How America Became Ungovernable

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About The Book

Bill Schneider, former CNN senior political analyst, takes us inside the voting booth to show how Americans vote and why their votes sometimes seem to make no practical sense.

In the 1960s, a rift developed between the Old America and the New America that resulted in a populist backlash that ultimately elected Donald Trump in 2016.

Schneider describes an American populism that is economically progressive and culturally conservative. Liberals are attacked as cultural elitists (“limousine liberals”), and conservatives as economic elitists (“country club conservatives”). Trump is the complete populist package. He embraces social populism (anti-immigrant), economic populism (anti-free trade), and isolationism (“America First”).

Standoff examines a number of hard-fought elections to show us how we got to Trump. He asserts the power of public opinion. He points to the public that draws the line on abortion and affirmative action. He shows why an intense minority cancels a majority on gun control, immigration, small government, and international interests.

Standoff tells us why fifty years of presidential contests have often been confounding. It takes us inside to watch how and why Americans pull the lever, how they choose their issues and select their leaders. It is usually values that trump economics. Standoff is required reading for an understanding of the 2016 election and the political future.


Standoff ONE Old America Versus New America
On November 8, 2016, American voters did an astonishing thing. They elected a president of the United States who most voters—61 percent!—did not think was qualified to serve as president. How did that happen? How did we get from John F. Kennedy to Donald J. Trump?

A little more than fifty years ago, the United States started on a great political journey—in two opposite directions, part of the country to the right and part to the left. This is the story of where we are now and how we got here. It’s the story of the country’s journey and my own personal journey as I covered it.

It’s the story of two political movements that first emerged in the 1960s. The New America is the progressive coalition of groups whose political consciousness was stirred in that decade: African Americans, young people, working women, gays, immigrants, educated professionals, and the nonreligious. What holds the coalition together is a commitment to diversity and inclusion. That commitment provoked a fierce backlash in 2016.

In fact, a conservative backlash has defied the New America for more than fifty years. The backlash came from the Old America—mostly white, mostly male, mostly older, mostly conservative, mostly religious, and mostly nonurban. In 2016 the Old America rallied to the theme “Make America Great Again.” It was a call to restore the America they feared was being swept away by a tide of political correctness.

The two movements collided under President Barack Obama. Within weeks of Obama’s inauguration on January 20, 2009, a right-wing opposition movement broke out in the form of the Tea Party. Republicans rode that anger to power in Congress, gaining control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. Within one day of Trump’s inauguration, a backlash broke out on the left with a massive spontaneous Women’s March on Washington that drew throngs of supporters in cities across the United States. Using the Tea Party as a model, Democrats hope to ride anger on the left to power.

The right and the left started their journeys at the same place: 38 percent. That’s the vote that Barry Goldwater got in 1964 and George McGovern got in 1972. The Republican presidential vote peaked with Richard Nixon in 1972 (61 percent) and Ronald Reagan in 1984 (59 percent). The Democratic presidential vote rose to a bare majority with Jimmy Carter in 1976 (50.1 percent) and then took thirty-two years to reach a majority again. Whereupon a new backlash quickly set in on the right. As of 2017, the Democratic Party had less clout in national and state governments than at any time since 1928.

Things started out pretty bad for Democrats. In 1972 a Democratic operative recounted the story of how George McGovern’s campaign manager had called a Democratic congressional candidate in Ohio.

“I have wonderful news for you,” the campaign manager said. “Senator McGovern is coming to campaign in your district.”

“That is good news,” the local candidate responded. “But I’m afraid I’m going to be in Florida, visiting my mother.”

“Wait a minute,” McGovern’s campaign manager said. “I haven’t told you when he’s coming.”

“It doesn’t matter,” the Democratic candidate replied. “Whenever he shows up, I’ll be in Florida visiting my mother.”

Democrats were forced to accommodate to the conservative ascendancy. Bill Clinton, who fashioned himself a “New Democrat” and a proponent of “the third way,” got elected in 1992 with 43 percent of the vote. The presidential vote was split three ways that year, with Independent Ross Perot getting 19 percent. Clinton’s coattails were unimpressive. Democrats lost seats in the House of Representatives in 1992. It was the first election following a census and redistricting. Redistricting always puts incumbents—mostly Democrats in 1992—at a disadvantage because they are forced to compete in an unfamiliar electorate.

The contours of Clinton’s 1992 victory were different from anything Democrats had won with before. Democrats may have nominated two southern white Baptists for president and vice president in 1992, but the Clinton–Al Gore ticket fared worst in the South. It was the only region of the country where George H. W. Bush led Clinton (by 2 points). Among whites born in the South—the base of the pre-1960s Democratic coalition—Bush ran 19 points ahead of Clinton.

