In this most unsettling presidential election, our real problem begins November 9th, the day someone wins. On the day after, millions will be alienated and angry, no matter the result. That makes governance difficult and national purpose elusive.
Trump’s lack of policy knowledge, dishonesty, and social media bouquets to extremists on the fringe disqualify him for millions of Americans. I am in the camp that finds a Trump victory unthinkable.
But he strikes a chord with millions of Americans through a pitch to nationalism, claiming citizens are no longer the primary customers of foreign or domestic policy. As with the Brexit vote, Trump poses as the change candidate fighting global trade and open border elites whom he claims usurp power from ordinary Americans.
There was no better example of this populist push than his September 1st immigration speech. Trump said that future immigration policy ought to be driven by the needs of U.S. citizens more than the needs of undocumented residents, a statement Clinton will have to address during the debates.
Trump hauled up to the stage American families who had a relative murdered by an illegal resident. The theatre was effective. For every story of undocumented family reunification brought by Clinton, Trump will now provide crime stories committed by undocumented residents. He declares the victims of crime are living in the shadows; mimicking a refrain of pro-undocumented immigrant activists.
Immigration deserves a more thoughtful debate than this. It is legitimate to ask about border security, national origin distribution, economic impact, criminal activity and cultural assimilation. But the debate needs data and research. Otherwise it devolves into emotional fire and social media banter, with potential to fan the flames of racism. That is where we are today.
Economic research on immigration, for example, shows net positives for the American economy as a whole, but some downside for lower skilled native born Americans. It is not a simple issue when you take apart the economic data. It is a matter of where you are positioned in the labor market.
Mexico, where so much of Trump’s concerns begin and end, has had net flat migration with the United States since the recession of 2007-08. Today, the largest numbers of new U.S. immigrants are from China and India. Could that change? Yes, but the majority of those coming across the Mexican border today are from Central America, where the Mexican government is working to protect its southern border.
Some of the fear about immigration in America is about the high numbers of foreign-born residents in relation to the population as a whole. It’s as high as any time in our history. There is fear we lack the capacity and political will to assimilate vast numbers of newcomers.
Yet research on assimilation is compelling. I recommend the National Academy of Sciences 2015 study: The Integration of Immigrants into American Society. The data on intermarriage, English language use, and geographical dispersion paints a story of a nation that can still assimilate large numbers of people, but never smoothly or without dislocations and conflict.
Like so many other campaign issues, immigration is not about facts or policy; it’s about distrust and anger. And in that atmosphere, no matter how outrageous Trump seems, four issues keep him competitive.
Trust: Too many Americans do not trust Hillary Clinton and the sense of secrecy and seeming conflicts of interest—from email servers to the Clinton Foundation—that accompany her. As news stories remind people of her negatives, poll numbers slip.
Trump dishonesty is not as sticky as Clinton dishonesty. He lies like a carnival barker: Loud, obvious and preposterous. She lies like a courier in a spy movie: Emergent, silent, easier to fill with conspiracy fantasies.
Race: The Democrats have a problem with white voters, particularly those with less than a college education, particularly those connected to the old economy of manufacturing, construction, fossil fuels, and routine services. Those problems began in the 1960’s and 1970’s as the Democrats became increasingly defined as the party of minority voters, public unions, and upwardly mobile liberal professionals.
Whites still represent 70 percent of American voters and while a coalition of African Americans, Hispanics, and college educated (and younger) white voters is a recipe for Democratic party success, a small change in additional whites or minority voters towards Trump could be decisive. Or a weaker turnout for Democrats among minority or young voters could change the math in a few states.
The next president will have to advance a policy that is universal and aspirational. The best case scenario is to go all in with a massive infrastructure investment strategy as the cornerstone of 21st century renewal. It has to be large enough to make congressional districts happy, and smart enough to redefine infrastructure from roads and bridges to the newest communications technology and the best research facilities.
Cultural elites: Democrats are increasingly viewed as cultural elites who stand against traditional values. They are strongest in populated coastal cities and university enclaves, more in line with European social democracies that extol a strong welfare state, and more supportive of cultural and lifestyle diversity, from immigration to gay marriage. They are also celebrants of a future green economy.
