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The dirty little secret about American politics is that the average voter knows next to nothing about their government or the policies it enacts, which means half of voters know less than that.
That doesn’t mean they’re idiots. They’re just normal folks with normal jobs and normal families who have neither the time nor the inclination to fixate on this stuff, which might be better for their mental health.
Nor is that a partisan snipe. It’s true that Donald Trump is president because of low-information voters — specifically, poorly educated whites who backed him by a 2–1 margin, driven by anxiety over changing cultural norms and, yes, racism. But the Democrats have their share of low-information voters, too, many of whom are minorities who might be drawn to Trump’s brand of authoritarianism were they not its targets. Indeed, while Democrats have been luring disaffected college-educated whites from the Republicans during the Trump era, 47 percent of Democratic primary voters in 2016 hadn’t completed a bachelor’s degree. These voters tend to live in the South, where Democrats have less power, and are less traditionally liberal. Interestingly, according to a recent New York Times analysis of survey data, only about a quarter of Democrats are progressive activists, and only about 10 percent would be considered democratic socialists. In other words, Twitter is not real life.
But that gets at the asymmetry between the parties: The Democrats’ activists and doctrinaire liberals are, for the most part, college-educated people who care about and agitate for policy as a means to effect social change, even if the rank of file aren’t. They drive the conversation about where the party is headed.
Republican activists — the ones on the front lines — aren’t as interested in policy, at least not any policy grounded in empiricism. Over the last two decades, and particularly since the tea party emerged in 2009 and was then handed the bullhorn of social media, what was left of the GOP’s diminishing intellectual class has beaten into submission by the kind of revanchist, often conspiratorial, increasingly nativist, proudly ignorant know-nothingism both embodied and empowered by the likes of Fox News’ primetime lineup.
The inmates took over the asylum. Or better put: The dunces took over the classroom. So now you have a party in which more than 90 percent of its voters support a man who can’t make it through a policy paper unless it has pretty pictures, who, despite having access to the largest trove of intelligence in the world, prefers to obsess over cable television news, and who spent his weekend retweeting white supremacists to argue that private social-media companies should be legally obligated to offer a platform to fringe conspiracy sites. That’s a position, by the way, that not long ago would have been heretical to the GOP, as would Trump’s embrace of tariffs and his willingness to play footsie with foreign dictators.
As the college educated abandon the Republican Party, this dynamic will become more pronounced. Ideological consistency and intellectual rigor will become irrelevant, replaced by the atavistic urges and authoritarian fealties intrinsic to right-wing populism. Internal critiques will be sidelined; party leaders, should they wish to remain party leaders, will get in line.
This is already happening. To cite the most obvious example: A few years ago, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned that nominating Trump would destroy the GOP. Graham is now Trump’s biggest handmaiden, using his chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee to amplify the president’s deep-state conspiracies.
I’ve written that Trump is a cancer corrupting the body politic, and this is what I mean: Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells that eventually overwhelm bodily defense mechanisms. Trump came to power on the wave of an abnormal growth that overwhelmed our democracy’s defenses. A healthier democracy would have fought it off. But, after the Great Recession and decades of pointless wars, our democracy was weak, and the Trump cancer grew to the point where it now threatens the whole body.
But here’s where the analogy breaks down: While Trump is a product of this cancer, and he expedited its spread, he wasn’t its cause. Excising him in 2020 won’t close Pandora’s box.
That ship has sailed, and thinking otherwise is dangerous.
I have several issues with Joe Biden’s recently declared bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. His premise that Trump is merely an aberration is a big one. Trump isn’t. Rather, he’s the culmination of a half-century of calculated cynicism, dating back to Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy, that stoked racial resentment for votes, and three decades of Fox News and talk-radio propaganda that laid the groundwork for an army of angry, aggrieved white men who think they’re the victims of political correctness, diversity and cultural evolution.
That’s the real cancer. Defeating Trump, as necessary as it is, will only be the first step in a long, intensive and uncertain battle against the disease.
And the cure isn’t a revival of the anti-Trump status quo. That ship has sailed, too — another strike against Biden. A generation of foreign policy disasters, crushing economic inequality and a decimation of trust in American institutions has seen to that. The old way has failed, and its broken promises, I fear, will prove impotent in stopping the Trump malignancy or whatever succeeds it.
What the new course will look like is the fundamental question animating the Democratic primary. I’ll jump into those very murky waters next week.
(Jeffrey Billman is the editor of INDY Week, in Durham, North Carolina.)