Political scientist William Riker introduced the idea of heresthetics when he popularized the so-called “rational choice.” Successful heresthetic strategy depends on intorducing a new dimension into a political debate, by changing the grounds on which the debate is taking place, by introducing the question of “up” and “down” to a debate that has been about “left” and the “right.” This is a topic that has come to be increasingly ignored in political science except among a handful of formal theorists because, allegedly, all American politics, as empirically observable, is unidimensional, merely about “left” and “right.” Multidimensional politics is conceptually complicated so the field of political science has effectively thrown the debate out the window. While how a multidimensional politics might be rendered into a single dimension might be up for a theoretical debate, it merits as much attention as aliens, for there is as much credible evidence for multidimensional politics as there is for aliens.
Of course, aliens just did land in 2016, not just once, but twice, and swept across the same landscape–the Midwest dotted with old factories and displaced working class whites. First, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump tore up the electoral landscape by performing unexpectedly well among these demographics. Then, Trump, now the Republican nominee, upset Hillary Clinton by drawing just enough voters across the Midwestern swing states on the way to victory.
Several early analyses have been pointing out that Trump won, essentially, because of the significant defections in the Midwest, among the working class, whether from Obama to “not voting,” as with the African-American working class, or from Obama to Trump, as with the white working class. In both cases, the determining factor is the forgotten dimension in recent politics: the economy and the trade. Trump’s victory, in effect, was heresthetical: he made the economy an issue in a polity that did not want to talk about it, and cut up the existing coalitions to create a majority that did not exist.
How he wound up arriving at this victory, incidentally, helps illuminate why heresthetic politics is, contrary to Riker’s expectation, uncommon in real life politics. All the talk about polarized politics, about how and why the Democrats and Republicans are allegedly so different from each other misses how similar they really are–a point repeatedly raised by both Sanders and Trump, ironically. The mainstream of both Democratic and Republican Parties are agreed on what the issues that want to pay attention to: they want to pay attention to that of cultural and social issues, as well as some technical details of regulation, taxation, and economy. However, they are broadly agreed on the substance of other issues: the basic premise of free markets and deregulation, free trade, an active foreign policy, and so forth. In other words, maintenance of the political status quo is not simply based on Democrats and Republicans not agreeing with which other, but their agreeing to not agree with which other on certain issues that they showcase and not bother dealing with issues that they do not. This is the logic behind scheduling silly and meaningless procedural votes where the senators and congressmen can vote along party lines to decide matters that won’t go anywhere–say, repealing the Obamacare. The Democrats can showcase how much they like Obamacare, while the Republicans can showcase that they hate Obamacare, comfortable in the knowledge that this is entirely inconsequential, other than feeding the record, which, in turn provides the data that shows, upon analysis, how Democrats and Republicans are different from each other. While they might disagree on Obamacare’s merits, they agree that making a big deal about this makes for good theater. David Mayhew concocted a term for this: “position taking.” What Mayhew did not write about explicitly–even if the idea is apparent in his work–is that position taking requires a basic agreement on the issues on which members of Congress will engage in position taking on. So Congress was basically a theater, built on the universal agreement on the issues that its members will publicly disagree on vehemently and on the issues that they will set aside indefinitely unless forced from the outside, with the institutions “rigged” to keep the outside forces out.
The divisions in Congress, or, generally, among the elites, however, are not necessarily the divisions in the electorate. If anything, systematic refusal to address the inconvenient issues precludes debate concerning the issues of greater importance to a majority, even a huge majority, of the electorate. In other words, the political institutions can force the choice between Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, so to speak, while the rest of the country might want to talk about Cubs and Indians. Yes, Perry or Swift may or may not have a majority. But for many, that is not all that important. By forcing the introduction of a debate to be about the Cubs and Indians, outsiders can break the old coalitions and might “unnaturally” draw the partisans of Perry to Swift, if only because of the Cubs–if only the Cubs-Indians debate can be introduced and be placed on the ballot.