Clinton’s vote—weakest in the South, strongest on the East and West Coasts—did not look like the Democratic votes that had elected Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter. It resembled the votes the Democrats got when they nominated liberals such as George McGovern in 1972 and Michael Dukakis in 1988. That’s why 1992 was a breakthrough for Democrats: it was the first time they won with a vote that looked like the New America. But it was still not a majority.

Clinton narrowly missed a majority when he was reelected in 1996 with 49 percent. (Perot was on the ballot again.) Al Gore carried the popular vote in 2000, but it was not quite a majority (48 percent). John Kerry in 2004? Same thing: 48 percent and no victory. The breakthrough finally came in 2008 when Barack Obama won with a solid majority (53 percent), the highest percentage for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson.

Even so, you could argue that the 2008 Democratic vote was inflated by the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. What if there were no crisis? That’s why Obama’s reelection in 2012 came as such a shock. Obama was reelected with a majority (51 percent) despite a sluggish economic recovery. The New America came out to protect its president. And to prove that its coming to power was not a fluke.

However, 2016 was an even bigger shock because Trump’s primary and general election victories were unexpected. First, he staged a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. The 2016 Republican primaries were expected to be a showdown between the party establishment (former Florida governor Jeb Bush) and Tea Party conservatives (Texas senator Ted Cruz). Trump beat them both. He did it by activating a populist following of working-class white voters who had been trending Republican since Richard Nixon but had never won control of the party.

Trump rallied his supporters with crude populism: anger at the political establishment and opposition to the global elite. The Trump movement and the conservative movement formed an alliance. Trump used conservatives to legitimize his rise to power. Conservatives wanted Trump in the White House to sign whatever legislation the Republican Congress passed (and keep his mouth shut, which he refused to do).

The Trump movement is the latest manifestation of resistance by the Old America. The gradual and halting rise of the New America faced resistance every step of the way. Two years after Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, Democrats lost their majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years. Resistance sprang up in the 1995 government shutdown. A violent antigovernment backlash materialized in resistance to a search and arrest warrant by a religious sect in Waco, Texas, in 1993 and in the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. The Clinton impeachment was an attempt to delegitimize the first president who embraced the liberal values of the 1960s.

The recount of Florida’s votes in the 2000 presidential election between Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore is still seen by many Americans as a plot to steal the election by reversing the will of the voters. In 2009 President Obama faced a Tea Party rebellion within weeks of taking office. Obama also had to contend with a concerted effort to delegitimize him by challenging his birth, his religion, and his Americanism. The resistance showed no signs of slowing down after Obama was reelected. The most direct challenge to the New America came in 2016. Donald Trump’s resistance movement spurned diversity and inclusion as “political correctness.”

The conservative movement remains dug in largely as a result of de facto political segregation. In many red states and districts, Democrats are noncompetitive, and Trump supporters are a significant force in Republican primaries.

It’s a standoff. Democrats try to reassure themselves that demographic trends are in their favor. The percentage of working-class whites is declining, while the country is seeing growing numbers of minorities, young people, working women, highly educated Americans, and people without a religious affiliation.

But there’s a downside for Democrats. Demographics is long, politics is short. In 2016 politics clearly favored Republicans. So what happened? A Democratic resistance movement sprang up for the purpose of doing to President Trump the same thing the Tea Party did to President Obama: oppose everything the president tried to do. The result has become the new normal in the United States: gridlock and dysfunctional government.
Gridlock and Public Opinion
The potential for gridlock is built into the US constitution. The Founders set up a complex and ungainly system with two houses of Congress, three branches of government, and competing centers of power in the federal government and the states. The idea was to limit power. The result is a constitutional system that works exactly as intended. Which is to say, it doesn’t work very well at all. As president after president has discovered, there are many ways opponents can stop measures from getting passed, even if the president’s party holds a majority in Congress.

Today the New America has an advantage, though not a “lock,” in presidential elections. Democrats carried the popular vote in six out of the last seven presidential elections (1992 to 2016, except for 2004). In two of those elections, 2000 and 2016, Republicans won the electoral vote because the Democratic vote was heavily concentrated in a few large states (California, New York, Illinois).

The Old America has the advantage in congressional elections. In the House of Representatives, Democrats have been the victims of gerrymandering—the drawing of district boundaries to benefit the Republican Party—as well as a “density” problem: too many Democratic votes concentrated in Democratic congressional districts. The Constitution guarantees two senators from every state, and there are a lot of small Republican states such as Idaho and Wyoming. California, with two Democratic senators, has sixty-seven times as many people as Wyoming, which has two Republican senators.

The Old America also has the advantage in elections for state governments. After the 2016 election, Republicans had total control of twenty-five state governments and Democrats only six. The Republican heartland is now the South and the interior West. Democrats dominate the Northeast and the West Coast.

So here we are: two political parties, entrenched in different institutions, at different levels of government, and in different places. The separation of powers has given rise to fortified bunkers. And gridlock.

