‘Open’ and ‘Closed’ Is the Wrong Political Frame

by Oren Cass

David Brooks argues today that Donald Trump is a harbinger of a coming realignment that will shift the terms of the American political debate from “size of government” to “open/closed.” I think he is correct about realignment, but the open/closed dichotomy is less a dispassionate analysis of the choice than a crass and counterproductive effort at setting the rhetorical terms of the debate.

Of course “open” sounds better than “closed” (per Brooks, “proponents of openness are massively right”). But on immigration, Brooks’s emerging “open” team insists on casting skepticism of open borders or amnesty as “anti-immigrant.” In practice, that has meant rejecting the rule of law and the nation’s right to assert political control over its immigration policy. On trade, team “open” seems to be staking out the position that any economic barrier is inherently bad. But that approach relinquishes all negotiating leverage abroad and the ability to protect some of those already struggling most at home.

Talk to someone on what Brooks calls the “closed” side and you will learn—as Christiane Amanpour did from Daniel Hannan—that the dichotomy might just as well be framed as “out-of-control” vs. “in-control.”

But if we shift from rhetorical one-upmanship to a more fair-minded analysis of the divide, it seems to emerge primarily over how to help those segments of society currently facing social collapse and economic struggle. High levels of trade and immigration are presumably not the ends unto themselves. Rather they are, in the view of the Openers, critical pre-requisites of a flourishing society that will work for everyone. Many opponents see value in trade and immigration as well, but they emphasize that the current approach is not working for those who need help most and we have not proven any ability to make it work.

Framing the debate as trade and immigration per se misses the actual, good-faith dispute on those issues and government’s broader role in helping those left behind: do we push ahead or pause to correct course?

Brooks cites a recent article by his New York Times colleague, Neil Irwin, noting that “the 5,100 steel production jobs lost in Pittsburgh are dwarfed by the 66,000 health care jobs gained [since 1990].” Irwin gets that result by comparing the entire health care and social services sector of the economy to workers in “iron and steel mills and ferroalloy manufacturing.” Had he more reasonably compared health care and social services to manufacturing, he would have found the 66,000 job increase offset by a 44,000 job decline. [Updated: Since 2000, it would be an increase of 39,000 health care jobs versus a decline of 43,000 manufacturing jobs.]

Further, “Production” workers in the Pittsburgh area earn $19 per hour whereas “Healthcare Support” workers earn $14 and “Personal Care and Service” workers earn $12. “Healthcare Practitioners and Technical” earn $33, but most laid-off factory workers are unlikely to hold or ever receive medical or related technical degrees.

On behalf of the Push Aheaders, Brooks asserts that “we just need to be more aggressive in equipping people to thrive in that dynamic landscape.” But for the Course Correcters, it makes no sense to call for more “aggressiveness” in an area where we have not proven to be even vaguely competent. Likewise, Push Aheaders tend to note that because gains to the free trade and immigration winners vastly exceed losses to the losers, we can always find ways to compensate the latter. But Course Correcters again worry that neither our government nor politics has shown any capacity to actually accomplish that.

Even accepting the Push Aheader’s vision of an ever-larger pie, which do we do first: start in on baking it, or make sure we like the one coming out of the oven? And might we even prefer a slightly smaller pie, if it were a sovereign and cohesive one? (Obviously, there are clear echoes of many other liberal vs. conservative disputes here.)

Listening to a Trump speech, it is easy to hear “Closed.” But while he may have helped trigger the realignment, we can hope and expect that people far more thoughtful (like David Brooks!) will ultimately define its contours. That’s what makes his embrace of “Open/Closed” disappointing—it seems almost determined to immediately repeat the mistakes that left elites blindsided by Trump and Brexit, to misunderstand and demonize the animating and genuine concerns of voters and policymakers on the other side, and to drive those opponents toward a genuinely Closed stance by taking away the more reasonable ground they might otherwise occupy.

Brooks got a glowing tour of Pittsburgh’s “new restaurants, new museums, new loft-style office spaces and several gleaming new hospitals” from its mayor. But he doesn’t report managing to speak with anyone from the region’s “old working-class layer” as he “drove for miles, unable to find even a diner for lunch.” Perhaps they were all closed.

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