Republicans aren’t divided just by ideology. Perhaps even more important, Republican-leaning voters are divided by the ability to ask. Republican voters with high levels of civic engagement are able to reach politicians and make comprehensible demands. Those with low civic engagement end up ignored until they are reached by some political entrepreneur. In the 2016 cycle, that political entrepreneur turned out to be Donald Trump.
The most obvious examples of Republican groups with high levels of social engagement are business owners, professionals, and religiously observant social conservatives. This is partly a function of economic class, but not entirely. John Kasich supporters, who were disproportionately affluent, had a higher rate of civic engagement than any other candidate’s base, Republican or Democrat. But Ted Cruz’s more religiously observant voters came in a close second. Donald Trump’s voters were last in civic engagement, with a majority of his voters being disengaged.
Given the decline of religious observance and civil engagement among wage-earners — as chronicled by Charles Murray — we now have millions of people who in earlier decades would have been members of churches, ethnic societies, veteran organizations, or lodges, but who now have no such ties. That leaves these people with no home turf from which they can work together and pressure politicians, and leaves politicians few ways to hear from these voters outside of time-consuming individual conversations and few ways to reach them outside of the mass media.
There is another, subtler advantage for the civically engaged. Business lobbies, professional organizations, and conservative congregations have a pretty clear idea of what they want. Business groups are able to make specific demands about taxes, regulation, trade, and immigration. Conservative religious groups are able to make specific demands for religious-liberty protections or abortion restrictions.
The result is that right-leaning, disengaged Americans become not citizens to be accommodated, but suckers to be manipulated. The agendas of Republican politicians are formed to reflect the priorities of those with the ability to ask, and then arguments are retrofitted to mobilize the disengaged. This is how a party whose members are ambivalent about cutting taxes on high earners ends up producing candidates who argue that a tax cut on the boss is the best thing for the wage-earners. Ninety percent of Republicans oppose increasing immigration, but Senate Republicans keep proposing guest-worker programs. Those who are activists on those issues tend to overwhelmingly be on one side even if they are a minority in the party. Every metropolitan area has a chamber of commerce looking out for business owners and managers. There are no such vibrant, decentralized organizations for Republican-leaners who might be indifferent to a modest tax increase on high-earners but are opposed to amnesty — even if tens of millions of Republicans actually feel that way.
Those people are still out there, and they know that the agendas of the politicians have not been written for them. This civically disengaged and slighted population was available for a political entrepreneur who would recognize their existence and speak to them.
Right-leaning, disengaged Americans become not citizens to be accommodated, but suckers to be manipulated.
One of Trump’s accomplishments was that he was able to turn his rallies into the home turf for these voters. People mocked Trump’s admission that he changed his speeches based on how his audience responded, but at least he was listening to the audience rather than trying to sell them a prefabricated agenda. Finally, it seemed, someone was fighting — and fighting for them. That was why Trump, for all of his vices, was met with such rapture even as he murdered traditional Republican talking points.
In the long run, Trump’s disengaged supporters are going to be disappointed. The community his rallies created is ephemeral. His promises of better trade deals do not look likely to amount to much. There will be no magical, lower-cost, more comprehensive, universal health insurance to replace Obamacare. One of the reasons he was able to appeal to disaffected populists was that he was willing to listen, but another reason was that he didn’t care if his promises were impossible to keep.
Conventional Republicans should not take too much comfort from this. For too long, Republican have practiced a kind of pseudo-listening. This is where they keep trying out different words to sell the same thing — whether the audience wants it or not.
The best example of this is the Republican National Committee’s autopsy of the 2012 election. The RNC made a big show of how many people it interviewed about the public’s perception of the Republican party. The result was a suggestion that the party adopt “comprehensive immigration reform” — a Washington euphemism for a policy that involves, among other things, up-front amnesty and expanded immigration.
It just so happened that immigration was the one area where 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had differed from the preferences of the business lobbies. The 2012 exit poll had revealed that a majority of voters thought Romney’s policies would primarily have helped the wealthy, while barely one-third thought his policies would benefit the middle class, but a different approach to (for instance) taxes didn’t make it into the report. The RNC was used to not hearing what they didn’t want to hear.
You see this with decent and principled Republicans like Paul Ryan, who, with his public-relations background, seems to think that the key to winning is finding just the right words to describe the right policy. If tax cuts for high earners can be called optimistic growth, if entitlement cuts can be called saving retirement, and if expanded low-skill immigration can be called commonsense welcoming, then everything will be all right. It is all in the framing.
Except it isn’t. The Ryan agenda described above represents some people’s interests and priorities — but not all people’s. It is difficult for politicians to hear from the civically disengaged conservative and moderate voters, but it isn’t impossible to know what such voters are thinking. As Henry Olsen has pointed out, there is an entire literature about how the preferences of secular, working-class whites differ from those of both religiously observant conservatives and affluent Republican professionals and business owners.
This doesn’t mean socially disengaged voters should have things all their own way. Nobody should have things all their own way. It does mean that Republican politicians should make a special effort to understand where these voters are coming from, and to accommodate their concerns in a responsible way. For starters, it means that combining tax cuts for the rich with cuts to Social Security and Medicare is death. It also means that, given America’s uneven distribution of social capital, if Republican politicians don’t make that special effort to listen to the civically disengaged, they will end up ignoring these voters until it is too late.
The fraudulent listening of the Republican autopsy treated the mass of civically disengaged voters not as citizens with legitimate interests, but as marks to be taken down (if only for their own good). Perhaps we should not have been surprised when these voters ended up voting for a con man who at least listened when those voters asked for something different.
— Peter Spiliakos is a columnist for the online version of First Things.