In the British parliamentary system, gridlock is unconstitutional. A core principle of the British constitution is “Her majesty’s government must be carried on.” If the government is gridlocked and cannot act, the government falls, and new elections are held until the people elect a government that can govern decisively.

The United States has no queen. There is no constitutional necessity for the government to act decisively. Framers of the US Constitution had just waged a revolution against a king. To them, strong government meant despotism.

American government is set up to fail. The wonder is that it actually does work. It works when there is a crisis—when an overwhelming sense of urgency breaks through blockages and lubricates the system. Under the right conditions, barriers fall away, and things get done, sometimes with amazing speed and efficiency. That’s where public opinion comes in.

The framers of the Constitution did everything they could to insulate government from public opinion with devices such as the electoral college, lifetime tenure for federal judges, and, until 1913, indirect election of senators. But public opinion has come to play a crucial role never envisioned by the Constitution. It can break gridlock and make government work. What’s required is that overwhelming sense of urgency—the public’s demand that the government do something, anything, to solve a pressing problem.

Politicians are always hyping issues to try to turn them into crises: an environmental crisis, an energy crisis, an education crisis, a moral crisis. Or they declare “wars” on things: a war on poverty, a war on crime, a war on inflation, a war on drugs, a war on terror. (Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York once said sardonically, “We declared war on poverty, and poverty won.”) Without a crisis or war to rally public opinion, the system doesn’t work at all. It was not designed to.

When Barack Obama took office in the midst of a financial disaster, his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, remarked, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”1 Emanuel got a lot of criticism for saying that. It sounded as if he were trying to exploit the nation’s troubles. But he was right.

What distinguishes a real crisis from a phony crisis? Public urgency. If the public urgency is not real, opponents won’t have much trouble blocking government action—as they did repeatedly on measures to combat climate change, a long-term threat but not an immediate crisis for most Americans.

We’ve had plenty of real crises: the launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957; civil rights in the 1960s; ten years of war in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, a tax revolt, inflation, and energy shortages in the 1970s; a wave of violent crime in the 1980s; recession in the early 1990s; 9/11 in 2001, the war in Iraq, the 2008 financial crisis. They all resulted in decisive breakthroughs in public policy: the National Defense Education Act in 1958, the Civil Rights Act, campaign finance reform, the War Powers Act, tax reform, energy efficiency standards, the Patriot Act, a ban on torture by the US military, the economic stimulus plan. What happens if the sense of urgency isn’t real? Then the system of limited government locks into place. Nothing much gets done. We get gridlock. It’s in the Constitution.

The default setting in the United States is limited government.2 Almost every state has some sort of balanced-budget requirement. Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama, each of whom presided over huge expansions of federal spending, both proclaimed their commitment to deficit reduction.

So why do we have such high levels of government spending? Because Americans are pragmatists. Pragmatists believe that whatever works is right. Ideologues believe that if something is wrong, it can’t possibly work—even if it does work. That’s how Republicans always felt about the Affordable Care Act: it could never work because it was wrong, even if there was evidence that it was working (by shrinking the number of uninsured Americans by 20 million).

President Trump represents an extreme version of pragmatism. Conservatives have long distrusted him because he has never shown much interest in ideology. With Trump, it’s not about right and wrong, it’s about winning and losing. If you are a winner, then everything you say must be right.

Americans may not believe in big government, but they are willing to support government spending if it solves a problem. Progressives have to rely on pragmatism, not ideology, to make the case for their agenda. President Obama’s economic program got into trouble in 2010 because the recovery was weak and fitful. People did not believe stimulus spending was working, so it was difficult to make the case for more spending. The public fell back to its default position: limited government.
The 2012 and 2016 campaigns were showdowns between the Old America and the New America. The Old America’s rallying cry at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa was “Restore Our Future.” Take us back to the days when America was rich, great, and powerful—the undisputed leader of the world. Mitt Romney declared, “You might have asked yourself if these last years are really the America we want; the America won for us by the Greatest Generation.” That same sentiment was appropriated by Trump in 2016: “Make America Great Again!” The Hollywood celebrity who spoke at the 2012 Republican convention was Clint Eastwood, age eighty-two.

The New America’s rallying cry at the 2012 Democratic Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, was “Forward, Not Back.” President Obama declared, “When Governor Romney finally had a chance to reveal the secret sauce, he did not offer a single new idea. It was just retreads of the same old policies we’ve been hearing for decades.”

The New America celebrates diversity in age, race, sexual orientation, and lifestyles. (The Old America doesn’t have lifestyles; they have lives.) The Hollywood celebrity who spoke at the 2012 Democratic Convention was twenty-seven-year-old Scarlett Johansson.

