Thursday, August 27, 2015
by Reed Galen
Days Until Iowa Caucus: 167
Quote by a Smart Person: "The battlefield is a scene of constant chaos. The winner will be the one who controls that chaos, both his own and the enemy's." - Napoleon Bonaparte
Welcome to the American Singularity.
Why the Singularity?
· The presidential nominating process is one in which everything, large and small, is sucked into its gravitational maw, allowing nothing to escape its grasp as events pass through the campaign cycle’s event horizon.
· There is no more singular political experience on the planet than electing the President of the United States.
· The United States is still the most free, most prosperous and brightest beacon of hope to billions around the world.
Every action and reaction feeds into this black hole of press coverage, donor reactions, voter sentiment and activist opinions. Nothing goes unnoticed and nothing is forgotten. Legions of reporters, bloggers, opposition researchers, trackers, social media monitoring services, vacuum up every last syllable.
Every week we’ll take a look at the campaign as it unfolds, and how events reflect the campaigns, the issues of the day and the country at large. Have a tip, piece of advice or something to add? Email me – firstname.lastname@example.org.
Week 23: The Politics for A New Age
According to the latest public surveys, if you’re a Republican and you’ve held major elective office, today you’re not a favorite in voters’ minds. Despite a field that boasts governors and senators representing some of the largest states, three candidates - Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, are aiming to upset the political applecart in the biggest of ways this season. Much has already been written about why this is the case - dissatisfaction with the GOP Establishment and simmering anger among activist voters appear to be the main causes. But if we look a little deeper, and take a bit of a longer view, the issues at play are more complex and have been coming for some time.
In the past 15 years, three events, the September 11th attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the 2008-2009 financial meltdown have done more to shake the core of America’s foundations than we’d seen since World War 2. 9/11 shattered the illusion of our invincibility. Katrina caused a loss of faith in government institutions and the economic collapse created a paradigm shift in how Americans work, where they work, what they do and how much they get paid. Jobs that existed in 2007 don’t exist today and never will again. Given these monumental, “black swan” events, it is no surprise that, after a period of incubation, we’re starting to see the tree of Americans’ uncertainty, fear, anger and heart-sickness begin to bear fruit. And that fruit looks a lot like Donald Trump.
Leading from Behind
The crowds that show up for Donald Trump, and to some extent Bernie Sanders, are looking for something different - that much is obvious. They appeal, in their own ways, to the loss of American exceptionalism that many Americans feel. Too often now, whether it’s the Chinese stock market collapsing cascading to our own economy or a third-rate power taking on the once-mighty United States, there is a feeling that we as a country are no longer in control of our destiny. Rather than being the axis around which geopolitics revolves, we are now just one more (albeit very powerful) player on the world stage: reacting to events rather than dictating goals and outcomes. When Trump bellows, “Let’s make America great again!” much of his audience believes that construction is correct - we were great once, but aren’t any longer, and we need a leader to take us back to the promised land.
The three main generations dominating the American population today - the Baby Boomers, Generation X and the Millenials all have different perspectives on why the world is the way it is today. A byproduct of their upbringing and the eras in which we’ve all lived, we often see the United States through the prism of our shared experience. All three, though, have experienced serious shocks to the American system, or have grown up in the wreckage of the collapse of decades-old institutions. It is no wonder that when we review the levels of support for a candidate like Donald Trump, it tends to cut across age groups, gender and ideology.
For the Boomers, they were born into a time of American hegemony and staggering economic growth. The modern middle class as we think of it, was created as they came of age. Their parents, the Greatest Generation, had created a world for them that as children they could not possibly have imagined - cars, televisions, air condition and the like. Despite the specter of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, widespread upward mobility kept the country moving forward and feeling good about itself. 9/11 and the economic collapse shook the foundations of a society and system that they had helped build and believed would be there for them, in totality, as they reached their golden years.
Generation X, of which I am proud card carrying member, is a sandwich generation - in more ways than one. We are the smallest current cohort, wedged in between two behemoths, we will likely have to look after our parents and our children simultaneously (while there are fewer of us to pick up the slack) and we lived on, and remember both sides of the technological revolution we today take for granted. Our early childhood was not that much different than that of our parents - we sat in the same classrooms, in the same schools, watching many of the same film strips of African animals that they did. When a computer did arrive in our classroom, it sat in the corner because our teachers, mostly in their fifties, didn’t have the faintest idea what to do with it. On the flip side, we’re old enough to remember 9/11 as young adults and the Financial Crisis of 2008-2009 in our early 30s - some of us already married with families. We came of age in the peaceful boom years of the 1990s but have children of our own in the uncertain world in which we live today.
The Millenials barely remember 9/11 and likely little of the 2008 crash and its aftermath. For them, the world has always been a chaotic and unsteady place. Between two decade-long wars, the iPhone and social media this cohort has had a front row seat for more dynamic social and economic change than any probably since their ancestors in Europe during the Industrial Revolution. Despite being told to go to college and graduate to get a job, too many of them are left with a mortgage’s worth of debt and too little gainful employment. But they too, due to their age, are more able to adapt to the world that many of us have to attempt to decode on a daily basis.
