1. Opinion

Douthat: In search of the American center

Published Jul. 27, 2017

I am not usually fond of the "this one chart explains everything" genre of political analysis, but every rule has exceptions, and I'm going to make one for a chart that accompanies a new survey on the 2016 election. It helps explain why Donald Trump won the presidency and why his administration is such a policy train wreck, why Democrats keep losing even though the country seems to be getting more liberal, and why populist surges are likely to be with us for a while.

The survey was conducted by the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group and it assesses voter sentiment along two axes: On the horizontal, economic issues, including welfare, entitlements, trade and inequality; on the vertical, moral/identity issues, from abortion and transgender rights to views of race, gender, immigration and Islam. (Read the full report at

The resulting chart places voters into four quadrants — one consistently conservative, one consistently liberal, and then a more populist quadrant (for cultural conservatives who lean left on economics) and a more consistently libertarian quadrant (for social liberals who are fiscal conservatives).

Three things leap out. The first is the diversity of opinion within the Trump coalition about economics. Americans who voted Republican in 2016 tend to embrace some form of social conservatism, but on economic policy they lean only slightly to the right — spreading out across the economically liberal/socially conservative quadrant as well as the consistently conservative one. Indeed, the typical Republican voter's views on economics and the safety net are relatively close to the center of public opinion as a whole.

This reflects both a longstanding trend and a Trump-driven shift. The Republican Party as an institution, or at least its congressional incarnation, has long been well to the right of its own voters on economics, very few of whom vote GOP for strict libertarian reasons. But Trump, by breaking more starkly than past Republican insurgents with party orthodoxy on trade, entitlements and health care, was able to first exploit this tension in the primary campaign — rallying populist Republican voters against their own establishment — and then to win over populist-leaning independents who had previously voted for Barack Obama.

But this victory, in turn, made the gap between Republican orthodoxy and the party's coalition that much wider … which could have been an opportunity for the Trump administration to successfully reconfigure the party's agenda, but instead, because he's Trump, has just led to political malpractice and general disarray.

The Democrats' coalition is too ideologically homogeneous, clustering together way down at the lower-left corner of our chart, in a quadrant where everyone is consistently liberal.

This uniformity helps explain one of the mysteries of American politics — given that the Republican economic agenda is unpopular and the country has swung left on social issues, why can't Democrats win more elections? The answer (one of them, at least) is that as the country has moved left, the Democratic Party's base has consolidated even farther left, and in the process the party has lost the ability to speak to persuadable voters.

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Finally: After looking at the smear of red across the top two quadrants and the fist of blue in the lower left, stare a while at the chart's lower right-hand quadrant, home of social liberals and fiscal conservatives. It's astonishingly empty: The ideological groups that occupy this space — consistent libertarians, globalist Democrats, socially liberal deficit hawks, pro-choice and pro-immigration supply-siders — are vanishingly rare within the American electorate.

But they are not at all rare in the country's power centers, in New York and Washington and Silicon Valley, and in similar centers across the Western world. And therein lies a taproot of every recent form of populism.

On both sides of the Atlantic, if you tried to build a consensus politics based around what voters actually want, it would be very moderately culturally conservative and very moderately economically liberal, and it would sit low in the upper left quadrant of our chart — the place where Trump won voters who had previously voted for Obama.

But on both sides of the Atlantic, if you sought to place the elite consensus on the same chart, it be much closer to the emptiest of quadrants — the land of austerity and open borders, free trade and the permanent sexual revolution.

Given populism's derangements and divisions, this elite consensus can still win elections but it constantly invites backlash and disillusionment. So the task of statesmanship should be to reconcile the wisdom in the elite view (of which there is some, here and there) with the wisdom of the wider public.

© 2017 New York Times


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