Professional politicians, think-tankers and pundits have the wacky notion that candidates tell voters what they intend to do and voters choose the candidate whose plans they like the best. That happens to be the premise of representative democracy and the basis for much of political advertising, speechmaking and polling. The problem is that it appears not to be a realistic assessment of modern politics.
President-elect Donald Trump’s key campaign issues — protectionism, mass deportation and repealing Obamacare — do not appear to be in the cards. In some cases, voters would be delighted to see Trump abandon his campaign promises.
On Obamacare, “Only about one in four Americans wants President-elect Donald Trump to entirely repeal his predecessor’s health care law that extended coverage to millions, a new poll has found,” the Associated Press reports. “The post-election survey released Thursday by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation also found hints of a pragmatic shift among some Republican foes of ‘Obamacare.’ While 52 percent of Republicans say they want the law completely repealed, that share is down from 69 percent just last month, before the election. And more Republicans now say they want the law ‘scaled back’ under the new president and GOP Congress, with that share more than doubling from 11 percent before the election to 24 percent after.” The sharp-tongued ideologues on the right (e.g. the Freedom Caucus, Sen. Ted Cruz) may be surprised to find out that when confronted with the reality of repeal, the public isn’t with them. That is perhaps fortunate, given the difficulties Republicans will have in finding an alternative to the much-criticized law.
Consider also mass deportation, another of Trump’s favorite rallying cries. Well, voters would rather not, really rather not, go down that road. According to presidential election exit polling, 70 percent of voters want to pursue legalization, not mass deportation, for those people here illegally. The right wing’s dreaded “amnesty” turns out to be a whole lot more popular than repealing Obamacare. While we have yet to see polling on the treatment of those illegal immigrants who identified themselves under the president’s executive order (“dreamers”), one can imagine that well over 70 percent would oppose turning around to deport those who thought they were complying with the law. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has already begun a push to provide protection for such people; anti-immigrant zealots will be surprised how popular that is likely to be.
Well, surely a raft of tariff bills and efforts to trash existing trade deals (e.g. NAFTA) is in the cards? Well, no. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has already said tax reform to assist U.S. businesses, not trade barriers that punish U.S. consumers, is the way to go. Moreover, Trump’s idea defies logic. “Mexican immigration to America would increase,” one commentator observes. “China would take advantage of the trade and diplomatic vacuum so created. It would defeat Trump’s main goals.” Even Trump’s pro-tariff Commerce secretary nominee (a ridiculous concept when you consider the Commerce Department is tasked with increasing trade) is talking about tariffs as a last-ditch option.
If it turns out that Trump won’t pursue his three key policy initiatives (trade protectionism, mass deportation and eliminating Obamacare), will voters care? Perhaps not. That, in turn, raises a fundamental question as to why we have campaigns and how we conduct them. We having a winning candidate who likely didn’t mean much of what he said and an electorate who didn’t like much of what he said. And yet he is president. The poor candidates who debunked Trump’s outlandish ideas stand slack-jawed. Their big mistake, it seems, was being correct about the lunacy and unworkability of Trump’s proposals.
Why bother with debates and position papers if candidates and voters alike pay no attention to the substance of policy? That not merely a rhetorical question; rather, it goes to the heart of democratic self-rule. We will see whether Trump adheres to any of his campaign positions as president, and whether sneering at voters’ sincere desire to “drain the swamp” costs him anything. Going forward, however, activists and politicians should think long and hard about what a political platform means and whether we are now in a substance-free era when voters merely vote based on tribal identification with candidates. Perhaps campaigns need to focus more on candidates’ capabilities and general world outlook rather than on specific policy objectives they have no intention of pursuing. That’s a very disturbing reality — one more depressing 2016 revelation — for those of us who think politics is about solving problems and democracy is about holding politicians to account for their promises.