More than two years after the 2016 election, many Americans still wonder what is wrong with their country. What, they wonder, could have caused their fellow citizens to elect Donald Trump to the presidency?
According to numerous commentators on the left, and even some on the right, Trump’s victory can be chalked up to the ignorance, superficiality, and bigotry—let us say the general deplorability—of Trump’s voters.
Such accusations are transparently self-serving. They soothe the wounded feelings of those who insisted that Trump should not and could not win, and are therefore not very helpful. Nevertheless, the question to which they respond should be taken seriously by everyone, even those who voted for Trump.
After all, something must have gone wrong with the country for a candidate as unusual as Trump to succeed as he did.
Trump not only ran as an outsider; he ran as an outsider who heaped scorn on all insiders, claiming that they had mismanaged the country. And, for their part, the insiders opposed him with all the strength they could muster.
Trump’s victory, then, depended on a remarkable revolt of ordinary voters from their established leaders, first within the Republican Party, and then in the country as a whole. Something, then, has gone wrong in the relationship between the country’s governing elites and a substantial portion of its ordinary voters.
Understanding what has gone wrong in this relationship is necessary to restoring the country, if possible, to a more healthy politics.
Those who seek such understanding may profitably turn to F.H. Buckley’s The Republican Workers Party: How the Trump Victory Drove Everyone Crazy, and Why It Was Just What We Needed. Buckley, a professor at George Mason’s Scalia School of Law, is a witty and erudite writer, and a certain class of readers will enjoy his efforts to illustrate the problems of today with references to figures such as Blaise Pascal and Benjamin Disraeli.
He also worked as a speechwriter for the Trump campaign, and another class of readers will revel in the book’s “behind the scenes” moments. The book’s deeper significance lies, however, in Buckley’s diagnosis of what ails America and its governing elites.
A failure of empathy
According to Buckley, American politics in recent decades has suffered from a failure of empathy. In particular, the country’s elites have failed to empathize with the working class.
In general, members of the working class seek the “American dream.” The American dream is often associated with a quest for prosperity, and observers as far back as Alexis de Tocqueville have commented on how restless Americans are in their pursuit of wealth and the material comforts it can supply.
Nevertheless, Buckley wisely reminds us that there is more to the American dream than that.
The American dream is not driven entirely by materialism. Working-class Americans, Buckley observes, don’t just want to get ahead economically. They also want respect. They want to be viewed as successful, independent, contributing members of the community.
Moreover, the American dream is not entirely based on individual self-interest. Members of the working class don’t just want good things for themselves, but also for their children, who they hope—or used to hope—would achieve and enjoy more than their parents.
Over the last few generations, Buckley contends, America’s elites have stood in the way of the working class’s pursuit of the American dream by devising, and then tenaciously defending, policies that actually impede upward economic mobility. Here Buckley covers a good deal of ground, but three examples stand out.
Elites vs. the working class: squashing the American dream
America has an extensive and burdensome system of regulations. Innumerable and arcane rules set up daunting barriers to an ordinary person who might aspire to start a small business. Those same rules provide high-paying employment for members of the elite—the lawyers and bureaucrats who write the rules and run compliance programs (programs that large corporations can afford much more easily than small businesses can).
America’s immigration system brings in large numbers of relatively low-skilled workers. The result is cheap labor for the kinds of jobs that our elites pay other people to do, but lower wages and less economic mobility for people who do them.
Finally, our elites resist efforts to channel public funds to private schools. As a result, ordinary Americans must rely on a public school system with no real competition and therefore no incentive to improve. Meanwhile, the children of the elites attend expensive private schools that ordinary Americans could never afford.
To a liberal reader, this may sound like the typical litany of complaints made by American conservatives. But Buckley demonstrates that it is also a critique of American public policy that can be founded on observing the policies of other developed nations. Americans tend to think of many western European countries as being far more “socialist” than America because the latter tend to have more generous welfare states than we do.
