Democrats have a lot to learn from Trump
He won’t drain the swamp, but they should
OUR DAILY FOCUS on Donald Trump’s narcissistic behavior diverts attention from something much more significant: the likelihood that his presidency may constitute an important historical transition for the United States. It is obvious that the election of Trump represented a departure from the norm. It is not obvious that his departure from the presidency will represent a return to the norm.
Historians looking back decades from now will probably see Trump in the category of presidents like James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover, each of whom ineptly managed powerful forces that drove the country into great crises resulting in profound changes. We may not face an attempt to dissolve the union or another Great Depression, but it’s hard to anticipate whether Trump will deliver the country into an existential crisis or simply leave our political order disassembled and requiring reconstruction. To repair itself in Trump’s wake, the country will need a widely shared vision of the future of governance in the United States. If past crises are illustrative, that vision will involve a reconstituted political framework very different from what we know today.
The dialectic that has characterized recent decades of national politics is already beginning to change. Until Trump’s election, the country saw the Republican and Democratic parties fall into two pre-conceptualized categories: small government conservatives and big government liberals. The Republicans argued for reduced spending, a lightly regulated economy, and diminished federal bureaucracy. The Democrats tolerated higher taxes and believed that an empowered national government should administer policies to expand health care, support housing, enhance education, and help Americans with essential services.
The Republican retreat from commitments they made to voters creates a unique opportunity for Democrats to position themselves for leadership in the post-Trump era. This is not the same as picking up more congressional seats in the 2018 elections just because Trump is unpopular. First, the party must learn the lessons of Trump’s election. Then it must adapt those lessons to its own goals. This means moving the implementation of its progressive agenda from one level of government to another, from Washington to the states. To succeed in the long term, Democrats must become small government liberals.
Understanding Trump’s victory means acknowledging that he is the most successful demagogue in the history of the United States. Many of his critics, astonished by the election result and searching for an explanation, look for flaws in the electorate and find racism, anti-immigrant nativism, sexism, and hypocritical Christian fundamentalism. Other critics, willing to accept some responsibility for losing Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, focus on the Democrats’ inability to communicate effectively with less educated, mid-country blue-collar voters. There is some reality in all of this but not enough to capture the truth of Trump.
Individual voters have flaws but our republic rests on the assumption that, acting collectively in their separate states, the electorate can choose wisely from their limited presidential options. Why did 63 million voters pick an inexperienced candidate with a deeply flawed personality and an inability to articulate public policy in more than 140 characters? He didn’t fool the electorate. They picked him in spite of his obvious shortcomings.
Trump campaigned on a message about what should not continue to happen in Washington: The Swamp. As an effective demagogue, he used a vague but forceful image to capture authentic but disparate impressions held by the electorate. Even relatively uninformed voters have absorbed countless stories about insider arrangements in Washington that benefited lobbyists while politicians were unwilling to take action that served the common good. Trump’s message accurately captured the paralysis of Congress and the perceived incompetence of federal bureaucracies. He did not promise to fix them. His promise to slash or eliminate them struck much of the electorate as the only answer to the entrenched and unresponsive power in Washington. But the reality of Trump’s demagoguery is that his voters won’t get what they want. He captured the idea but lacks the conviction and skill to act on it effectively.
If the Democrats’ defeat in 2016 was not about emails or Benghazi but reflected real voter discomfort with the competence of the federal government, there are profound implications for future elections. To succeed, Democrats must find a way to advocate for progressive values and activist government while shrinking federal power. This is not as much of a paradox as it initially seems. There are three threads of argument that support the idea.
First is the constitutional framework that defines our republic. Both in spirit and in text the Constitution places significant restrictions on the federal government but it does little to limit aggressive state government. The Tenth Amendment in the Bill of Rights reflected the framers’ fear of excessive central authority: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Outside of the federal sphere, the framers expected activist government. James Madison, writing in the Federalist Papers (46), said that “the first and most natural attachment of the people will be to the governments of their respective States” where “…all the more domestic and personal interests of the people will be regulated and provided for.” He expected state governments to be larger, closer to the people, and more responsive than the constitutionally limited federal government. It is hardly a reactionary impulse for political leaders now to learn from the wisdom of the founders as the American system is restructured for the 21st Century.
The second reason for Democrats to move away from more concentrated federal power is that, with few exceptions, the enormous federal bureaucracy is indeed wasteful and poorly managed. While the US government efficiently raises money, its spending ineptitude is widespread and easy to see in the two largest federal expenditure categories: defense and health care. A detailed 2015 study of US defense spending conducted by outside efficiency experts found that the Pentagon pays more than 1 million back office personnel to support 1.3 million active duty troops. The study said normalized overhead could save $125 billion, approximately 23 percent of the defense budget. No action was taken to address this because the Pentagon feared that members of Congress would not want potential cutbacks impacting their districts. While control of military spending cannot realistically move from the federal government, its wastefulness adds to Washington’s reputation for poor management.
The third reason to adopt a de-federalized progressive agenda is not about the constitution or about efficiency. It’s about community and encouraging the engagement of citizens in shaping their common experience. At what level is it best to address the needs of a group of people in the context of their social values and responsibilities? Expanding the federal role for routine needs such as education and health care undermines communal involvement in the design and delivery of such services. Not only are federal services inefficient, they are homogenized in a way that makes adaptation to local circumstances difficult. These services are best defined and implemented as close as possible to a self-governing community of substantially less than 330 million people.
The argument to empower states is not new. Justice Louis Brandeis captured the spirit in 1932 when he wrote: “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” From the early 1970s until the second Reagan administration, a bipartisan effort supported a federal revenue-sharing program that granted unconditional funds to governments across the country. More recently, legal scholars led by Yale Law School dean Heather Gerken have articulated a form of “progressive federalism.” In an interview with CommonWealth last year, she said: “The key to remember is, you can be a nationalist, and you can still think we don’t want to centralize everything.”
As difficult as it is to acknowledge, Trump was right about the swamp. Washington has become too big, inefficient, and self-absorbed to design and administer many domestic programs and services. Federal expansion happened over decades for reasons that seemed rational at the time, but those reasons are now outworn and moldy. The radical decentralization of decision-making and resources is overdue.Voters want to drain the swamp. Because Trump successfully captured that impulse does not mean the impulse is wrong. His ineptitude means that he will not succeed. When he fails, the power of that impulse is available for capture by the Democratic Party if it can articulate how its progressive principles can apply on a state-by-state basis. A new approach requires patience, flexibility, financial innovation, and a recognition that not all states will act identically. Some will make mistakes. But if Democrats want to lead the country into the future, the right course is to accept the diversity that exists across states and then synthesize their principles with the aspirations of the electorate. Small government liberalism is the right path for the Democratic Party and for the nation.
Edward M. Murphy was head of three state agencies between 1979 and 1995—the Department of Youth Services, the Department of Mental Health, and the Health and Educational Facilities Authority. He subsequently ran several health care companies in the private sector before retiring.