Monday, February 4, 2019

Operational Liberalism Strikes Again!

Political scientist David Hopkins recently noted a very important reason for Trump's failure to build his wall--a reason that is rooted in the deep structure of American politics. Hopkins:
"If the border wall was as important to Trump as he says, why didn’t Republicans provide the funds while they ruled Capitol Hill?
The answer to this political mystery is that the wall has never been a top priority for most Republicans. And their stance reflects limited enthusiasm for its construction among conservative policy-makers and voters alike. An American public that has serious concerns about immigration in general nevertheless remains unconvinced that a wall would solve the problems it perceives. As a result, Republican politicians apparently calculated that they’d be better off if the electorate continued to express broad anxiety about the border than if lawmakers actually tried to impose an unpopular solution.
This dynamic reflects a larger, enduring attribute of American politics. For more than 50 years, scholars have noted that the public collectively leans to the right in its general predispositions even as it prefers left-of-center positions on most individual policies; voters are philosophically conservative and operationally liberal. For example, 53 percent of Americans agree that the federal government has “too much power,” according to a recent Gallup survey, compared with just 8 percent who believe that it has too little. But the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Americans opposed budget cuts in every one of 14 specific policy areas, including health care, education, environmental protection, and aid to the needy; on 12 of the items, the number of respondents who supported spending increases even outnumbered those who preferred reductions. As a rule, then, Republican politicians benefit strategically by sounding broad rhetorical themes rather than discussing the details of their favored policies.....
The current standoff is often characterized as the product of this president’s distinctive characterological qualities: stubbornness, combativeness, a fear of backing down. But Trump has become caught in a very familiar bind for Republican politicians. He successfully won his party’s nomination in 2016 by taking an uncompromising position on an issue of great concern to conservative activists, attacking his opponents for being weak or feckless in comparison. Once in office, however, he has scrambled to fulfill the ambitious promises he made en route to gaining power, as public attention focuses on the unpopular specifics."
Keeping this dynamic in mind is important we move forward toward the 2020 election. Americans famously are not fond of big government and, depending on how survey questions are asked, declare their lack of interest in a general expansion of government’s role. So some argue that Democrats' grand plans are doomed to failure because of this skepticism. Certainly Republicans will make this argument.
But such a view misunderstands this dominant ideology, that combines philosophical conservatism (honoring tradition, distrusting novelty, embracing the conservative label) with operational liberalism (wanting government to do more and spend more in a wide variety of areas). It's clear which side of the American voters' psyche Democrats need to activate. Unleash (operational) liberalism!
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