Freedom ain't free

Did voters choose candidates they dislike on purpose?

May 6, 2016

Politically engaged Americans with more than the usual education — you know, readers — are in despair, for Republicans of that group who will admit to supporting Donald Trump are rare, and only a few more Democrats genuinely respect Hillary Clinton’s character, even if in each case at least some of them will support their partisan as the least bad alternative. Americans dislike the presumptive nominees of both parties by record margins.

And yet, they, or somebody, voted for them, in each case over candidates who were far more ideologically appealing to the alleged “base.”

The chattering classes propose various explanations for this. The thoughtful right most often attributes Trump’s success to the complicit media, which has covered him almost without limit. Other explanations include the supposed perfidy of the GOP “establishment,” which could not unite behind a single non-Trump candidate early on, and secretly and not so secretly preferred Trump to Ted Cruz when the latter emerged as the only credible alternative. And then there are those “too democratic” Republican primary rules.

On the left, bitter Sandersnistas blame Clinton trickiness and her lock on the Democratic “super delegates,” which are designed to make the Democratic Party’s nominating process less democratic.

No doubt these and other nastier explanations — from lefty partisans that the GOP base is irredeemably racist, and from righty partisans that Sanders voters are the beating heart of the freeloader class — are all to some degree true. Nothing in American politics is ever cut and dried, no matter how much meme-producers and other such addled thinkers prefer tweetable explanations, which are so much more useful for demonizing the opposition.

There is another explanation. In both parties, voters overwhelmingly preferred transactional candidates over ideologues. Trump is overtly non-ideological, selling a vision of the presidency that is centered around “winning” negotiations. Astonishingly, he has escaped the need for any consistency, repositioning each flip-flop as pragmatism. Clinton feigns ideology when the circumstances appear to require her to do, but only a child’s mind can believe that she is anything other than transactional. And she has “evolved” the preferred euphemism on the left for “flip-flopped” — during her 30 years in public life at least as much as Trump has done in, well, the last five years.

So Americans of both parties are about to nominate extremely practical candidates they despise over far more ideological — and manifestly more sincere — candidates that in theory were more attractive to the activist “base.”

Maybe we meant to do that. Maybe the voters have chosen candidates that they do not like on purpose.

Stay with me here.

There is a national agreement that our governments do not perform basic services effectively any more, especially the federal government. Yes, there are profoundly different explanations for the dysfunction, but very little disagreement that the effectiveness of government has declined tremendously since its heyday between the 1940s to the 1970s.

At the same time, the public has rather famously become more ideological, and the ideological divisions have become more partisan. There are no longer very many liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, and the few the remain keep a very low profile. (The Big Sort, by a couple of Austinites, is the book to beat on this subject.)

In other words, we prefer ideological consistency, but we quite dislike the government that ideological partisanship produces.

Maybe the voters understand that paradox better than the chattering classes. Maybe the frustrated primary voters of both parties knowingly chose the most transactional candidates even though they don’t like them very much, because they have seen what ideological purity hath wrought.

Of course, this explanation will not be popular among the ideologues, who by their nature put a high value on consistency. But do we not hear it reverberating in the focus groups of frustrated Trump voters who acknowledge his plasticity but revert to “nothing works any more”? Do you not know Democrats who want to feel the Bern, but who do not believe all his sincerity and consistency can actually change a damned thing?

Trump and Clinton are the candidates for people who want government to function again regardless of ideology, the true silent majority in our politics today. But that does not mean Americans don’t feel icky about voting for such people. That sound you hear, perhaps, is the sigh national resignation.

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