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Decent conservatives

February 26th, 2017

Since Trump’s election victory, there’s been a lot of concern trolling (and maybe some genuine concern) that resistance to Trump will alienate decent conservatives who held their noses while voting for Trump, but might be attracted away from him by a suitably respectful presentation of a centre-right Democratic agenda. A notable recent entry is a piece in the New York Times by Sabrina Tavernise, which profiles three such voters, only one of whom has any criticism to make of Trump. The others complain that liberals have been mean to them, but make it pretty clear they would vote for Trump regardless. As is inevitable in such a piece, Jonathan Haidt gets a run – he’s the only expert quoted by name.

A sample of three, along with commentary from a predictable source, doesn’t tell us much. So, what can we say about the strategy of appealing to decent conservatives. A few observations.

* According to recent polling, while Donald Trump is the most unpopular newly-elected president in polling history, he is the most popular among Republicans, easily beating Ronald Reagan. Republicans and Republican leaners overwhelmingly believe (or say they do) that Trump is trustworthy, caring, well-informed and a good manager. The only favorable quality they are unwilling to ascribe is that of an even temper.

* During the election campaign, Hillary Clinton relied almost exclusively on the strategy of appealing to decent conservatives. Even her much-criticised remark about deplorables was a clumsy attempt to split the presumed mass of decents from the racist, misogynist alt-right. (While Clinton had moderately progressive economic policies, these were barely mentioned by the press or in her advertising). The result of all this was that Trump attracted virtually the same support among Republicans as did Mitt Romney. It was the failure of any significant number decents to switch to Clinton, rather than large-scale desertions from Democrats, that was crucial factor in Trump’s victory.

None of this should be surprising. Trump is just a logical evolution of the candidates who’ve generated enthusiasm among the Republican base in recent years including Palin in 2008 and a vast crew of not-Romneys in 2012.

I’ve met a reasonable number of US Republicans, and Australian conservatives, and plenty of them are decent enough in their personal lives. But there is no reason to believe that this decency will carry through, in any significant way, into their political choices. If they do, it will most likely require a wholesale conversion, rather than a rejection of Trump in favor of some more tasteful flavor of conservatism.

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  1. john
    February 26th, 2017 at 18:35 | #1

    I feel that the continual 24/7 shock jock and Fox News hammering every aspect of the political system has had an effect, it has created disaffected voters who look for a candidate who is not of the system and who represents someone who is going to change the system for them.
    Now with out doubt “The Leader” does fill the bill.
    In fact I would not be surprised if he gets elected again because he can tell his followers he was stopped from introducing the types of reforms to help them.
    It does not matter if this is true or not they will believe it.
    I am afraid politics has moved to the commercial era it is no longer about the substance of your message it all about the image of the message.
    So using my analyse the image will sell “The Leader” into his next term.

  2. Sunshine
    February 26th, 2017 at 20:43 | #2

    Hard to know what to do .There are so many post postmortems after the apparent sudden death of any viable Left around the Western world. I dont think the backside fell out of it recently, there has been decades of constant effort ( from the 1% if you like). In everybody the ability to imagine otherwise has been under seige and worn down. Fear wrecks trust easier than goodwill or reason can build it. Populations have moved Right ,maybe the the revolution could only come from the Right. If it must come, The 1% want it that way as they truly fear anything Socialist. It seems they do not fear demagogues .

    I dont know much about the Haidt chap but I like his list of liberal v’s conservative personality traits . For political contest I think the key differences are around acceptance of violence and fear of the unknown. I think a level of fear can enable many to loosen adherence to lower priorities such as the need for compassion or to play by the rules or to avoid double standards . Now criticism quickly gets one labelled violent or a sore loser. Its hard not to alienate these ‘decent conservatives’ . Leftists tend to be more sensitive types, perhaps more committed to the fair go? and fewer in number .

    Its all very funny to watch , but Trump was always going to take a clumsy long time to settle in as he has no already established power structure to slide into the jobs they have been waiting for for most of their lives. Reagan jnr said he owed less to anyone than perhaps any other incomming president and so he had a unique chance to succeed . But he squibbed it .’The Markets’ seem to like him. To me Trump is likely just a personality type with only one goal – adulation. Others like Steve Bannon are said to be the more dangerous committed ideologues.

