Bret Stephens, one of the tame “conservatives” at The New York Times, has an op-ed to which my attention was drawn this morning: “Why Aren’t Democrats Walking Away With the Mid-Terms?“.
Stephens touches upon a thesis that has been enunciated by many. I will come to it by way of Arnold Kling — an unusually sensible economist (e.g., he calls standard macroeconomics “hydraulic economics” and derides the implicit assumption that the economy is single unit — a big GDP factory). Kling has written a book (now in second edition) called The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divide. Here are some relevant passages:
In politics, I claim that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians are like tribes speaking different languages. The language that resonates with one tribe does not connect with the others. As a result, political discussions do not lead to agreement. Instead, most political commentary serves to increase polarization. The points that people make do not open the minds of people on the other side. They serve to close the minds of the people on one’s own side.
Which political language do you speak? Of course, your own views are carefully nuanced, and you would never limit yourself to speaking in a limited language. So think of one of your favorite political commentators, an insightful individual with whom you generally agree. Which of the following statements would that commentator most likely make?
(P) [Progressive] My heroes are people who have stood up for the underprivileged. The people I cannot stand are the people who are indifferent to the oppression of women, minorities, and the poor.
(C) [Conservative] My heroes are people who have stood up for Western values. The people I cannot stand are the people who are indifferent to the assault on the moral virtues and traditions that are the foundation for our civilization.
(L) [Libertarian] My heroes are people who have stood up for individual rights. The people I cannot stand are the people who are indifferent to government taking away people’s ability to make their own choices….
I call this the three-axes model of political communication. A progressive will communicate along the oppressor-oppressed axis, framing issues in terms of the (P) dichotomy. A conservative will communicate along the civilization-barbarism axis, framing issues in terms of the (C) dichotomy. A libertarian will communicate along the liberty-coercion axis, framing issues in terms of the (L) dichotomy….
I do not believe that the three-axes model serves to explain or to describe the different political ideologies. I am not trying to say that political beliefs are caused by one’s choice of axis. Nor am I saying that people think exclusively in terms of their preferred axis. What I am saying is that when we communicate about issues, we tend to fall back on one of the three axes. By doing so, we engage in political tribalism. We signal to members of our tribe that we agree with them, and we enhance our status in the tribe. However, even though it appears that we are arguing against people from other tribes, those people pay no heed to what we say. It is as if we are speaking a foreign language….
The three axes allow each tribe to assert moral superiority. The progressive asserts moral superiority by denouncing oppression and accusing others of failing to do so. The conservative asserts moral superiority by denouncing barbarism and accusing others of failing to do so. The libertarian asserts moral superiority by denouncing coercion and accusing others of failing to do so….
In 2016, Donald Trump surprised many people— including me— by emerging as a powerful political force and prevailing in the presidential election. Trump’s success confounded many analytical frameworks that had worked well in the past, and the three-axes model is not particularly helpful, either.
Progressives certainly viewed Trump through the oppressor-oppressed axis, seeing his pronouncements and his supporters as tinged with racism and threats toward other victim classes. Libertarians viewed Trump through the liberty-coercion axis, seeing him as authoritarian and a danger to liberty.
Conservatives, however, were divided. One faction, represented by a number of writers at the conservative publication National Review, viewed Trump negatively along the civilization-barbarism axis. They saw Trump as scornful of important traditional institutions, including civil discourse, the U.S. Constitution, the Republican Party, and the principle of free trade.
The other conservative faction saw Trump’s opponent in the general election, Hillary Clinton, as a greater threat to civilization. Writing under the pseudonym, Publius Decius Mus, an essayist on the Claremont Institute website described voting against Clinton as analogous to the passengers on one of the planes hijacked on 9/ 11 who managed to storm the cockpit and keep the hijackers from hitting their intended target.
In my view, Trump opened up a new axis. He accomplished that by appealing to people who differ from those with whom I am most acquainted. Some have termed this new axis populist versus elite, or outsider versus insider….
Perhaps the main dividing line is best described in terms of cosmopolitanism. The sections of the country that most strongly supported Hillary Clinton were large cities located along the coasts, where affluent people are used to engaging with foreign cultures, either locally or by traveling abroad. The sections of the country that most strongly supported Donald Trump were rural and small-town areas located away from the coast, where interaction with foreign cultures is much less frequent.
To describe the cosmopolitan outlook, recall the expression “bourgeois bohemians,” coined by journalist David Brooks almost two decades ago. Brooks was describing a cosmopolitan elite, one that enjoys foreign travel and celebrates cultural diversity. The Bobos, as Brooks dubbed them, probably feel more comfortable in Prague than in Peoria.
As I see it, Donald Trump’s supporters were the anti-Bobos. They distrusted foreign people and cultures. But above all, they distrusted and resented the Bobos, and the feeling was mutual. Thus, the axis that I believe best fits the Trump phenomenon is Bobo versus anti-Bobo.
I think this is right. Bret Stephens is a Bobo who believes that “the real threat of the Trump presidency isn’t economic or political catastrophe. It’s moral and institutional corrosion — the debasement of our discourse and the fracturing of our civic bonds.”
Stephens seems not to understand that — in the view of anti-Bobos — civic bonds were fractured long ago by the Bobos who championed school busing, affirmative action, and all that followed under the heading of identity politics, including “open borders”. The anti-Bobos of the North were taken for granted as reliable Democrat voters, largely ignored (by both parties), and then sneered at by Democrats. Hillary Clinton’s characterization of the anti-Bobos (of all regions) as “deplorables” was merely confirmatory, and probably enabled Trump’s victory by putting him over the top in Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Trump’s genius has been to speak the language of anti-Bobos and make them feel as if they are valued.
It is unclear to me what “deeper threat [Trump’s] his presidency represents”, as Stephens puts it. Trump, as I argue above, is not divisive. Bobo policies — shared by “establishment” politicians of both parties — have been divisive. Stephens and his ilk (of all parties) simply want the anti-Bobos to shut up, get back in the fold, and accept the crumbs that fall from the Bobos’ table. The “deeper threat”, in other words, is an end to the Bobos’ long reign of error in Washington.
Stephens’s Bobo-ism is fully on display in the final paragraph of his op-ed, where he writes that “The tragedy of Pittsburgh illustrates, among other things, that the president cannot unite us, even in our grief.” What I saw was an immediate attack on Trump for having created an “atmosphere of hate” (shades of Dallas 1963). Trump’s personal behavior — which reflects his long-standing pro-Jewish sympathies — was exemplary, as was the behavior of Rabbi Myers. How, precisely, was Trump supposed to “unite us” when there are tens of millions of Americans — goaded on by the mainstream media — who despise him for the sheer enjoyment of it?