In an odd sense, the current anti-Trump protests echo the birtherism against Obama. It is ultimately rooted in the sanctioned debate that was permitted to take place in public, of the cultural/social nature. Even if technically, factually untrue, the birther movement did have roots in metaphorical truth: that Obama did represent a genuinely foreign cultural element to many people. Both Obama’s birth and adoptive fathers were foreigners–not hyphenated Americans, but actual foreigners; Obama did spend much of his childhood in foreign lands; most of his experiences in US took place in settings foreign to many–Hawaii, Ivy League colleges, Chicago’s urban center, the corridors of the cosmopolitan elite. Obama’s electoral appeal, in turn, de-emphasized the substance of policy and focused instead on personal trust in him as a symbol. “Hope and change” are great if you can trust the man who promises to bring the change, but are meaningless nonsense if you do not. While a large majority of the country did trust the man, a significant minority did not, and for reasons that are quite legitimate. Trump has followed the mirror image of the Obama campaign, except from the opposite direction. He has promised to “make America great again.” Nobody knows what that really means. The details of his programs are just as vague as Obama’s in 2008. For those who find Trump’s style “believable” and “trustworthy,” that’s great. For those who find his style “deplorable,” he’s unacceptable. These divisions take place along the existing dimension that has been allowed to surface by the status quo institutions, along the socio-cultural axis, between the cosmopolitanism and provincialism, and as such, strike us as far more “obvious.”
Beneath the cosmopolitan-provincial divide, however, lie many voters to whom these divisions are not particularly important. It may be that Trump is a boorish crass loudmouth who offends many people. It may be that Obama is a strange person who represents an alien culture that you do not understand. Maybe that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it is not a big deal as long as they promise to do something about the economy that the existing political status quo does not. It seems that these voters swung between Obama and Trump (and supported Sanders in between). Compared to the voters still deciding along the conventional dimension, the economic voters remain relatively few. However, they are responsive to appeals from the candidates that are not canned–i.e. somewhere along the socio-cultural divide between liberals and conservatives–and are willing to swing between candidates. That is the significant lesson from this election. Ironically, the “median” that decides the election does not lie along the principal dimension of politics at all, but somewhere far off.
I think this is where the spatial analogy to politics really breaks down. The division between the socio-cultural “left” and “right” is really binary, rather than spatial–you are either of the socio-cultural left or the right, not anywhere in between. Simply moving to the middle does not help you gain voters, and perhaps even costs you credibility with the supporters that you might have had. Trump did not bother with appeasing the socio-cultural left at all precisely because he understood this binary logic–even if he says nicer things, he will not gain much. Credibility is hard-earned. If Trump has not been a Mexican Muslim to begin with, he would never be able to win over trust from either group no matter what he says now. There is no point in making half-measures. The voters who could be won along the economic dimension, however, did not care about socio-cultural issues. Being a crass prick did not hinder winning over their votes. (Note that the same logic applies to Sanders–he might be a hippy socialist Jew from Vermont, but the people who cared about such things would never have been won over even if he converted to Southern Baptist just before the campaign, while the economic voters would not have cared either way.) Between a large number of socio-cultural right and just enough economic voters is Trump’s winning electoral coalition.
I wonder if either the Left or the Right really see through this. The Left’s obsession with Trump being a crass socio-cultural prick has blinded them to the presence of a large number of voters who responded favorably to his economic message and tuned out the cultural messages one way or the other. The Right, likewise, might decide that the key to Trump’s victory was that he was a crass socio-cultural prick, not that he was able to credibly appeal to the economic voters and might attempt to bundle an even bigger socio-cultural prick with a hard right economic message. After all, in a sense, that is what the Democrats apparently learned from Obama’s victory–the decisive role of the working class white voters in the Midwest was hardly recognized (Seriously! The man started winning the presidency in IOWA, for chrissakes!) All the attention was devoted to his appeal to the young and the multicultural or his embrace of the big data, and look what happened.