    At present there is alot of focus on foreign policy because there Trumps personality can shine and he can act more freely . He wouldnt be the first president to stuff things up by going to war on something or on some country though. Demagogic think says he could even get away with disregard for established process ,the law ,or, the constitution itself at home for long enough to do damage .So far they are having a good go at it . But if Prof Q’s analogy to Aust politics continues to hold then the crunch may come soon .When they act to implement the radical Libertarian domestic agenda (seemingly fully supported by The Republicans ) Like, but much worse than -Abbott and Hockeys unfair budget ?.

  3. Tom Davies
    February 26th, 2017 at 21:29 | #3

    Here’s a bigger sample (still anecdotal) http://blog.samaltman.com/what-i-heard-from-trump-supporters

  4. Tom Davies
    February 26th, 2017 at 21:43 | #4

    I think this very long essay on red vs blue tribes is also interesting when thinking about Trump supporters https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/09/30/i-can-tolerate-anything-except-the-outgroup/

  5. GrueBleen
    February 26th, 2017 at 21:48 | #5

    ProfQ:

    “I’ve met a reasonable number of US Republicans, and Australian conservatives, and plenty of them are decent enough in their personal lives. But there is no reason to believe that this decency will carry through, in any significant way, into their political choices.”

    Yeah, that’s absolutely spot on as far as I can see. One of these days, maybe – provided it doesn’t take very long – I might be able to understand this schism. I mean, I know that, for instance, if people are asked to fill in a printed questionnaire, that if afterwards they are requested to ‘explain’ their responses that this often leads them to actually think about their ‘beliefs’ – generally for the very first time – and that there’s a significant percentage who then change their response.

    I don’t know, maybe we just need a team of respectable and polite people to just go around to ‘conservatives’ and request them to explain their beliefs.

  6. BilB
    February 27th, 2017 at 07:18 | #6

    I think it is important to read this NYT item, part A

    https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/02/25/opinion/what-does-steve-bannon-want.html?

  7. Black cat
    February 27th, 2017 at 08:40 | #7

    Hillary did succeed in converting a substantial number of educated Republicans – “decent” or not. Orange County is a good example. It didn’t do her much good in the electoral college, but that’s a different issue. Targeting this demographic may well be a good strategy for trying to retake the House (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/22/upshot/democrats-best-bet-for-house-control-is-following-the-sun.html). And she did lose a very large number of white working class votes, first and foremost because she came to be seen as an aloof elitist.

  8. Newtownian
    February 27th, 2017 at 10:10 | #8

    To understand what is happenning the following recent article may be of interest

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/27/why-facts-dont-change-our-minds

    and its author Kolbert’s youtube stuff on her book the 6th Extinction e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suEzmyKazcE (with https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amy_Goodman)

    Beyond this I noticed a link to an earlier article on decisions and economics.
    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/02/25/what-was-i-thinking

    (remember to open New Yorker in a private window).

    This leads further, and appropriate to this blog site, to the works of Daniel Kahneman who got Swedish reserve bank prize but he is not an economist.

    His Wiki page is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Kahneman and drills down into a lot of extremely depressing literature on how people think they are rational when they are demonstrably not.

    [Perhaps JQ has some thoughts on how well mainstream economists have incorporated/responded to this thesis of why and how people are not rational as we like to believe – a case of denial? – or just one facet of economics paradigm crisis which seems evidenced by so much most post 2008 discussion?]

  9. Ikonoclast
  10. BilB
    February 27th, 2017 at 10:58 | #10

    ..and Bannon part B

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nTd2ZAX_tc&t=561s

    Do a little google fact checking on the numbers Bannon uses to build his big conspiracy jargument.

  11. Moz of Yarramulla
    February 27th, 2017 at 14:09 | #11

    I’m put in mind of the surveys that ask voters to agree or disagree with specific party policies, and also about which party they will vote for. The results are generally “I agree with the left wing, but vote right wing”.

    I see this when discussing stuff like refugees and global warming all the time. People who are passionate about their political party often oppose their policies on those (and other) issues but would never dream of changing their vote because of them. Tribal voting at its finest.

  12. GrueBleen
    February 27th, 2017 at 16:56 | #12

    @Black cat

    HRC: “she came to be seen as an aloof elitist.”

    Interesting pronouncement – do you have any evidence to back it up ?

  13. John Turner
    February 27th, 2017 at 18:10 | #13

    “Decent conservatives who held their noses while voting for Trump..”
    An oxymoron?

