I got to visit an old friend this holiday weekend who is recovering from surgery. He is an energetic guy with a long rehabilitation in front of him. It is his energy that probably makes him feel caged right now, but at the same time, it is that energy that will ultimately lead him back to the freedom he currently misses.
But even after his doctors say he is as good as new, he will still be an incurable and loyal Republican.
During our visit, he asked me a good question. He pried, “what do you think it is that caused the Democrats to abandon their historical base this election?”
That could have led to a conversation that neither of us had time to finish. So we wiggled our way out of it without having to call the nursing staff in to referee.
Here is my short answer though. In a campaign that featured two candidates with off the chart unfavorables, the one who represented “change” won. Even though by most measures, Americans have never had it so good.
But middle, working class white voters see their version of the American dream slipping away. The jobs that it relied on in the large manufacturing sector are being lost to automation and a global workforce that appear to be unbeatable competition. Public policy is not positioned to change this, though politicians keep promising that it can.
This year, the large voting bloc which had historically been “the base” to which my Republican friend referred, went shopping for a better deal. And Donald Trump had one available for sale.
Trump’s “deal” creates opportunity for this group only by seemingly increasing or maintaining obstacles for everyone else.
Fewer people crossing into America through a border currently without a wall means economic opportunity for many of these voters. Fewer displaced refugees from scary, war-torn Islamic places means the same. And any accommodation for anyone outside of this largest voting bloc is merely an unnecessary advantage for people undeserving of one.
What Trump is selling is an unlevel playing field, through artificially and governmentally created biases against select groups. It’s a futile fight against our nation’s momentum, but temporarily attractive to a short-sighted electorate.
Beyond that, there isn’t much of a map to the greatness Trump’s campaign sold.
The Democrat pitch is a stark contrast. It is more passive and complicated, but it implies that fairness for all is the key to prosperity for all. Women should have equal pay. Foreigners should have a path to citizenship. Everyone should be able to go to college. And so on.
The Democrats are preaching broad based freedom as the path to prosperity while Republicans are promising to protect the advantages of its newest supporters through walls, registries, and discrimination.
So did Democrats abandon its base? Or was the group simply lured away by preposterous commitments for the elusive good life once thought to be all but guaranteed?
Let’s face it: freedom is hard to sell to someone who thinks he already has it. The New GOP supporters are not asking politicos for freedom they never had. They are asking for protection for their outdated definition of what they believe is rightfully already theirs.
It is difficult for large groups of unhappy people to grasp that freedom itself is the key to empowerment, and that the more of it our entire society has, the better all of our lives will be. It didn’t used to be difficult, but it has very much become so.
The key to all of this is that true freedom only exists if everyone has it.
For anyone to be truly successful, one’s freedoms need to identically match everyone else’s. And this level playing field is something government actually can provide. It isn’t easy, but it is possible. In contrast, government absolutely cannot create a booming economy. If it could, it would.
Trump sold the working class a vision of success via unfair advantage. The Democrats are selling fairness and justice. I believe in the long term the latter is what will work. I also believe it is a conservative view to want to compete with those in my community on a level playing field, not a liberal one.
Achieving fairness, justice and broadly encompassing freedom for all Americans is the path to an empowered sense of belonging. We actually need each other to be free so we can be free ourselves.
So, I disagree with my Republican friend. The historical base of the Democrats was not abandoned by anyone.
It’s just that many of them bought a fresh supply of snake oil. And the salesman sold it to them for the wrong ailment.