After nearly fifty years, the two Americas have fought each other to a standoff. A college student of mine once asked me, “Is this the most divided we have ever been as a country?” I reminded him, “We did, once, have a Civil War. Three-quarters of a million Americans died in that war.” But I acknowledged that this was probably the most divided the country had been since that terrible time. We will see evidence for that argument in chapter 3.
Knowing the Times
You can’t talk about public opinion for long without using the word fickle. Former British prime minister Harold Wilson once said, “A week is a long time in politics.” Look at how quickly public opinion turned against Bill Clinton after he took office in 1993. And how quickly he recovered after the shattering setback of the 1994 midterm election.

An Oxford University student once wrote a letter to British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli asking him what he should know to prepare for a career in public life. “Young man, there are only two things you must know to succeed in public life,” the politician responded. “You must know yourself. And you must know the times.”

Knowing the times is a challenge. What was true yesterday may not be true tomorrow. In 2006 the war in Iraq was the all-consuming issue that drove American politics. By 2008, Iraq had nearly disappeared from the political agenda, despite the fact that more than 180,000 US troops were still deployed in Iraq—some 44,000 more than in 2006.

If you understand public opinion—not just polls, but public opinion—you can solve many mysteries about American politics. Like how John McCain won the Republican nomination in 2008. (It was a personal vote.) And how he lost the general election. (It was an issues vote.) And how a candidate can win an election and still look like a loser (by having fared “worse than expected”).

And what happened to the so-called Bradley Effect, where white voters tell poll takers they will vote for an African American candidate and then don’t do it. I covered the 1982 race when Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley narrowly lost the election for California governor that he was expected to win. The polls were more reliable when Barack Obama ran for president in 2008. There are still racist voters out there, but they don’t lie about it as much as they used to.

I am not usually surprised by the direction public opinion takes, but sometimes the logic of public thinking escapes me.

One of those times was in the recount following the disputed 2000 presidential election. A week before Election Day, I had written, “If Gore became president after more people vote for Bush, the electoral college will be history.” The premise turned out to be backward. George W. Bush became president despite more people having voted for Al Gore.

The electoral college did not become history. There was no wave of public outrage over an “undemocratic” electoral system. People did complain loudly about the unfair outcome of the presidential election. By and large, however, the electoral college was not the principal complaint. Why not?

Some reporting and a careful reading of the polls revealed the answer: Florida. For five weeks after Election Day, the media focus stayed on Florida. Public anger was directed at the state’s chaotic voting procedures, not at the electoral college. The final count showed Gore winning the national popular vote by a substantial margin: nearly 540,000 votes. But the figure most Americans complained about was Bush’s disputed margin in Florida: 537 votes.

What if Bush had won the popular vote and lost the electoral college? Then the situation might have been different. Outraged Republicans would have called Gore an illegitimate president. Republicans, who were desperate to win after eight years of Bill Clinton, would probably have balked at Gore’s becoming president because of a “quirk in the rules.” If Gore had become president after more people had voted for Bush, chances are the electoral college would be gone. And Hillary Clinton would have beaten Donald Trump in 2016.

Some political mysteries are difficult to explain. Like why liberals can’t do talk radio. Liberals prefer satire such as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Saturday Night Live. You could argue that liberal talk radio is NPR, with its flagship show All Things Considered. Conservative firebrands don’t consider all things. They consider what they damn well want to consider.

And why, if Hollywood is a nest of liberals and Democrats, have so many Hollywood celebrities who’ve run for political office been Republicans (Ronald Reagan, George Murphy, Fred Thompson, Sonny Bono, Fred Grandy, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger)?

An observer of public opinion has to distinguish between public attitudes that are resistant to change, such as the American public’s distrust of government; views that shift over time, such as opinions on racial segregation and same-sex marriage; and opinions that can turn in a moment.

My initial experience of live television news coverage came during Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas in 1991. Until Anita Hill gave her testimony, men regarded sexual harassment as something of a joke. They thought of it as “flirting.” They failed to comprehend women’s anger and humiliation. Professor Hill’s testimony about her degrading experiences turned out to be one of those rare moments when public consciousness changed, transforming sexual harassment from a joke to a crime.

I grew up in the segregated South, where I witnessed firsthand the transformation of a society. In 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, her action released the pent-up anger and frustration of millions. Southern whites, who had allowed themselves to believe that segregation worked, suddenly saw how outraged black people were to live under Jim Crow laws. Consciousness changed. And eventually a social order was overturned.

I was teaching at Harvard University during the student strike of 1969. At first, most students saw the antiwar protesters as crazy radicals acting out. Then in the early morning of April 10, university authorities called in the police to remove students occupying the administration building. The resulting bloody confrontation roused student consciousness. What had been something of a joke on April 9 turned into a deadly serious cause on April 11. I could see it in my classes: career-minded students were transformed overnight into political activists.

When Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten, tortured, and left to die tied to a fence post in 1998, the public began to understand the violence and hatred gay people face. Previously, many Americans saw gay rights as a solution for which there was no known problem. But consciousness changed. Now same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.
All Politics Is National
Presidential elections are the markers the United States uses to define itself every four years. President and vice president are the only elected officeholders whose constituency is the entire country.

