Friday, December 09, 2016

Trump Transition is Vindicating the Instrumental Rationality of his Voters

by Michael Dorf

Two stories in Tuesday's New York Times underscored an emerging theme in the coming Trump administration. One noted that a meeting between Trump and Al Gore provided environmentalists with some reason for hope that the administration will not abandon existing commitments on climate change and environmental policy more generally, even as Trump not-so-quietly goes about naming climate-change skeptics and drill-baby-drill enthusiasts to fill key posts. The second, with a headline about the choice of Ben Carson to head HUD, noted that the planned Carson nomination and other domestic policy personnel choices signaled that Trump would likely govern from the right, even with respect to issues on which he had either not campaigned at all or campaigned as a centrist.

It is tempting to read these stories and wonder about Trump's motives. Is he simply a bumbling narcissistic ignoramus who takes meetings with whoever flatters him and will make policy based on the last person who spoke with him? Is he an evil genius without any core convictions who nonetheless recognizes that the way to achieve and hold power is to delegate policy making to the far-right-wingers who will provide his base of support while he holds up enough shiny objects--whether in the form of provocative tweets or hints at moderation that go nowhere--to distract the press and those parts of the public that lack firm political convictions?

Trump invites an endless stream of such speculation about what is really going on between his ears. What does he think about the anti-semitism his campaign has inspired and unleashed, given that he has a Jewish daughter and Jewish grandchildren? To what extent, if any, are his policy pronouncements driven by his business interests? Etc. These are important questions, but in their focus on Trump himself they tend to overshadow larger forces. Here I want to suggest a reading of the most recent news and of the election that focuses more on those larger forces.

Here too it is easy to make the mistake of being distracted by marginalia. Why did just enough voters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan swing to Trump to carry the Electoral College for him? Why weren't Latino and African American turnout higher? How much of a role did James Comey play in the election? What role did Clinton fatigue play?

Again, these are all interesting questions but they miss the big picture. To my mind, the prima facie gigantic mystery of 2016 is how so many people voted for Trump. In asking that question, I don't mean to rehash the debate over the relative role of racism, economic anxiety, media, etc. I'm not especially interested right now in what swung the relatively small number of swing voters. I want to know what led millions of Republicans to vote for Trump despite their very substantial and very well-justified doubts about his qualifications along virtually every relevant dimension. Never mind why Trump won some Rust Belt states by a few thousand votes. How do we explain the fact that over 60 million people voted for him?

Upon inspection, there is no mystery at all. Nearly all of those people voted for Trump because he ran as a Republican and they favor policies Republicans generally favor, from deregulating industry to keeping guns easily accessible to forbidding most abortions. These people may have bad reasons for being Republicans. For example, they might doubt that man-made global warming exists, they might think that legal same-sex marriage threatens the stability of society, they might believe that anti-white racism is a bigger problem than anti-Black racism, they might want the U.S. to worry less about civilian casualties and civil rights in fighting terrorism, etc. But given their views across the range of issues that divide Democrats and Republicans, it was instrumentally rational for Republicans to vote for Trump, despite their doubts about his temperament, qualifications, and commitment to their issues, because whatever the sum of those doubts, he was always more likely to carry out policies favored by Republicans than was Clinton or any other plausible Democratic nominee.

To be sure, some Republicans, even very strongly ideological Republicans, might have chosen not to vote for Trump because they feared that his tendency to lash out would lead him to start a nuclear war in a fit of pique. Indeed, that remains a rational fear, made more urgent by Trump's conversation with the President of Taiwan and subsequent aggressive statements towards China. (The risk is less that Trump will get us into a civilization-ending nuclear war with China, although that risk is non-zero, than that Trump's more aggressive posture will lead Beijing to play less of a role in constraining North Korea.) If I had a vote for where to set the hand of the Doomsday Clock, which currently stands at 3 minutes before midnight, on the basis of Trump's election I'd move it at least a minute forward. (Had Clinton won, I would not have moved it back, but I wouldn't have moved it forward either.) But then, part of the calculation used to set the Doomsday Clock is the risk of catastrophe from global warming and remember, our instrumentally rational Republican voters don't worry much about that.

There are, of course, other reasons why traditional Republicans might have been and remain wary of Trump, most notably his opposition to Republican orthodoxy on trade. But here Republicans may be able to count on Congress to resist Trump. Yet a third story in Tuesday's NY Times made just this point: Republicans might be willing to stomach a few Carrier-style deals by which companies that were planning to cut jobs in the U.S. in favor of cheaper labor elsewhere receive tax breaks to stay, but they will balk at Trump's proposal to impose a 35% tax on goods imported from firms that moved jobs outside the country.

