two large tax increases on high earners, in the form of the Affordable Care Act and the partial expiration of the Bush tax cuts. He used the proceeds from these tax increases to finance a large, new entitlement program — a program that hasn’t achieved universal health coverage and that has left a lot of people with insurance they consider too expensive, but that has obviously made working poor Americans better off on average.

And yet, what has happened to voter behaviour during that period? Democrats have improved their standing with higher-income voters and lost ground among lower-income voters. Income is now a poor predictor of presidential vote — education level, which correlates better with cultural values, is a much stronger predictor.

During Trump’s presidency, special elections have shown elevated turnout for Democrats — not mostly among lower-income voters who stand to lose most if Obamacare were repealed, but among highly educated Democrats and independents who have lost the most
cultural power due to Trump’s ascendancy.

Trump has had success diverting American politics into discussion of cultural flashpoint issues with little nexus to government in part because his opponents share his eagerness to fight over such issues.

Even the healthcare repeal effort, objectively a public policy matter of great substance, has been largely about symbolism for its proponents. Republicans have emphasised their desire to undo the core of Obama’s presidential legacy and keep their promise of repeal.

The main political hazard of repeal has been that actually repealing the law could make politics about government again: Voters would notice when they lose their health insurance and no longer be so inclined to vote Republican for cultural reasons.

In a sense, downscale voters who shifted toward the Republicans for cultural reasons have so far been proved right about which issues to prioritise: Trump has not (yet) gutted Medicaid, and he has moved the cultural goalposts against “political correctness,” whatever that is.

Trump has been mocked for his lack of policy accomplishments, but for some of his voters, he delivers best if he implements no policies at all.

Can politics be about government again?

In the long run, I think voters would be happier with the government if public officials made:

  1. concrete promises
  2. about matters voters care about
  3. that are within the government’s power to deliver, and
  4. then actually deliver them.

So, who is prepared to do that?

Sen. Bernie Sanders has a policy agenda that can meet at least the first two of these — and that in theory meets the third, though I am sceptical of the viability in these times of low trust in institutions of his agenda, which involves massively increasing tax collections in order to massively increase spending.

The pitch for single-payer healthcare — instead of your employer paying for health insurance, your employer would pay a large new tax, and we would replace your existing insurance with a plan we promise you’d like a lot — is ripe for resistance from the large majority of Americans who report being satisfied with their existing healthcare arrangements.

But one reason for the surge in enthusiasm for the far left is the policy bankruptcy of the center-left: given the choice between a candidate who proposes single-payer healthcare and one who is full of apologies about why they can’t do single-payer, is it any surprise the latter would generate more enthusiasm?

I have laid out before what I think can be a policy agenda to reinvigorate the center-left. This would refocus attention on problems that are big enough for people to care about and small enough for the government to fix without raising taxes.

By making promises a Democratic administration could actually keep, this would also help rebuild trust in politicians and the government, increasing voters’ openness to new taxes and spending in the long run.

The best exponent of this sort of politics has historically been Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. His Sunday morning press conferences have sometimes been mocked as trivial and attention-seeking. But the problems Schumer addresses in these events — from lax international tracking of stolen passports to laundry detergent pods that children are tempted to eat — are tangible and really addressable by the government.

Another politician who made small-bore politics work was Bill Clinton. His State of the Union addresses were sometimes criticised as laundry lists of small proposals — school uniforms, the V-chip, little tax credits — but this approach was popular and got him reelected.

It may not be intuitive that focusing on small problems and fixing them is the way to make politics more substantive again. But it’s worth a try.

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