I’ve often been critical of “outsider” candidates who claim that their lack of experience in politics and government is precisely what will enable them to succeed in politics and government. Business-people seem particularly prone to believe that they can bring solutions that no one has ever contemplated before, and now Carly Fiorina is showing that she has some truly innovative policy ideas, after hearing from a veteran having trouble navigating the VA health system:
“Listen to that story,” Fiorina said. “How long has [VA] been a problem? Decades. How long have politicians been talking about it? Decades.”
Fiorina said she would gather 10 or 12 veterans in a room, including the gentleman from the third row, and ask what they want. Fiorina would then vet this plan via telephone poll, asking Americans to “press one for yes on your smartphone, two for no.”
“You know how to solve these problems,” she said, “so I’m going to ask you.”
I guess it took someone with Fiorina’s business savvy to come up with the idea to address complex policy challenges with a focus group followed by an “American Idol”-style telephone vote. If only we had thought of that before.
Seriously, this episode tells us a lot about the state of Republican populism these days.
It’s obviously important to understand the experience veterans have with the system if you’re going to determine where its biggest problems are. But the inane idea that that would be all you need to solve the problems of an enormous agency that spends billions of dollars and has thousands of employees is characteristic of a particular kind of conservative populism, one that seems to be expanding now that Donald Trump has taken control of the entire presidential race.
Both parties are drawn to populist appeals, but they come in different variants. The Democratic version tends to be both performative and substantive — they’ll rail against the top one percent, but also offer policy ideas like upper-income tax increases and minimum wage hikes that are intended to serve the interests of regular people. Democratic populism says that the problem is largely about power: who has it, who doesn’t, and on whose behalf it’s wielded.
Republican populism, on the other hand, is aimed against “elites” that are decidedly not economic. It’s the egghead professors, the Hollywood liberals, the government bureaucrats whom they tell their voters to resent and despise. And part of that argument is that despite what those know-it-all experts would have you believe, all our problems have simple and easy solutions. All you need is “common sense” to know how we should reform our health care system, fix the VA, or control undocumented immigration. Understanding how government works isn’t just unnecessary, it’s actually a hindrance to getting things done.
There may be no candidate who has ever sung this tune with quite the verve Trump does, but he’s following in a long tradition. Ronald Reagan used to say, “there are no easy answers, but there are simple answers” — all it takes is the courage to embrace them. George W. Bush trusted his gut more than his head, and saw a world where there are only good guys and bad guys; once you know who’s who, the path forward is clear and only a wuss would worry about the unintended consequences that might arise from things like invading foreign countries.
In its somewhat less extreme version, this belief in the simple truths that only regular folks can see is what drives the common belief that whatever’s wrong in Washington can be solved by bringing in someone from outside Washington. So Ted Cruz proudly trumpets the fact that all of his colleagues in the Senate think he’s a jerk. And Scott Walker criticizes his own party’s congressional leaders, saying, “We were told if Republicans got the majority there’d be a bill on the president’s desk to repeal ObamaCare. It is August. Where is that bill? Where was that vote?”
Well, the answer is that there’s this thing called a filibuster, which Democrats used to stop that bill from getting to the president’s desk, where it would have been vetoed anyway (the real problem is that those leaders promised their constituents something they knew they could never deliver). But in this particular populist critique, the way institutions work is irrelevant, and a straight-talking, straight-shooting Washington outsider can come in and clean the whole place up wielding nothing more than the force of his will, some common sense, and good old fashioned American gumption.
The real mystery is why voters would fall for this kind of claptrap again and again. If the Obama years have taught us anything, it’s that policy problems are — guess what — complicated. Understanding policy doesn’t get you all the way to solutions — you need a set of values that guides you and creativity in imagining change, among other things — but you can’t do without that understanding, at a minimum. Yet a significant chunk of voters continues to believe that everything is simple and easy, no matter how many times reality tells them otherwise.