The elitist label reinforces the view that Democrats have disdain for flyover country and small town America, for Main Street shop owners and the military. Hillary Clinton’s deplorables comment played into that perception.
These cultural perceptions have nothing to do with each candidate’s policies or their lives. The candidates are caricatures of an American cultural divide: One group overwhelmingly white, another more racially and culturally diverse.
In a world of upside down images, the leader of the old economy downtrodden is a billionaire real estate developer and the leader of the cultural elites devoted her life to public service. Nothing is quite as it seems.
Global security: The persistence of terror attacks, including several recent ones in the United States, has driven national security fears into everyday news. Americans view Republicans as more capable of managing national security, an idea that has little historical grounding. But any new terror attack prior to the election will play to Trump’s advantage as the law and order candidate.
The debate over undocumented residents and immigration has been recast as a debate between elites and Americans worried about identity, safety and employment. Most Trump voters are as angry at Republican elites as they are with Democratic elites. They see an open border conspiracy by businesses that want cheap labor, ethnic politics designed to attract more voters, and globalists who think terrorism is a new normal we adjust to rather than end.
Today there are three political tendencies in America: a populist left, a nationalist right, and a centrist party of economic conservatives and social liberals. Neither of the two conventional parties fits the mold of those tendencies neatly. Primary revolts took place with rebels trying to elect a democratic socialist in one party and a nationalist within the other. The former did not succeed, although it moved Clinton to the left. The latter did succeed and replaced Republican elites—free traders and closer to the Democrats on immigration reform—with the party of America First.
So back to November 9th. It is the day after and you are a triumphant Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. You won, but it was relatively close in the popular vote. There were four candidates and therefore you did not break 50 percent. More than half the nation did not vote for you and your negatives are still high. In fact at least 25 percent of your own voters were voting principally against the other person.
Congress? Well if you are Donald Trump and you win, your party will likely hold the House and may hold the Senate—or at least it will be close. But remember, you have insulted a good many of the Republicans you now need. And they are worried about the permanent status of their party, temporarily remade in the image of Trump. If you are Hillary Clinton and you win, it is likely you will still have a strong Republican House to face and, if you are fortunate, you gain the Senate.
Either way, the new president arrives with a legitimacy problem based on how they are regarded by a majority of the electorate, their relationship with Congress, and continuing disruptions within their respective parties.
Today the candidates have become caricatures of an American cultural divide: One overwhelmingly white, another more racially and culturally diverse. In a world of upside down images, the leader of the old economy downtrodden is a billionaire real estate developer and the leader of the cultural elites devoted her life to public service.
In the face of a legitimacy problem, governance is difficult. You can ignore the problem and try to muddle your agenda through. That is the most common and likely path. It also may be the worst strategy. It assumes the public will rally around the new president and give him or her room to maneuver. I see no evidence in recent years that this would be so, unless the president’s party controls Congress.
Or you can play legislative small ball, careful to manage around budgetary constraints but with targeted changes popular with your base and hopefully broader appeal. That, coupled with the right executive actions and the reengineering of departmental regulations, could turn the tide of public opinion, which creates political opportunity down the line. But opportunity will largely depend on making existing government functions effective, from veteran’s hospital waiting lists to national flood emergencies.
A third way is to try to hit it out of the park early on, by overemphasizing policy glue that is popular and transformational: Something universal and aspirational. The best case scenario is to go all in with a massive infrastructure investment strategy (which both campaigns tout) as the cornerstone of 21st century renewal. Make it the visionary organizing principle of the administration akin to Kennedy’s moon landing or Johnson’s War on Poverty.
It has to be large enough to make congressional districts happy, smart enough to redefine infrastructure from roads and bridges to the newest communications technology and the best research facilities. It has to leverage private capital in many multiples of public investment and help us regain confidence in American capacity and know-how. Mostly it has to be visible.
Each of the candidates will have campaign debts to pay to various interest groups, but that has to come much later. The day after has to be about national interest on a grand scale, the kind that will help us forge a common identity through what we accomplish and build. Otherwise we may rehash the rancor of this election for the next four years, no matter who prevails.Photo header: Wikimedia Commons