A candidate like Trump calls him as he sees them. And for millions of Americans, when he calls our leaders and government stupid, they cheer from their couches. When he calls them idiots and foreign leaders ‘cunning’ many believe he’s right. For the Federal government, they don’t have many legs to stand on. Since 9/11, the record is littered with failures on the part of Washington - the Al Qaeda attacks themselves, the 2009 Stimulus Package or more recently, the abominable behavior of employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs, there is an excellent case to be made that on any given day the Federal government is either unable or unwilling to do the job with which the American people charges it. Neither is a good thing.
Groups as varied as Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movement, miles apart on the ideological spectrum, both believe the government as formulated today is corrupt, calcified and designed to enrich a few on the backs of the many. Trump is able to harness that belief and blend it with his own unique oration and celebrity to get people to stand up and scream, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” But we’d expect this response from the political extremes and fringes. Trump is firing up voters who might otherwise just sit another election out, believing that their vote, for whichever candidate, ultimately wouldn’t have an impact on their individual situation. In far too many cases, they’re probably right.
Sticks and Stones
All the excitement and drama that Trump brings has its dark side. When every issue is black or white, when a person is either a ‘nice guy’ or a ‘dummy’ the dialogue that for so many decades has been the backbone of the American political system, starts to break down into one giant screaming match. We already see as much political polarization as we’ve had in decades and firebrands feed on this and turn it on their lesser skilled opponents. Trump, unlike any of the other candidates so far, has understand how to embrace the chaos and to the extent possible, train its wrath on others.
Several years ago, I participated in a discussion about political discourse at a university. The idea was that conservatives were better at using anger to gin up their base compared to liberals. That particular argument aside, when the event was over, an older gentleman asked me what happens after we run out of angry words. I believe today what I told him then, “when we run out of words, angry or not, I don’t want to be around.”
The nativism and nationalism that Trump espouses gives his audiences what they want: an outlet for blame and shifting of responsibility to someone else that feels good but isn’t a long-term solution. As Americans, we’re very proud and born with an innate belief that we are meant to lead the globe, whatever the situation. Much like the Roman or British Empires, America is supposed to be the lone force in the world that can shape things to our will. As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, that is looking like a more and more difficult task to accomplish.
The Dogma Ate My Homework
The Donald has built his campaign on the issue of illegal immigration. His proposal to build a wall from sea to shining sea makes the hearts of die-hard activists go pitter patter. Comparatively, he is way out on a limb on this issue compared to the balance of the field - but his ability to vacuum airtime has caused his opponents to move further to the right on the issue, and frankly discuss it in detail, more than they’d like.
Trump may be a billionaire, but he talks in clear, definite terms that voters like and understand. He makes a lot of money - because he builds things. But he also believes things like hedge fund managers (currently taxed at 15%) should pay more, because in his words, they’re paper pushers and they get away with murder. No other Republican candidate is going to make such an utterance - they need the donations too much and can’t risk the anti-tax hounds baying at their door for such an impropriety. Trump doesn’t care. He’s going to be rich one way or the other and doesn’t need their money to finance his campaign. He reinforces his populist message by showing that he, too, even as a rich guy, believes that some rich guys really are gaming the system, giving audiences credence to what they may have believed all along - someone is getting rich, but it’s sure as hell not me.
Because a candidate like Donald Trump is able to mold himself to whatever the occasion may be, he is unhindered by being called a flip-flopper. When confronted, he says he’s “evolved” - and gets away with it. Mitt Romney tried for years to explain his evolution on issues such as abortion and healthcare and was never able to convince conservative activists that he really meant it. With Trump, they don’t care. So much of what would otherwise be a Christmas feast of opposition research is already baked into his rum-filled cake. And with his celebrity, he is able to transcend the petty issues that other campaigns and their policy teams spend months writing and testing before finally rolling them out in a 62 page treatise that no one (other than reporters and researchers) will ever read. The GOP is hamstrung.
As one of my very smart colleagues told me, “Right now he (Trump) is offering voters the easy choice - we can stand on principles and trust me somehow I will get it all done without compromises. Most of the other guys are making it an either/or choice. That may not be sustainable, but voters are attracted to the prospect - whether its putting a chicken in every pot, having guns and butter, or building a wall that Mexico pays for, people like not having to make a hard choice.”
Food for Thought
This week, my friends at TargetPoint Consulting put out the third installment of their GOP Consideration Survey - who would Republicans vote for and why. Here are a few take aways they shared with me.
- Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are the big winners when it comes to increasing their available audience since May. Nearly 2/3 of the electorate now says they’d consider Carson, up 20 points from February. Fiorina has quadrupled the number of voters considering her since the beginning of the year. Trump has doubled his numbers in the same time period.
- Rubio, Cruz, Huckabee, Bush, Christie and Graham have held steady since May. However, the number of people ruling out Cruz jumped nine points to 31%.
- Walker is still on solid footing with the GOP electorate but may be at a bit of a crossroads and his support has dropped in each of the last two surveys. The next few weeks and especially the next debate will provide him an opportunity to reverse that trend.
- All the GOP candidates are below 50% support with women.
You can find the entire survey presentation here.