Opposition to the Trump presidency has thus far been almost entirely reactive. And understandably so: Responding to the incessant outrages and provocations is an exhausting, full-time job.
But over the long run, righteous indignation isn’t enough. We will need to recognize that Trump is a symptom of deeper ills. While including the harm he causes is completely necessary, we also have to look beyond him and tackle the root causes which made his political rise potential.
There is just one certain way to chase the dark forces of authoritarianism, demagoguery, and division from positions of influence and power. And that’s to show that our system of government can still work to make life better–not only for the wealthy and strong, but for many of us.
Success in that task is going to require fresh thinking and a new policy vision which defies prevailing ideological orthodoxies on both sides. Especially, we need bold moves to the right and the left at precisely the same time, embracing both freer, more competitive markets and a broader and generous welfare state.
The case for a new policy vision begins with the recognition that Trump’s appeal, and the appeal of any demagogue, is basically negative. Support for a demagogue means rejection of elites and associations that are based. In case elites are honored and trusted, and the associations that they run are regarded to be in good working order, there is no opening for a populist insurgency. In the United States today, however, trust in government has been eroding for years, as has respect for Congress, the central institution of American democracy.
Inside this gathering crisis of legitimacy, Republicans who have lost faith in the system are easily attracted to unqualified and irresponsible outsiders who could never dream of attaining high office in better-ordered times. The lack of conventional credentials, the scorn of the institution, become badges of honor. In the current case, Donald Trump’s political character is the perfect antithesis of America’s highly educated, cosmopolitan meritocracy: thuggish and anti-intellectual, racially divisive, utterly unqualified, and tragicomically incompetent.
Thus, a political reaction to Trump restricted to condemnation neglects to cover the origin of his or her appeal. Elite contempt and disapproval are political resources for Trump, not obligations, so the continuous barrage of anti-Trump rhetoric does little to dent the core of his support. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. When Trump fans feel they personally are being attacked as “deplorable” racists and xenophobes, they are highly unlikely to reply by joining political positions with their abusers.
Furthermore, since political opportunities for demagogues arise just when the validity of the established order has badly eroded, the development of a populist insurgency is a clear indication of elite failure on a huge scale. Responding to this failure by denouncing populists numbers to blaming the messenger and ignoring the message which the machine is in disrepair.
The most effective method to defend liberal democracy in a crisis of legitimacy is, first of all, to admit the crisis. In other words, to realize that the present rules of this game aren’t working well for everybody and that, therefore, the rules will need to change in significant and far-reaching ways. To reply to the crisis once recognized, it’s important to advance a coherent and compelling vison of effective liberal democratic governance–one which promises bold improvements and can really deliver on its promises.
The attention of that policy vision ought to be the great, surrounding interest that joins all Americans across lines of race, class, sex, and faith: restoring economic dynamism and broadly shared prosperity after decades of slow growth and high inequality. So far in the nineteenth century century, economic expansion has crawled along at half the rate it averaged throughout the previous hundred decades. Meanwhile, the advantages of this diminished expansion have been heavily skewed to favor a relative few at the peak of the socioeconomic scale.
Put both of these trends together, and you will know why, on election night in 2016, just 30 percent of Americans told pollsters that they expected their children to become much better off than they are. When you realize just how many people have started to feel the American Dream is now out of reach, you will understand why trust in our civic institutions is now so badly frayed.
Meeting the great challenge of reviving the American Dream takes us to stake out new and currently vacant land about the ideological spectrum. At the Niskanen Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C., my coworkers and I do just that. We are working to identify and enact policies which simultaneously pursue two objectives typically regarded as in battle: a freer, more dynamic private sector and a larger, more effective public sector. What we’re aiming for, in the words of my colleague Will Wilkinson, is a “free-market welfare state”
Concerns about boosting expansion, unleashing entrepreneurship, and eliminating barriers to competition are usually associated with the political right, whilst support for strengthening the safety net and social insurance is firmly identified with the left. Yet we must make progress on both fronts if we are to break from our present plight.
Although more market dynamism and greater social support are treated as rival, even irreconcilable objectives in today’s political environment, pursuing both goals collectively is in fact the best way to make progress on either. Since the continued aging of the population drives up spending Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, it is going to be hard to keep up the welfare state we’ve–much less improve it–if expansion remains so anemic. Yet revving the “creative destruction” of economic development is going to be a hard sell politically provided that people feel vulnerable and insecure in the face of downside risks.
Unfortunately, both parties these days are galloping off in the wrong direction. Republicans, convinced that a healthy economy demands low taxation rates (and thus comparatively low levels of government spending), are intent on slashing the welfare state, not updating it. Their certainty is basically mistaken. The connection between tax rates and growth is far more modest than they assert, and actually there’s a strong positive correlation between big welfare states and free, prosperous economies.
On the Democratic side, a lot of the power and fire at present comes from people motivated by Bernie Sanders, a guy who just a couple of decades ago held up Venezuela as a model for the United States. The sexy new thought on the left is to revive the trust-busting populism of yore and unleash it on the tech giants Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google– though the information technology sector is one of the few bright spots in regards to innovation.
The present state of thinking in both parties simply underscores the dire need for a new approach. Moving past the false alternatives of Red and Blue, it’s possible to chart a route from this mess we are now in. To prevent Trump along with the forces which propel him those of us who oppose him need to make good on his motto. It’s our job to make America–both its economy and its own democracy–really great again.
Brink Lindsey is vice president and director of the Open Society Project at the Niskanen Center. He is the author, with Steven M. Teles, of The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Boost Inequality.