As an aside, I'll just note that the GOP congressional opposition to the plan is sensible. If the tariff applies only to U.S. companies that formerly made products in the U.S., it simply favors foreign goods made by foreign firms. To avoid that idiocy, the Trump plan would need to levy a 35% tax on all imported goods, which would lead to a full-on highly destructive trade war.

But my point here isn't that Trump's proposal is bad (although it is). My point is rather that the instrumental rationality of Republicans who held their noses and voted for Trump is looking more and more instrumentally rational by the day--as Trump increasingly turns to GOP conservatives to staff his government and the GOP Congress vows to push back against the most unorthodox elements of Trump's program.

The upshot is that increased intra-party ideological purity and increased inter-party polarization over the last two decades have led the U.S. to become something like a parliamentary democracy. Notwithstanding the fact that presidents are elected separately from Congress, the vast majority of voters have strong party preferences that determine their presidential votes and their congressional votes. Only two prior presidents (JQ Adams and Rutherford Hayes) lost the popular vote by a higher percentage margin than Donald Trump and yet won the Electoral College, but for my purposes the more salient statistic is the relative closeness of the popular vote in the last five presidential elections. Obama won by what we regard as a comfortable margin of over 7% in 2008, yet that was in the midst of what looked like it could be a replay of the Great Depression. For the foreseeable future, it is highly unlikely that we will see anything like the 18% margin by which Reagan won re-election in 1984, much less FDR's 24% margin in 1936. There just aren't enough swing voters to generate those sorts of margins.

One of the many justifiable complaints about the media coverage of the 2016 election was the almost invisibility of policy. That begins to look less crazy when one realizes that there isn't much of a market for policy news. The vast majority of voters were either going to vote for Clinton because they're Democrats or for Trump because they're Republicans. Those people are interested in policy but there's almost nothing that could have been said that would have dislodged them from their choices because the gap between what the parties favor is much larger than could be closed by an article or news segment discussing policy. The folks in the middle, by contrast, were not going to vote on policy anyway. If they had strong policy views they would already be either Republicans or Democrats (or Libertarians or Greens or something). Swing voters were paying attention to the ephemera served up by the media--the latest Trump scandal or outrageous statement du jour and the endless discussion of Clinton's emails--because they were always going to vote on the basis of something other than policy.

That such people could compare and contrast Trump and Clinton and conclude that Trump was the lesser evil was and will always remain mind-boggling, but looking to the small number of people who were swingable and swung towards Trump is like blaming the star basketball player who misses a last second shot at the end of the game, when his teammates repeatedly made poor plays for the first 47 minutes and 59 seconds of the game. Yes, the missed shot at the end of the game is a but-for cause of the result, but if the coach responds by drilling his players on last-second shots rather than on the fundamentals that made the game close in the first place, he's missing the big picture.

Finally, in saying all of the foregoing, I do not deny that the reason people who identify as Republican (or as Democratic) favor policies favored by Republican (or Democratic) officials often has little to do with the policy merits. Polarization exists in part because of the effectiveness of packaging and a kind of brand loyalty to the parties. After all, there's no reason why support for gun rights would be inversely correlated with support for abortion rights, but once one joins a team, issue preferences tend to be formed as a group rather than a la carte. I'll grant all of that, but it's still true that once people have the party-related preferences they have, they vote accordingly. Trump's successful primary campaign revealed that free trade is not nearly as important to GOP voters as we might have previously thought, but his moves since the election reveal that whatever he attempts or accomplishes on trade, he will in most respects look like a generic Republican on policy.


Shag from Brookline said...

It could be said that 60+ million Republicans voting for Trump voted on pocketbook issues, not necessarily their own pocketbook issues but that of Trump, without fully realizing it. Alas, unlike marriage voting in haste does not allow for repenting at leisure in politics.

Stephen Griffin said...

Mike, excellent post, captures my thinking as well. "Generic" Republican -- on domestic policy I agree, on foreign policy not so sure. Not so much because Trump is different from other Republicans but because foreign policy generally is so up in the air.

Jim said...

A fairly minor quibble with a first-rate post: rather than saying in conclusion that Trump "will in most respects look like a generic Republican on policy," I would contend that the Trump administration will in most respects look like a generic Republican administration on policy. I see no evidence that Trump plans to actually serve in the role of President as that position is understood in American history. While his appointees mostly pursue conventional Republican policies, Trump himself seems likely to behave like some sort of quasi-royalty.

Given his ignorance of and disinterest in policy matters, it seems inaccurate to characterize him as advocating for or carrying out policies, whether generic Republican or otherwise. It would be like asking whether Queen Elizabeth's policies lean more toward Labour or Conservative.