Buckley, however, observes that in some cases they also have higher rates of mobility because they have less burdensome systems of economic regulation. In addition, Buckley, who is a Canadian by birth, reminds us that Canada has a merit-based immigration system that fosters rather than impedes economic mobility.
Canada also provides parents with greater educational choice by subsidizing private (and even religious) schools. Needless to say, no one can credibly accuse Canada of being a right-wing dystopia.
Our elites, having thrown up these road blocks to economic mobility, have added insult to injury by undermining the working class’s sense of its own dignity and respectability. Not too long ago, it would have been a cliché to say that the working class “is the backbone of the country.” Today hardly anyone says that.
On the contrary, according to some elite commentators, if members of the working class fail to elevate their station, this just shows that they are not up to the mark, not fit for a modern economy. Our governing class relentlessly promotes higher education, implying that it is the only route to prosperity and status, thus implicitly denigrating the vocational paths followed by a majority of their fellow countrymen.
Why didn’t we see this coming?
So far, Buckley’s book offers a plausible account of how Trump could win the presidency. The working class is still a substantial portion of the electorate, and its members, like anybody else, will demand political representation that protects their interests and affirms their importance.
It is no wonder, then, that they would lose interest in an elite that seemed to have lost interest in them and turn instead to Trump, who spoke up for their concerns.
This, however, raises another question: How could the elites have failed to see this coming? Or, to put it another way, what caused their failure of empathy, their inability to understand the feelings and desires of their working-class fellow citizens?
Here, Buckley offers an explanation in the spirit of the great political philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his celebrated Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Rousseau contended that pity, or sympathy for the feelings of others, is one of the elementary operations of the human soul. It tends to be stifled, however, by the progress of reason.
Thus, ordinary people will usually sympathize spontaneously with those in distress, while the philosopher can usually find a way to silence his pity by argument—that is, by finding reasons why the other’s distress is deserved, justifiable, or inevitable.
Something like this has happened to our elites, Buckley contends. Our elites are made up of intellectuals of a sort, and their political thinking is therefore dominated by theories. While these theories are useful in some ways and to some extent true, American elites have taken the theories so much to heart that they have lost their ability to empathize with others.
On the right, Buckley notes the influence of (among other things) “economism” and “natural rights.” Economics is an indispensable science, but it is nevertheless a value-neutral social science and can therefore do nothing to support our moral obligations to each other. Natural rights are the basis of the American regime, but excessive concern with rights can foster a spirit of individualism and legalism that is indifferent to the needs of others.
Turning to the American left, Buckley observes the malign influence of Marxism, identity politics, and Rawlsianism. Marxism emphasizes class struggle and therefore kills empathy for those who are labeled as class enemies. Identity politics does the same thing on the basis of racial, ethnic, and gender identity.
The political theory of John Rawls focuses attention on the needs of the weakest in the society, but this causes its adherents to overlook the needs of those on the second to lowest rung of the social ladder—people like the working class.
Politics is an affair of the heart
By making these arguments, Buckley not only provides a helpful diagnosis of contemporary American politics; he also points us to a fuller understanding of politics itself. Sound politics certainly requires sound theory.
As Aristotle observed, man is by nature a rational animal; and human politics is therefore, in its proper form, a rational enterprise. But theory and reason are not everything.
Politics is also an affair of the heart. It necessarily involves the effort to take care of a particular political community and therefore of the specific human beings it includes. Good public policy must be based both on reasoned judgments about what is good in principle but also on affection for our fellow citizens.
Without such affection, a nation’s governing elites cannot maintain the support of ordinary voters for long—and therefore cannot remain the nation’s governing elites for long. Readers of all political persuasions should be grateful to Buckley for reminding us of this timeless and timely lesson.
Carson Holloway is a Visiting Scholar in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org). He is the author of Hamilton versus Jefferson in the Washington Administration. Republished from The Public Discourse with permission.