On Tuesday, Tim Carney and I won the Intelligence Squared debate on the proposition “Blame The Elites For The Trump Phenomenon” by a significant margin. Undecideds broke for our side of the proposition by more than 4-to-1. You can watch the full unedited debate here. Jennifer Rubin and Bret Stephens had already been chosen as the Against debaters when the Intelligence Squared folks contacted me. Stephens in particular is an experienced debater, and so I expected a challenge. But the tactics they took in this debate surprised me for a number of reasons. Their primary approach was, essentially, Hillary Clinton’s – to frame the negative economic plight of many millions of voters and their families and friends as an exaggeration or mere noise, and to instead focus on the “basket of deplorables” racism and misogyny as driving forces for Trump. I was particularly surprised that Stephens closed by reading an anti-Semitic tweet and Rubin closed by arguing our argument was fundamentally leftist – these are not solid approaches to winning a debate. Blaming the voters for being racist or leftist is a weaker argument than others that could’ve been made.
The bigger error is when Stephens attempted to define the elites as anyone with elite tastes, instead of accepting our definition of the term: the elite class of people in power who’ve run the country for the past two decades, give or take. Perhaps this is due to Stephens and Rubin occupying roughly similar political positions – I suspect Kevin Williamson and Tom Nichols would not have made this error. The best candidates who could have beaten us would be those who come themselves from economically depressed areas, who know people personally who are voting for Trump.
So as an exercise, I’d like to lay out how I would have approached arguing the case Against the motion. To be clear, I am solidly in favor of the motion, and I was pleasantly surprised by the outcome of the debate. But I think there are stronger cases to be made for the Against motion, and a stronger case to be made in defense of the elites. I would start by accepting the definition that Tim and I offered – the people who have run our government for 2 decades – and attempt to rebut it.
The world has changed in the past two decades, like the world always changes. It has changed in unexpected ways. The one thing consistent about a lot of the Republican primary voters who nominated Donald Trump is that they do not want to change with it. Unlike American elites, they are less insulated from the consequences of those changes. And so today they are paying the price every day for their bad educational, personal, professional, sexual, and religious mistakes.
When they complain about these consequences, and when they look to Trump as a solution, they are not trying to go about changing to adapt to the new realities of life. They are looking for a way to make all those mistakes become consequence free.
The polling is clear: people are unhappy with the direction the country is going. They do want change, and they do not like the path the country is taking. People may blame the elites for aspects of their life that are unhappy are dissatisfying. But the elites and the policies they favor are not the cause of many of the aspects of life today that have made people, particularly working class white people, incredibly dissatisfied.
It is not the elites alone who favor trade deals. It is not the elites alone who favor immigration reform. And it is not the elites alone who favored the Iraq War. This is an example of revisionist history on the part of voters, who now overwhelmingly deny they supported these things, when in fact bipartisan groups of people held the opposite view. Immigration reform which allows for immigrants to gain legal status isn’t just popular across the country, many exit polls show it was popular even among Republican voters, including those who backed Trump. The turn against trade is a creature of the fact that President Obama is in office – support for trade deals largely depends on partisan alignment – and as recently as a decade ago, more Americans than not viewed the country as a winner in the NAFTA deal. And while 75 percent of the American people now say Iraq wasn’t worth the cost, 72 percent of them were in favor of the Iraq war in 2002. The people have the luxury of being fickle about these things – politicians, on the other hand, have to answer for their votes.
In each of these areas, our political elites weren’t just responding to what the donor class wanted or what the media was pushing for – they were politicians responding to public opinion. The elites’ priorities don’t always match up with what the populace wants, but largely they gave the people what they wanted, or tried to – and where they failed, it pales in comparison to the failure that we have seen within working and middle class communities that come from the activities of the people themselves.
The political elites did not lead doctors to overprescribe opiates or the Mexican cartels to flood the market with heroin in the wake of marijuana’s increased legalization. The political elites did not dramatically accelerate technological advancements and globalization – that would’ve happened with or without their actions. Most political elites did not embark on a campaign to run down the place of religious faith in public life or work to secularize the populace, driving people away from the church communities that once gave them purpose. And most political elites did not rig the game to dramatically accelerate access to educational and career opportunities for women, which have had the effect of diminishing opportunities for low-skilled men.
These were all organic changes in American life that have contributed to the Trump phenomenon, yes, but they are due to shifts in culture that have more to do with larger trends than those driven by Washington or Wall Street. Do political leaders have an obligation to help mitigate these changes? Yes, for the betterment of the country – but policy changes are small tweaks at the edges. You can turn this knob or pull this lever to increase American mobility, but it still takes the worker in the dying town to decide to move of his own volition.
In addition, let’s deal with the issue of media. Set aside the individuals, the Sean’s and the Rush’s, and understand they were mostly a sideshow in this election. Accepting the idea that the elites are defined as those in Washington and Wall Street who run the country, there is a major player that definition leaves out: the media corporations who largely drove Donald Trump’s ability to run an ad-free campaign. For them, he was the goose who laid the golden egg. Trump’s ability to get on Sean Hannity was nothing new – what was new was the wall to wall coverage of his rallies and speeches, one where the major networks abrogated their role as filters for his statements and allowed him to speak directly to the people. We’ve never seen anything like that in modern life.
Ask yourself: in the absence of the Iraq War, Katrina, financial meltdown, Obamacare, and failed stimulus, does a 2 Billion dollar donation in air time still matter in a presidential primary? Of course it does. This corporate profit motive is a much larger explanation of the political heft of the Trump phenomenon than the policies of John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and Mitch McConnell. Perhaps in the absence of the Gang of Eight and President Obama’s immigration maneuvers he would have found a different hobby horse, but Trump would still have had an enormous advantage over other candidates.
Even after that parade of horribles, we have not been living through a period where Americans showed all that much interest in dramatically changing the political elites. Through it all, the American people re-elected the same individuals we are supposed to blame for Trump’s success. Despite their dissatisfaction, re-election rates to the House of Representatives dipped below 90 percent just once in the past two decades. And when they didn’t vote to re-elect, even after removing disliked elites like Cantor, their impression of the Congress did not improve. Sending Dave Brat in Cantor’s stead has had ramifications, yes – but are any of Trump’s voters happy that it was putting Paul Ryan in the Speakership?
Our political elites have largely been trying to do what people want. The people whose interests they served were not always members of the working and middle class, granted. But the aim of policy should never be changing things about American life the government doesn’t have the power to change. People in the middle and working class have legitimate gripes about the way things are, but things are the way they are in large part because the people – voters and elected officials – involved in the process want it to be that way, and because of organic changes that are much bigger than what Washington and Wall Street can direct. To blame the political elites for Trump is to expect too much government and not enough from themselves.
Tim Carney talked about the way the world was rigged for working class whites, and now it’s not. But the response to that is not that the political elites have the obligation to re-rig the game. It is that the people have refused to take responsibility for overcoming challenges and looked instead to almighty government for a solution. Well, the government is not almighty, nor is Wall Street. For thousands of years strong low-skilled people had an unearned economic advantage over weak high-skilled people. Now the tables have turned – and that has nothing to do with Mitch McConnell.
Those advocating for the motion claim that the elites failed the people, or the people failed the elites. Consider a third possibility: that the people failed themselves. And in nominating Donald Trump, they’re failing themselves all over again.