It may have been the case long ago that presidential elections involved separate campaigns for each state’s electoral votes, as the authors of the Constitution intended. But especially since the rise of television coverage in the 1960s, presidential campaigns have become nationalized. National swings toward one party or the other are the rule, with smaller local variations. Congressional and state elections are also becoming more nationalized. The 2006 midterm election was a nationwide referendum on the war in Iraq. The 2014 midterm was the “Nobama election.”

The issues and alignments that define American politics tend to appear first at the national level. State and local elections often take awhile to catch up to national trends because voters feel personal attachments to state and local candidates, even if they are in a different party. House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr.’s famous dictum “All politics is local” is outdated. Today presidential elections lead; state and local elections follow.

White southern voters driven by racial backlash started abandoning the Democratic Party in presidential elections in the 1960s. It took decades for white southerners to acquire the habit of voting Republican in state and local elections. A lot of southern Democrats held on to their seats in Congress through the 1970s and 1980s because of deeply entrenched personal and local loyalties. But then many of those Democrats suddenly got swept away in the 1994 midterm election, which became a negative referendum on President Bill Clinton. Popular Texas representative Jack Brooks, for example, had served in Congress for forty-two years. The Democrat lost his seat in 1994 because of his support for Clinton.
The Power of Public Opinion
It is a core popular belief that ordinary people don’t have any power. Time and time again, however, I have seen public opinion prevail over the political elite. I saw it in the Elian Gonzalez case in 2000. The American public saw the story as a terrible human tragedy that politicians were trying to exploit for political advantage. The polls sent out a strong signal: anyone who tried to politicize the issue would pay a price. Public opinion thwarted efforts by conservatives to keep the child, who had survived a shipwreck and lost his mother, in the United States as a political refugee.

Public opinion prevailed again in the Terri Schiavo case in 2005. Americans saw this story, too, as a personal tragedy that politicians were trying to exploit for political gain. Once again, the polls sent a powerful signal that politicians should not interfere. Public opinion thwarted efforts by conservatives to keep Ms. Schiavo, who had been in a persistent vegetative state for fifteen years, on life support. In a Gallup poll, three-quarters of Americans disapproved of Congress’s involvement in a private family matter.3 But the Republican-led Congress did interfere. And Republicans paid a price in the next election.

In January 1998, shortly after the Monica Lewinsky story broke, I received a late-night telephone call from Barbra Streisand, a well-known Clinton supporter. She asked me whether I believed President Clinton could survive the scandal.

Washington insiders were declaring the Clinton presidency over. The president’s fellow Democrats weren’t rushing to his defense. They felt betrayed. At CNN, we had trouble finding Democrats who would go on the air to defend Clinton. The public’s response was shock and dismay. Pundits started talking about how Clinton’s days were numbered, what Al Gore would do as president, and whom he would choose as his vice president. (The consensus in the chattering class was that he would pick Senator Dianne Feinstein of California.)

I told Ms. Streisand that I seriously doubted the president could survive. He was a married man accused of having a sexual relationship with a woman less than half his age. Lewinsky was a White House intern and therefore someone under the president’s supervision. And the sexual encounters had occurred in the Oval Office.

“I don’t know,” Ms. Streisand replied. “I think he can get through this. After all, it’s just about sex. People make allowances when it’s just about sex.” The House of Representatives impeached Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice. But the core of the matter was sex.

The polls saved Clinton—literally. There were no public demonstrations in support of the president. No rallies. No phone banks. Just the polls, which astonished Washington and the world when they showed the president’s public support rising. Conventional wisdom shifted 180 degrees. Congressional Democrats rallied to defend the president—once they saw whose side the public was on.

Bill Clinton knew and understood the American public better than any president since Ronald Reagan. He was just as skillful a communicator, too. How Bill Clinton survived impeachment remains one of the great feats of political dexterity in US history. His feel for public opinion played a key role. If there had been no polls, Clinton would have been finished. We will examine that amazing story of redemption in chapter 4.

Public opinion is often misunderstood. Its importance is typically either overestimated or underestimated. Overestimated because its importance seems obvious. The United States is a democracy. Of course public opinion matters. Politicians have to pay attention to it. At least they are supposed to. But do they? Politicians are frequently uncomprehending, or heedless, of public opinion. When that happens, there are painful consequences. Democrats failed to grasp the centrality of the terrorism issue in the 2002 and 2004 elections. Republicans refused to acknowledge the public’s opposition to the impeachment of President Clinton in 1998, until their election losses drove home the point.

The power of public opinion is also underestimated by the public. Since the 1960s, growing numbers of Americans have come to believe they don’t have much say in what the government does.4 Why not? Because distrust of elites is a core populist belief. Populism creates a wall of cynicism between “us” and “them,” the people and the political insiders. The people believe political leaders are hostile or indifferent to their concerns. Leaders often assume that the people are ignorant or passive or easy to manipulate.

