The US Electorate Trumps Their Political Establishment


Hail the Don!  Trump is the next president and the political commentariat are in meltdown.  I’m not.

Firstly, don’t be scared.  Such is the inertia of the US government machine that even with Republicans in the White House, Senate and House of Representatives it is very hard for any president to get anything tangible done, (c.f. Obamacare).  And few Republicans are Trump fans. Yes the dollar will wobble a bit – as will T Bond yields, but that is just the speculators adjusting their forecasts and unwinding positions.

Foreign policy might change a bit – President Don might be less willing to expend US lives in remote places – which, given the near disastrous last two US forays might be a good thing.  He may also be reluctant to prop up NATO members who don’t pay their way, which is also a good thing.  If he is a little less keen on confronting Putin that may also be a good thing; generally, wars are far easier to start than to finish.  Being selfish, Trump likes the UK despite the foolish comments of some recent Prime Ministerial failures.  The United States is already by far out largest export partner – with 11% of exports heading there.

How is that a problem for the UK?  Good question.  To the US political establishment, the unthinkable has happened, and outsider has won.  Worse, he won unexpectedly and despite little media support.  This is either because the US electorate is dumb, or the political establishment is out of touch (or both).  Expect a raft of psephologists seeking to demonstrate that Trump was elected by white working class males.  He may have been popular among them and in the rust-belt states, but there are not enough white working class males in the US to elect a president.  More people voted for Trump, and from many more electoral segments.

This squealing by political analysts, (akin to that in the UK post Brexit), is a symptom of the problem that both countries demonstrably face.  Their political thought is out of step with their population, and hasn’t noticed it. This is a surprising outcome in any country – and one that is potentially a source of unrest.  It is astonishing that it occurs in the two self-proclaimed bastions of liberal democracy.

That, not Trump or Brexit, is the problem on both sides of the Atlantic.  The question therefore divides into two; how did this happen and how do we fix it?

The first part of this is going to be a field day for left of centre social economists – inequality caused by free market capitalism.  That these are the same social economists who have been advocating the policies that led to these electoral shocks is a delicious irony and further demonstration of the problem.  I content that this is not about economics (broadly an outcome) but process.  And one (Bill) Clinton slogan – “It’s the economy, stupid.”

I am increasingly of the opinion that in a free market capitalist economy the best economic policy a government can hope for is not to screw it up.  An economically competent government may well lay the grounds for growth, but it is not the government who risks wealth to create the growth (and creating growth requires private capital).  Nor is it the government which suffers the pecuniary loss associated with commercial failure – and growth is risky. It is ridiculous for politicians to claim credit for the work and appetite for risk of a very few of their population.  When a Chancellor says “We have created growth of X% this year” what he should be saying, and actually mean is “I managed not to cock it up for another year.”  The hubris of taking political credit for the efforts of others is at the root of the problems of Westminster and Washington.

This tendency has been exacerbated in the UK by the politicisation of the Civil Service and the scourge of the Special Political Adviser (SPAD).  In the US they have had this problem from the start – many senior administrative appointments are politicised.  Such politicisation a government machine that seeks to curry political favour as well as do its job.  This leads inexorably to pork barrel politics, whether it is turning UK marginal seats into special economic areas or building NASA’s launch facilities in an alligator infested swamp.  And the politicisation is pointless; as three time New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia said “There is no Democratic or Republican way of cleaning the streets.”  So why politicise it?

The SPAD evolution has also led inexorably to the professional politician (who grew up as a SPAD).  How do you get to become a politician? Start as a SPAD.  How do you become a SPAD?  Know someone who is prepared to take you on.  The array of political individuals in the main parties is thus being homogenised and decreasingly aware of the non-political world.  Thus, political thought is succumbing to a group-think.

Of course, the media should be challenging this.  Unfortunately, the path between media commentator and politician is well trodden and, with some noble exceptions, few interviewers or reporters are able or willing to confront the delusions of our legislators. This is a problem of the BBC.  What was started as an impartial organisation to inform, educate and entertain at public expense has (inevitably) become highly politicised with an interest in “big government” to maintain and increase its taxpayer funding.

Murder has been illegal since Moses went hill walking, countless laws have been passed against it and yet it continues.  There is a limit to what legislation can achieve, and yet every year more and more laws are passed – many of which have unintended consequences and some of which are highly divisive in the real world that exists outside the capital.  As the American satirist PJ O’Rourke pointed out at the American bi-centenary, surely there comes a point when a society has enough laws?

Money is a problem too.  SPADs, researchers and the publicity process all cost money which political parties must fund from members or donors.  In the UK we have fairly tight rules on spending but even here there are moves towards the state (that is, taxpayer) funding of political parties.  In the US, with no spending limits, a candidate’s ability to get elected is constrained by their ability to raise funds.  In the UK most people don’t fund politicians – those who do tend to expect something for it, be it a bauble or access.  It exacerbates the shrinking of the political parties’ universe.

So, on both sides of the Atlantic we have had electoral shock after outcomes that the establishment neither wanted nor expected.  In the UK the government has (reluctantly) committed to Brexit but many politicians have not. Instead they persist in thinking and acting as if they better know what is the interest of the country and its population.  It is increasingly obvious that they do not.

What happens next?  The sun came up this morning despite the outcome, as it did on 24th June.  The world will continue much as before in the short term. In the medium term the relationship between political parties, political thought (such as it is), the media and the population must evolve and reconnect with their populations.  How this will happen is less clear, as is the time frame.  But it would be a foolish member of the political elite who considered Brexit and Trump one off aberrations.

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