Defining Problems vs. Providing Answers

Mike Konczal has an intriguing essay superficially about the 2016 campaign, but actually much deeper.

The point Konczal raises is that Trump is not running a “policy-free” campaign, but rather a “solution-free” campaign.  What Trump is doing is to define problems that the country is facing that his competitors are not addressing, or even acknowledging that they exist.  It is certainly true that Trump is not offering “serious” solutions to those problems, but what really matters is that the many people are more receptive to the problems as Trump defines them, even if he offers no “solutions” while the problems as defined by Clinton do not generate the reception as his do, even if Clinton and her army of wonks come up with the most masterful solutions to them.

This is a fundamental problem with agenda setting:  if everyone agrees on the problems, as defined by the first mover, then the agenda-setting advantage is absolute.  If the agenda setter comes up with the uncontestably best solutions to the agreed-upon problems, what the agenda setter does will carry the day, provided that the agenda setter is provided with an army of wonks to come up with the bestest solutions to them.  If the problems are NOT a common knowledge, however, the “solutions” (and the policy positions associated with them) are irrelevant.

One might say that the “problems” undergird the dimensions of politics.  Trying to measure how liberal/conservative/negative/positive on this scale is relevant when people occupy the same space.  They do not.  When people do not have the same definition of what “liberal” is, it is pointless to argue over the quantitative differences in measurements.  People prefer someone who has found the right neighborhood, even if they don’t know the address, to someone who knows all the addresses in the wrong neighborhood.  In a sense, this is opposite that of the Drunkard’s Search problem–where the drunkard is looking for lost keys under the light, rather than where he lost the keys, because he can see better.  People would rather, I wonder, that you look where they lost the key rather than where you can see.  Not necessarily incompatible with Drunkard’s Search story, in a sense–voters may be drunkards who don’t actually expect to find the key, whereas they expect policymakers to find the key with some reasonable probability.  The wonks in the wrong neighborhood will never find the key–they know that.

This will be the fundamental problem of wonkism:  where there is a consensus, being a wonk is great.  If the problems are not cleanly defined, being a wonk is worse than useless.  This is why the gap between the Beltway and the Main Street is so great, in their view of “experts.”  To the main street, wonks merely justify avoiding the problems that are too obvious to them.  Better to avoid the wonkery in favor of those who can at least point to the problems that they can see and understand.  Like Konczal says, the counter to this is not to bring up more wonkery, but try and talk to the people about the problems–why the problems you are paying attention to are the important problems for them as well, at minimum, and, most likely, try to credibly address the problems that THEY are interested in having dealt with.  (This is, incidentally, why Sanders also mattered:  he at least addressed, earnestly and honestly–far more than Trump, really–the problems that people worried about, not engaging in denial.)

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