Americans root for the underdog and stand up for the little guy. They vent their anger at insiders, big shots, experts, Washington, Wall Street—anyone in a position of power who is seen as disdainful of ordinary people or remote from their concerns. It’s the Howard Beale outcry from the 1976 movie Network, a satire of television news: “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore!” No political figure embodied that view more than Donald Trump, who has the traits of a populist demagogue.

Ordinary Americans don’t believe they have much power. But they do. They have the power to stop wars (Vietnam and Iraq). They have the power to keep a president in office (Bill Clinton). They have the power to slash taxes (Proposition 13 in California). They have the power to defy the political establishment (Trump). They even have the power to stop themselves from reelecting the same people over and over again (popular referendums to impose term limits on elected officials).

To argue that the people rule is not to argue that government always does what the people want. Clearly it doesn’t. It is to argue that US political leaders are far more attentive to public opinion than most Americans suspect. And when leaders fail to act, or act in defiance of what the public wants, they pay a price.

I first grasped the power, and complexity, of public opinion in 1968 when, as a graduate student, I studied the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary. Antiwar candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota nearly defeated incumbent president Lyndon Johnson in his own party. But there was another surprise: polls revealed that many Vietnam “hawks” voted for McCarthy, the “dove.” Why? Because they were furious with LBJ for the way the war was being conducted.

A little reporting revealed that a lot of New Hampshire voters could not be classified in the conventional Washington categories as either hawks or doves. They were both. What did they want the United States to do in Vietnam? “We should win or get out” was the answer I heard over and over again. It was perfectly rational for them to vote for McCarthy because that was the easiest way to send a message of dissatisfaction with LBJ’s war policy.5

Johnson got the message and withdrew from the race two weeks later. But the antiwar movement never quite grasped what had happened: the consensus in the country had become antiwar but not dovish. As a result, the McGovern campaign crashed and burned in 1972, and the war went on.

Not a lot has changed since 1968 in the way Americans think about military intervention. The public hates political wars. People believe the military should be used to win military victories, not to win the hearts and minds of foreigners. As a candidate for the White House in 2000, George W. Bush appeared to understand that lesson. He declared that the US military should never be used for “nation building.” But as commander in chief, that is exactly what he did in Iraq, and Republicans paid the price in the 2006 midterm. When President Bush responded by defying public opinion and sending more troops—the “surge” of 2007—he triggered an outpouring of public rage.

Public opinion polls are common in every democratic country. But they are far more pervasive in the United States. In other countries, polls assess the popularity of the government and its chances of survival in the next election. In the United States, polls assess the popularity of every policy and every politician. All the time.

The United States does not have a tradition of party government. When Bill Clinton took office in 1993, Democrats were in control of both the House and Senate. But the president was unable to hold his party together to pass health care reform. In America, you have to poll on every individual issue. Simply gauging public support for the president and the president’s party doesn’t tell you much about how an issue is likely to fare.

Question: If public opinion is such a powerful force, why is it that the majority often does not rule?

After the horrifying school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 20 six- and seven-year-old schoolchildren and six adult staff members as well as his mother and himself, close to 90 percent of the public favored expanded background checks for gun purchasers. But the measure could not get through the US Senate. Likewise, polls show that a solid majority of Americans favors a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. But immigration reform with citizenship provisions has been impossible to get through Congress. The public has long favored a budget deal that balances spending cuts and tax increases. But balanced deals are difficult to pass. A majority of Americans support abortion rights, yet more and more abortion restrictions have been imposed.

The reason is that intensity of opinion matters, not just numbers. Politicians don’t just pay attention to how many people are on each side of an issue. They also need to know how much people on each side of the issue see it as an overriding priority. How many votes will be driven by those who feel one way or the other? An intensely committed minority—gun owners, for instance—can have a bigger impact than a casually committed majority for whom the issue does not determine their vote. I will take up the intensity factor in chapter 6. But it is not inconsistent with the idea of populism. Public opinion matters. Loud opinions matter more.
Coalitions and Movements
American political parties have always been coalitions: diverse interests that join together to pursue a shared objective. When I started covering politics, the dominant coalition was the Franklin D. Roosevelt coalition. That coalition reached its peak strength in President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide victory. It proceeded to fall apart during LBJ’s second term. FDR brought together a coalition of groups that had one thing in common: they all wanted something from the federal government. The Roosevelt coalition included working-class voters, first- and second-generation immigrants, African Americans, Jews, southern whites, labor unionists, seniors, and farmers.

