One of the most depressing and sad episodes of American political history is almost at a close. The 2016 presidential campaign was the most culturally and politically divisive contest in recent memory and exposed deep cultural divides in American society. Perhaps a new normal emerged? One in which race baiting, sexism, and xenophobic rhetoric becomes acceptable political theater. Nearly all polls suggest a win for Hillary Clinton, yet what does this leave us with? How could someone so politically incorrect, so brutishly and unapologetically crude come so close to being the President? What will a post Trump America look like?
It’s well understood that the roots of Trump’s rise are found in a growing sense of demographic anxiety. Economic misplacement and the Republican party’s frustration with their never ending search for an authentic conservative played a role, but I think at root we have the “deplorables” because of the shifting distribution of cultural and demographic America. His supporters are unapologetically white and they are responding to the perceived trend that the United States is becoming less so. Below is a chart which I think sums up the source of their grief.
The above trends are alarming from a governing perspective. Frankly, the less homogenous a body politic is the less well its political institutions perform. This was best discussed in Putnam’s work “Making Democracy Work.” The central premise is that political institutions are more efficient when there is a high amount of social capital. Social capital helps find solutions to problems of collective action problems by building institutions of trust and norms of reciprocity, or what he calls a rotating credit association. Social capital includes a shared language, community bonds based around culture, and other networks of civic associations. The more heterogeneous a society is demographically, the less social capital. This explains in part why we are observing such stark fault lines in American politics.
One of two things must give if the politics that made way for Trump are to be addressed. One, the mentioned demographic trends must be halted. This is exactly what Trump and his supporters demand and includes policies like building a wall and halting all Muslim immigration.
The other alternative involves thinking about how we conduct public policy. I would argue that this means refocusing public policy away from allocation and more towards facilitating cooperation and emphasizing personal responsibility. The tribalism that comes with this sort of demographic change is heightened when so much of government policy is an attempt to redistribute income. For FY 2012, federal spending on welfare programs alone was roughly 1 trillion dollars, and this doesn’t include Social Security and Medicare. No one can discount all aspects of these programs, but this style of governing doesn’t perform well in a heterogeneous society. Look at how brittle the social democracies of Europe are with the migration crisis. A consequence of these redistribution programs is that individuals often feel that they are competing with each over the biggest slice of the pie, breeding resentment and animosity among the participants. These are mostly mean tested programs, but its perception that is important, and one of the most common complaints of Trump’s supporters is that “others are cutting in lines.”
An easy fix (conceptually, not politically) would be to reorient public policy away from redistribution and towards creating incentives for being industrial and self-reliant. Both parties are responsible of creating public policy that promotes a rent seeking, zero-sum attitude. Instead we should design legislation that sought to realign competing self-interests towards more cooperative behavior. I don’t have an answer for what this specifically looks like but it would be libertarian in spirit and would include reducing the scope of the welfare state. Allowing for more personal responsibility avoids perceptions that bureaucrats are creating distributional conflicts and would help dampen any social conflict stemming from changes in demographic trends. It’s either that or we try to ensure the United States remains defined as a country by one dominant race.