Postmodern Conservative

Scott Walker’s Real Authenticity Problem

Jennifer Rubin thinks that Scott Walker has hurt himself by going too far to the right, and that he should get back to his authentic self as a moderate, pragmatic reformer. The problem is that, on immigration, the authentic Walker would be an unpopular Walker. And what is worse, Walker authentically does not know how to pretend to be a genuine immigration moderate. This is not just a Scott Walker problem.

When answering questions from the Wausau Daily Herald, Scott Walker came out for upfront amnesty for unauthorized immigrants, a path to citizenship, and he argued for expansion of future immigration as an alternative to improved border enforcement. Walker said:

You hear some people talk about border security, and a wall, and all that. To me, I don’t know that you need any of that if you had a better, saner way to let people into the country in the first place.

That might count as moderation at the Chamber of Commerce and the Washington Post, but that mix of policies gets the support of about one-third of Americans who are surveyed about the combination of immigration policies they prefer. A clear majority of Americans prefer a combination of increased immigration enforcement, and reduced future low-skill immigration.

When it comes to immigration policy, Scott Walker was the extremist (assuming extremism and moderation are defined by public opinion and not by elite journalists, politicians, and lobbyists.) What is most disturbing is that Walker seemed to have no idea that he was out of step with the public on the issue. The conservative business leaders and liberal journalists he talked to all seemed to agree with him on immigration. So why couldn’t Washington get on board with the common sense consensus that surrounded him?

Walker has since tried to repudiate his earlier immigration extremism, but he just can’t get it right. Whether it is building a wall along the Canadian border, or ending birthright citizenship, Walker is coming across like a man who is saying things he doesn’t believe (or even understand) to people that he doesn’t respect.

If it was just a Scott Walker problem, it wouldn’t matter. Walker is just one politician. The big problem is the social gulf between establishment Republican politicians and large sections of the right-leaning electorate is so big that the politicians can’t even imagine what many of their voters are thinking.

When the opinions of conservative executives and business owners align with that of right-leaning voters (such as in support of Walker’s budget reforms or in opposition to Obamacare), Republican politicians do fine. When the opinions of right-leaning wage-earners diverge from those of the conservative business class, establishment Republican politicians seem lost. The Republican politicians often seem unaware that these cleavages in public opinion even exist until it is too late.

A competent and honest political class would try to find the common ground, and reach a compromise between the party’s factions, but the current Republican leadership seems to take little interest in the opinions of anyone outside the employer interests and consultant/lobbyist/campaign aide/congressional staffer apparatchiks.

I wish I believed that this all came down to money. If establishment Republicans coldly understood their choices as being about campaign donations versus votes, they could more easily split the differences between party factions. I think the problem is more social. With the decline of civic institutions among people in the lower half of the income distribution, the social power of groups that are well organized tends to increase. The influence of the donor class doesn’t just come from the checks. It comes from the social interactions at local Chamber of Commerce events where an aspiring politician gives a speech and then listens to local business owners talk about how they have trouble finding willing workers at a good price (to the employer.) The unorganized majority of Americans who disagree with this view don’t get to invite Walker to meetings, because they don’t have meetings.

The result is that establishment Republican politicians and the donor class (which is a broad group with members across the country) end up explaining to each other how to deal with the poorer, more primitive members of their political coalition. The results are predictably distorted by self-serving error. Establishment Republican politicians end up treating Republican voters either like marks to be taken down (we’ll build the dang fence, tee-hee), or obstacles to be overcome (candidates should be willing to risk losing the primitive-infested primaries in order to win the general election.)      


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