In 1980 a new coalition emerged: the Reagan coalition. Ronald Reagan brought together diverse interests that also had one thing in common: they all had a grievance with the federal government. It included suburban taxpayers, business interests, white voters motivated by racial backlash to civil rights and affirmative action, religious conservatives, gun owners, anti-Communist intellectuals, and men. They were hostile to the federal government for different reasons: taxes, government regulations, activist federal judges, civil rights laws, and gun restrictions. They agreed with Ronald Reagan when he said at his first inaugural, in 1981, “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”

The New America is also a coalition. It can trace its roots back at least as far as the George McGovern campaign of 1972. The New America came to power in 2008, defeated a conservative backlash in 2012, and continued to outnumber the backlash in 2016. It includes African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Jews, gays, working women, single mothers, educated professionals, young people, and the unchurched (the nearly one-fifth of Americans who claim no religious affiliation).

Members of a coalition are expected to agree on one common objective: “If you support our candidate—for whatever reason—you’re one of us. No further questions.” Supporters of a movement are expected to agree on everything. For conservatives, that means the entire conservative agenda: from tax cuts, to outlawing abortion, curbing immigration, and loosening environmental regulations. Disagree on anything, and you can be declared a heretic and expelled from the movement. Movement politics is out of line with the American political tradition. But its influence has been growing in both major parties.

In 2010 the Tea Party tried to act as the enforcement arm of the conservative movement. Tea Party activists threatened Republican waverers with primary opposition if they deviated from the conservative line. Their triumph came in 2014, when Tea Party voters defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his Virginia district’s Republican primary.

But the Tea Party was not the only backlash to Obama. In 2016 Donald Trump led a right-wing populist movement that overwhelmed both the establishment Republican candidate (Jeb Bush) and the Tea Party favorite (Ted Cruz). The Trump movement and the conservative movement became allies in the 2016 campaign. It’s an uneasy alliance. Tea Party conservatives are intensely ideological. Trump is not driven by devotion to conservative principles. Sooner or later, Republicans are bound to split over President Trump.

Hillary Clinton tried to hold together Obama’s winning coalition in 2016, but she was not able to revive the enthusiasm Obama had generated in 2008 and 2012. After surviving a populist challenge by Senator Bernie Sanders, Clinton became the candidate of the Washington establishment and the status quo. Support from blue-collar white voters in midwestern battleground states, egged on by Russian interference, gave Trump the edge he needed to win the electoral college.

As noted earlier, Democrats have carried the popular vote in six out of the last seven presidential elections. You could say that after forty long years in the wilderness, the McGovern coalition finally emerged as a contender for power. But it continues to face determined opposition from the Old America.

After Trump took office in 2017, a powerful backlash broke out on the left. The New America was enraged by Trump’s assault on their most cherished values, diversity and inclusion. That enthusiasm had been missing from the Clinton campaign, most likely because she was so widely predicted to win. During the campaign, Democrats were described as taking Trump “literally but not seriously.”6 Once they were forced to take him seriously, progressive forces were galvanized into opposition, and the prospect of a Tea Party of the left emerged suddenly. Movements beget countermovements.
Interests and Values
Two forces drive people’s political behavior: interests and values. They are often in conflict. When that happens, values usually prevail over interests.

Barack Obama got in trouble during the 2008 campaign when he talked about blue-collar voters in Pennsylvania’s small towns, telling a group of supporters in San Francisco: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Obama seemed to be depicting those sentiments as irrational—in other words, contrary to the voters’ economic interests. But to many of those voters, their values are just as important as their economic interests, if not more so.

During the 2004 presidential campaign, I met with a group of voters in West Virginia. In addition to being one of the poorest states in the country, it is also one of the whitest. West Virginia, a coal mining state, was strongly prolabor and Democratic since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, voting for the Democrat in fourteen out of seventeen presidential elections from 1932 to 1996. The former Democratic Senate leader Robert Byrd was the embodiment of that tradition. But in the last five presidential elections, West Virginia has gone Republican by increasing margins (52 percent in 2000, 56 percent in 2004 and 2008, 62 percent in 2012, 69 percent in 2016).

I asked the voters in the room how many of them had health insurance. Only three out of ten did. I asked them which candidate they thought would be more likely to help the uninsured. Most of them said the Democrat, Senator John Kerry. So were they planning to vote for Kerry? Almost all said no. “Why not?” I asked.

“We hear he wants to take our guns away,” one participant said.

“Are your guns more important than your health insurance?” I asked.

A woman replied, “Mister, our guns are our health insurance.”

The ideological politics that emerged in the 1960s is not class based. It crosses class lines. “Limousine liberalism” is often characterized as a top-bottom coalition of the guilt-ridden rich and the dependent poor. The poor vote their interests, while the rich vote their values. The conservative coalition is also a top-bottom one, allying “country-club” conservatives with less sophisticated “rednecks” and religious fundamentalists. In this case, the rich vote their interests, and the poor vote their values.