David Ricardo said...

Agree on the ‘excellent post’ comment, this is definitely one of the best ever on this Forum.

Part of the explanation for the Republican/Trump vote is the dominance of the single issue voter with respect to the Republican party vs the multiple issue voter with respect to the Democratic party. A single issue voter takes one issue and it dominates his/her voting choice. A multiple issue voter looks at the overall policy positions of the candidate and votes on whether or not the scope of the positions of the candidate fits his/her overall preferences.

So a voter for whom abortion restrictions are the prevailing issue will vote for the candidate who opposes abortion rights, regardless of any other position that candidate might have on other issues. However a supporter of abortion rights will typically tend to look at all of the positions of the candidate and may not vote for that candidate if he or she is offended by the other positions of the candidate even if that candidate supports reproduction rights. In one case a single issue dominates; in the other it is multiple issues.

As should be obvious, the Republican voter tends to be more single issue. So if a conservative Supreme Court is their issue they will vote Republican even if the Republican positions on economic issues run counter their economic benefit. The same can be said for gay rights, gun rights, xenophobia, racism etc.

This explains why economically distressed voters can vote against their economic interests. They are willing to accept that position with a candidate as long as the candidate is aligned with the primary issue of the voter. In this situation an appeal to Republican voters to vote their economic interests is doomed to failure. It’s not that they don’t care, it that they care about something else a lot more.

Joe said...

The instrumentality point is on point -- on another blog, the point was highlighted as well. Some talk that Trump was somehow special in this respect is b.s.

It should be noted that this doesn't mean his is going to be some pure conservative or something. I'm speaking generally. Along with negative opinions of Clinton (and EMAILS etc. helped this along the margins, which is important when you win by margins of errors), this is fundamental to explaining the vote totals. And, this is where Clinton's "deplorables" comment was damn true, even if it was in bad form to say it (like that LBJ ad, once on tape is enough). It is a mix of people simply deplorable and others who are passionate about some issue or issues.

The "intra-party ideological purity and increased inter-party polarization" is an important factor here. It was a case study on how dangerous this is. TRUMP was deemed acceptable. This is disgusting even if it is understandable (people do horrible things, we are humans -- a vegan blog surely is aware of this). I'd add the general acceptable by the media etc. of this being acceptable (let's compare it to something like incest) is an important factor. Again, explaining it doesn't make it really acceptable. Like the non-release of his tax returns. etc.

The final shot metaphor is fitting but that matters. The Patriots are going to win most of the time. But, in the playoffs, those margins issues matter. So, we can't ignore them while we focus on the basics here.

Joe said...

ETA: The fact Trump is a celebrity and has certain authoritarian tendencies also is something the Republican electorate (see John Dean's writings) favors. Again, it is pretty clear he will act them act. The other stuff will be borne to a high degree as with the policy matters. Putting someone like Ben Carson in is somewhat distasteful, but it's only HUD, right? And, some of the base love the guy. So, you know, just need to go with it. Like Bush41 perhaps not really liking the mudslinging but accepting it.

Bob Hockett said...

Great stuff again, Mike - thanks. One complementary thought: Mr. Trump's short attention span and his penchant for passing the greater part of his time on Twitter, Trump-adulatory 'thank you tours,' and now, it seems, a new season of 'Celebrity Apprentice' might afford contemporary Republicans all the more reason to rejoice in his (sort of) victory - at least given the flavor thus far of his announced appointments. While Orange Julius is out basking in his brightened limelight and playing the consummate twit on his Twitter, the new Interior Secretary will be selling off the interior, the new Labor Secretary will be reviving the Pinkertons, the new Energy Secretary will be setting the planet alight, the new Treasury and HUD secretaries will be ginning up (and perhaps investing in) more home foreclosures, the new HHS head will be working with Paul Ryand and Rand Paul to roll back the New Deal, ... etc. A Randian dream come true! Of course, I doubt many who voted for Trump knew just how good it would get where appointments and presidential distraction are concerned, but those at the top of the Party and its Campaign Committee might well have had an inkling, and might have crafted their 'messaging' and 'get out the vote' strategies accordingly.

Michael Gould said...

A large, perhaps decisive, segment of Trump's vote came from dislike and hatred of Hillary Clinton, much of it irrational to be sure. Yet Mrs. Clinton's weaknesses as a campaigner and the antipathy she seems to elicit were well known long before 2016. The real uncovered story of this election is why only two established Democrats - Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley - ran for President in a non-incumbent year. It was Hillary Clinton who lost to Trump, and the people within the Democratic party who twisted arms to keep other candidates from running are the ones to blame for Trump's victory.