  14. Julie Thomas
    February 27th, 2017 at 18:39 | #14

    There is a lot of analysis of conservatives and the cognitive processes by ‘leftists’ that underpin the values and reasoning but there doesn’t seem to be a similar exploration by conservatives and/or libertarians of progressives and how and why we value what we do and why.

    Conservapedia’s entry on “leftist” is the most intellectual and well reasoned description I could find by googling.

    This bit is good 🙂 “In a BloombergView article, Stephen L. Carter wrote about the Left:

    “….the left has work to do, not only on policy and organization but also on attitude. Too many of my progressive friends seem to have forgotten how to make actual arguments, and have become expert instead at condemnation, derision and mockery. On issue after issue, they’re very good at explaining why no one could oppose their policy positions except for the basest of motives. As to those positions themselves, they are too often announced with a zealous solemnity suggesting that their views are Holy Writ — and those who disagree are cast into the outer political darkness. In short, the left has lately been dripping with hubris, which in classic literature always portends a fall.[5]”

  15. GrueBleen
    February 27th, 2017 at 23:06 | #15

    @Julie Thomas

    “Too many of my progressive friends seem to have forgotten …”

    And thereupon follows an as classic an example of psychological projection as I’ve seen in a while.

    Besides, as we used to say back in the schoolyard: it takes one to know one.

  16. rog
    February 28th, 2017 at 06:04 | #16

    @Julie Thomas

    Good article, I read it in full “My friends on the left have come to resemble a little too closely my friends on the right” which could sound a tad like “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

    And GWB has come out of the woodwork (breaks silence) to criticise Trump.

  17. Julie Thomas
    February 28th, 2017 at 07:38 | #17

    It was a Counterpoint interview with Amanda Vanstone and her guest David Chalke yesterday afternoon in which “social analyst David Chalke argues that Donald Trump is not the problem, he’s a symptom.” and that “The real issue is the widening gap between elites and ordinary people.”

    The interview was a bit funny as these two elites discussed elites as if they were ‘ordinary’ people.

    I find it very difficult to see myself as an elite. I live in a small town among many right wing voters and a few lefties and none of us are anything like the ‘elites’ or for that matter, the ‘ordinary people’ that Vanstone and co caricatured.

    I am quite interested in how it came to be that some of us non-elites ordinary people who have been ripped off by the system are not Trump voters.

    GBW looks like a decent conservative in comparison to Trump who is indecent indeed.

  18. GrueBleen
    February 28th, 2017 at 08:05 | #18

    @Julie Thomas

    “Donald Trump is not the problem, he’s a symptom.

    DJT is both a symptom and a very serious problem. Can’t these simple-minded people understand the concept of “Not only … but also …” ?

    Though I guess that if it could be unambiguously and irrefutably shown that Donald Trump, and only Donald Trump and no other American citizen could have been elected to express some people’s current state, then maybe he would only be a symptom.

  19. Sunshine
    February 28th, 2017 at 19:28 | #19

    I dont remember the Right sitting around wondering how to win over the Left without offending them too much. There is a lot of that coming from the Left now. They just thought ‘how can we destroy them’ and fought no holds barred dirty. Breaking all the rules. In an editorial in The Australian the editor said they wanted to ‘destroy’ the Greens. Also the Right doesnt just want union power checked -they want them totally eliminated. Witness the unrelenting war on unions even when they have never been weaker. Once in power they (Abbott and Trump too) immediately proclaim an end to the emergency that made their uncompromising wrecking behaviour necessary. “Its time to bind the wounds of division”. Rightists are selfish, cheating hypocrites ,and prone to violence .They believe in survival of the strongest. Look at the typical profiles, how do you negotiate with that ?

  20. Ikonoclast
    March 1st, 2017 at 06:15 | #20

    @Sunshine

    Correct. The Right don’t want wages to exist either. They want wages reduced to zero. They want the profit share of the economy to be 100% and the wage share 0%. That is the logical deduction from their current behaviours. My guess is that they envisage machines and slaves doing all the work.

  21. suburbanite
    March 1st, 2017 at 13:34 | #21

    @Ikonoclast
    The “right” you are talking about aren’t a large portion of society and they don’t have the numbers to win an election on their own (in fact they can’t even get a popular vote majority promising swinging voters the impossible) – but the left can’t either. And you are correct in thinking that you are unlikely to win any of them over.
    There are however an increasingly sizeable group of people that don’t identify as part of either the “left” or “right”, but who are likely to have a complex set of beliefs and preferences. Some of them might vote for One Nation or Trump, and they might be doing it against their own interests or they might not even support all of the policies these populist right candidates promote. There is a definite danger that the left misses the point and makes a bunch of incorrect assumptions by not listening to what these voters are unhappy about, but instead calling them a bunch of names. A strong case needs to be made for the benefits to all people of civil society and it’s institutions while they are still around. Constructing straw-men isn’t going to get you very far.

