My home in rural Michigan is apparently somewhere in the northeastern quadrant of a vast rectangular expanse called "Trump's America," a one-of-a-kind admission-free zoo teeming with strange untamed beasts, exotic flora, and a handful of mostly thankless wardens.
Since last November, we have had any number of scientifically minded visitors. The Atlantic recently reported on the "safari" efforts of five researchers from Third Way, the centrist liberal think tank responsible for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign platform. Before that there was Mark Zuckerberg, who this summer reminded himself there are such things as non-driverless cars while looking at bratwursts as if they were glowing polyps surgically removed from the corpse of the titular monster in The Thing. HuffPo even sent a busload of experts to visit 23 of our cities.
It's not clear to me what any of these sojourners hoped to find. Why President Trump won the election? The antidote to "fake news"? The secret to political success? The first thing anyone who talks to Americans who are not part of the bicoastal political allegiance industrial complex finds is that neither of our major parties, in theory or in practice, is representative of most people's views or aspirations. Trump's America contains multitudes.
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In the small town where I live, I know one man, a veteran, who has three flagpoles at his house, one for the POW-MIA flag, one for a University of Michigan banner, and one for "hanging that son of a bitch McCain." I know a charming older lady who is the secretary of her Presbyterian church's historical society who drives a Saab that is older than I am and hoards sugar packets from the diner downtown. I know two high-school kids who complain about their Indian-American instructor at a nearby community college where they go for advanced credit because they "can't understand him" while trading memes about the awfulness of white privilege on Facebook. I know a man who dips a can of Grizzly Wintergreen every day who enthusiastically supports gay marriage because gay people "should be miserable like the rest of us." I know a businessman who thinks all welfare should be eradicated and donates hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in goods to his local food pantry. Only two of these people — the veteran, a Democrat who went for Trump, and the Saab lady, a Republican who switched for Clinton — are regular voters.
What I don't know is a single person who assigns any significance to the issues debated with mock-gravity by our permanent governing class. It's not just a problem for progressives. Most people out here are equally alienated from the priorities of social conservatives in Washington, D.C., attending their millionth colloquium on problems in "the culture" while paying down their $2.5 million mortgage and figuring out which elite graduate schools their children can get into. It's not that my fellow Michiganders are enthusiastic about abortion or same-sex marriage or "boys using the girls' bathroom," as some of them might put it. It's just that these things mostly don't affect them, and they find it easy to ignore them or laugh them away.
The problem with the Third Way was not that voters rejected its policies. No one even knew what they were. What voters objected to was its existence, the vision it was created to perpetuate of governance as a cold technocratic exercise in meta-calculation in which they were each variables meant to respond with a crudely mechanical regularity to a certain number of proposed affordable inducements. Bernie Sanders was popular with unaffiliated voters and even among reliable Democrats out here because he speaks the clear language of justice and solidarity rather than marketing résumé English, the Harvard MBA CEO speak and chart-literacy of Clintonism. This is why Trump's "Make America Great Again" was more appealing than the finest Ph.D.-approved 50-point green jobs plan that consulting fees can buy.
This was not because voters are irresponsible or childish or too stupid to know what's good for them. It is because they know all too well that they are human and would appreciate not being treated otherwise. They understand by instinct what Keynes meant when he wrote disparagingly of what "no man could believe who had not had his head fuddled with nonsense for years and years … highly abstract theories — venerable, academic inventions, half misunderstood by those who are applying them today, and based on assumptions which are contrary to the facts."
People like Third Way's Nancy Hale will always meet voters who are as "grateful" to find their opinions being sought as they are contemptuous of the grimly utilitarian logic undergirding the exercise of seeking them. A real "Third Way" between libertarian conservatism and progressive liberalism would be a vision of politics as a prudent exercise in governance grounded in human concerns, expressed in human language, not a cynical marketing ploy.
People in the "real" America aren't opposed to jobs programs or improvements to the Affordable Care Act. They're opposed to treating these things like the more or less viable conclusion of painstaking data analysis rather than the dictates of justice or the fruit of common sense.
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