Liberals are sometimes shocked to learn that working-class voters often vote their values over their interests. But so do a lot of educated upper-middle-class liberals. Jewish voters, for instance, are disproportionately well educated and high income. Their economic interests ought to lead them to vote Republican. Many Jews are also staunch supporters of Israel, and Israelis such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have signaled that Republicans today are more reliable supporters of Israel than Democrats are. Nevertheless, Jews voted strongly for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and for Hillary Clinton in 2016. They were voting their liberal values, not their conservative interests. As the late Milton Himmelfarb, research director of the American Jewish Committee, once wrote, “Jews have the wealth and status of Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.”

The values divide in the nation’s upper-middle class first became visible in California in the 1960s among upper-middle-class voters. What is distinctive about the upper-middle class is its sense of security and self-satisfaction for having achieved the good life.

In 1967 political scientist James Q. Wilson, who grew up in what he called “Reagan country,” wrote an article in Commentary magazine in which he tried to explain “the political culture of Southern California” to Eastern intellectuals.7 The Goldwater and Reagan movements were protest movements, Wilson argued, but they were not expressions of personal unhappiness, frustration, or despair. Just the opposite, in fact. In describing Goldwater and Reagan supporters, Wilson pointed out that “it is not with their lot that they are discontent, it is with the lot of the nation. The very virtues they have and practice are, in their eyes, conspicuously absent from society as a whole.”

The same year, author and editor Richard Todd, wrote an article in Harper’s magazine in which he tried to explain “the Berkeley phenomenon” to puzzled outsiders.8 Why had that University of California campus become the focal point of student unrest? Was it true, as many commentators suggested, that UC Berkeley students were frustrated and dehumanized by the “mega-university” and that their political protest was an expression of personal anger and discontent? Todd found little evidence of despair or alienation at Berkeley. What he found instead was “a sense of rightness . . . the peculiar kind of joy that is the result of self-absorption.” Berkeley students lived by a code of tolerance, openness, free expression, nonviolence, and permissiveness. They were angry because the country was not being governed in accordance with their code.

Both the right and the left draw support from people who feel certain about their own values and resentful that the rest of society does not embrace them. Each has captured a political party.

The two parties are led by upper-middle-class elites, but they are bitterly competitive elites. In 2012 Mitt Romney was the prince of wealth. Republicans prefer to call it “success.” Romney said at the 2012 Republican convention, “The centerpiece of President Obama’s entire reelection campaign is attacking success . . . In America, we celebrate success; we don’t apologize for it.” Barack Obama was the prince of education. He told Democrats at their convention, “Education was the gateway of opportunity for me. It was the gateway for [First Lady] Michelle. It was the gateway for most of you.” (Columnist David Brooks once observed that President Obama “governs like a visitor from a morally superior civilization.”9)The two elites have been competing for power since the 1960s. The showdown was 2012: two elites, two elitists, both posing as men of the people. And neither with a populist bone in his body.

The presidential race of 2016 saw a populist backlash in both parties. Bernie Sanders led a left-wing populist challenge to the Democratic Party establishment that garnered 43 percent of the Democratic primary vote. Donald Trump led a right-wing populist challenge to the Republican Party establishment. He won 45 percent of the Republican primary vote.

About The Author

Courtesy of the Author

Bill Schneider, a leading US political analyst, is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. He has been a visiting professor at UCLA, Brandeis University, and Boston College. He is the author of Standoff and coauthor, with Seymour Martin Lipset, of The Confidence Gap. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, Politico, Reuters, and National Journal. He was CNN’s senior political analyst from 1990 to 2009.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 15, 2018)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451606225

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Raves and Reviews

“A thoughtful account of how American politics have changed from the 1960s to the age of Trump. . . . He makes a strong case that voters have increasingly placed values over interests and that public opinion often rules . . . a detailed examination of recent presidential elections studded with sharp observations drawn from the author's extensive reporting career . . . A good choice for political junkies.”

– Kirkus Reviews

“For four decades, Bill Schneider has been one of our wisest electoral analysts, one of our shrewdest dissectors of political numbers, and one of our most historically grounded political scientists. He loves politics and conveys that love on every page. It is a joy to see all of these skills on display in Standoff, which tells a compelling story about how we have grown apart as a country and why our politics seem so broken.” —E.J. Dionne Jr., co-author of One Nation After Trump and author of Why the Right Went Wrong

“More political scientist than pundit, Bill Schneider has long been one of America’s most astute and knowledgeable commentators.  In Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable, his fresh observations on immigration, economic inequality, the gun culture, partisanship, and the presidency are not just timely but offer a deep perspective on what Americans believe and why.”—Joe Conason, author of Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton

“Bill Schneider has been helping us understand our politics for a long time. His new book Standoff won't win any prizes for inspiring cheerfulness, but it may be Schneider's best contribution yet to the political literature. Liberals who are baffled by Donald Trump's ability to win the presidency in 2016 will find Schneider's analysis particularly helpful. The book left me feeling smarter, and sadder.”—Robert G. Kaiser, author of Act of Congress

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