  22. Julie Thomas
    March 1st, 2017 at 16:11 | #22

    Vanstone and her guest did admit very early on in the interview – I should have said that – that Trump was actually a problem but the ‘real’ problem was this widening gap that from their elite position they mis-characterise.

    From my position the widening gap is clearly the income gap between the elites and those of us who are not able to climb the ladder and live the good life that has been held out as a certainty for lifters if one worked hard and voted for the LNP who just simply have the DNA to run a growth economy.

    My experience with my right wing voting neighbours is to ‘negotiate’ with them by making it clear how they have been ripped off by the elites who promised that it would trickle down. When they complain, I suggest that if they haven’t done well, if their kids are not able to get a good paying job so that they can buy a house even in this regional area, which is happening to some of the respected aspirational citizens who were once very disdainful of leaners like me, then I suggest that they must be too stupid and lazy. All with a smile of course.

    People are changing but out here the hatred for Labor and the Greens is so deep and so ingrained that although the LNP is losing support, people who have hated Labor for decades simply can’t bring themselves to accept that they are an alternative and vote for them.

    Those people who turned right because they were convinced to hate labor will vote for Hanson this time but this will act as a circuit breaker and when ON falls apart and it will because people on the right can’t get along, this is clear, these ordinary people who sound awful but face to face are not that bad, will be able to vote for a government that is offering what normal ordinary people want, a decent society and economy in which everyone works together to ensure that all children are raised to be good people and in which citizens are encouraged by policies to be good neighbours and work together to create an even better society/economy.

  23. Julie Thomas
    March 1st, 2017 at 16:13 | #23

    sorry “they simply can’t accept that Labor and leftist ideas are an alternative”.

  24. GrueBleen
    March 2nd, 2017 at 15:50 | #24

    @Julie Thomas

    My experience with my right wing voting neighbours is to ‘negotiate’ with them … All with a smile of course.

    You do live the rich full life, don’t you 🙂

    Fortunately, or otherwise, I have no idea what my neighbour’s belief sets are – except that on one side they are the beneficiaries of hubby’s mother’s estate (several $millions plus a house and a Merc), and on the other side, my fairly recently acquired Chinese neighbour demolished an old weatherboard (very much like mine) and built a large ‘Macpalace’ – 5 bedrooms, 6 bathrooms, 2 garages etc.

    So I can imagine that they might be a touch ‘conservative’ in their thinking – in their socio-economic aspects anyway. But I never get to talk with them about anything much.

    …people who have hated Labor for decades simply can’t bring themselves to accept that Labor and leftist ideas are an alternative and vote for them.

    Hmmm. Only once in my lifetime, have I ever voted for a politician/party as opposed to voting against the greater evil. That was in 1972 and I never committed that mistake again. But perhaps the strongest confirmation for your point is the election loss by Joe Ben Chifley in 1949. Chifley is clearly the last politician of any sense and decency in Australia yet he was chucked in favour of Pig Iron Bob Menzies.

    And it wasn’t all that very long afterwards – round about the time that Hayden and Whitlam got the then named ‘Medibank’ into existence – that “the left” really had no great causes still to fight for (since there was never going to be a communist revolution) and started drifting into “economic rationalism” and we ended up with the Hawke/Keating sellout.

    So I can sympathise with your interlocutors, I’m finding it kinda hard to accept that Labor is a vote-worthy bunch too.

    Voting for Hanson I’m not too concerned about – quite a few more voted for the PUPies in the prior election than voted for ON most recently. And as we can see by the “quality” of her party-member candidates, it’s all most likely to fall apart quite quickly – exactly as it did last time when Hanson won a pile of seats in the Queensland State election.

    “…be able to vote for a government that is offering what normal ordinary people want

    That’s what one might have thought Chifley was offering: he did fail to get a ‘Medicare’ up against Liberal opposition, but as a consolation prize he was able to at least get the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme up and running – and think how many lives that’s saved – yet he was chucked in favour of Menzies. So much for people joining to “work together to create an even better society/economy.

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