While at Unrig the System this weekend (more on that later but a great meeting) I got to meet Pat Caddell, who has worked in presidential offices and campaigns since the Carter Administration. He also developed many of the modern polling techniques widely used today. (By the way he thinks micropolling is part of the equation, as we discuss in Wedged.)
He has done a combination of personal interviews, polling, and soul-searching to get a sense of why Trump won the election when, in his words, Trump had no real strategy, few solid positions, and very little in the way of a campaign at all. Stories of the general dislike of Clinton by Republicans may be part of it, but he thinks there's something much more fundamental--and has the numbers to back it up.
Many Trump Voters Weren't Really Voting For Trump
He points out that a large majority of voters believed that Trump lacked the experience to be president, and even more believed he lacked the temperament. On election day his favorability was a staggering 23 points in the red. Clinton was just over half that, at 12.6.
Voters disliked Trump much more than they disliked Clinton, personally. Caddell theorizes from these numbers that Clinton had everything going for her... in a normal election.
So if not "for Trump," what the heck were people voting for?
The Impact of Historic Alienation
Caddell shared a bunch of data about how Americans are historically alienated by the establishment, and lack faith in its ability to fix their problems. Here are some statistics:
- 71% of Americans believe the country is in net, overall decline
- 52% of Americans believe their kids will not have it as good as we have had it
- A staggering 81% of Americans believe the US has a two-track economy, where most Americans struggle every day, where good jobs are hard to find, and where huge corporations get the rewards
- 87% of voters believe the power of ordinary people to control the country is getting weaker every day, as politicians of both parties fight to protect their own power and privilege
- 85% agree that the reason families in our middle class have not seen their economic condition improve for decades, and why economic growth is stalled, is because of corruption and crony capitalism in Washington
- 86% believe that politicians are more interested in protecting their own power and privilege than doing what is right for the American people
- 81% believe that powerful interests from corporations and Wall Street, unions, and political interest groups have used campaign and lobbying money to rig the system for themselves. They are looting the country for billions at the expense of everyone else
- 68% disagree that the US government is working for the people's best interests
- 66% believe that "people like me don't really have a say about how the government works"
- 80% of Americans believe there is a different set of rules for the well-connected and those with money
The takeaway, he said, is that people believe the economic and political system is totally rigged against them, and that the establishment of both parties is only interested in entrenching the current rigged system.
The Death of the American Tribal Concept
Historically, Americans have always believed that life would be better for their kids than for themselves. That "obligation to posterity" was at the very foundation of America's founding, even as a set of colonies. It's part of the "City Upon a Hill" sermon. It was part of Jefferson's writings and has been part of the American sense of self-identity throughout our history. Caddell says it is one of the core features that make up the concept of the American Tribe--if it stops being true, the United States may remain, but America will not.
For the first time, 52% of Americans believe the future will be worse for their children. As Americans, we are not fulfilling the obligation to our progeny. This is an unprecedented crisis in the American psyche.
And it has occurred during a 20-year period that moved from Democratic to Republican to Democratic presidents; that occurred despite the relatively high late-term approval ratings for Clinton and Obama, and despite seemingly powerful growth in the 1990s and a recovery in the 2010s.
Many Americans, Caddell argues, decided that the establishment simply does not have the will, desire, or care to restore that obligation to posterity. And if it is unwilling to do so, regardless of repeated elections, people start thinking about revolution.
A Little Uprising Against the Establishment
Caddell said that Americans didn't fool themselves into thinking that Trump would fix their problems. But Clinton represented the cold, heartless, uncaring establishment. She represented (whether this is a fair assessment or not) crony corporatism and the entrenched interests on Wall Street and in DC. She represented the very thing that Americans have lost faith in.
So Americans, he says, were left with two choices: an establishment candidate that wouldn't restore the obligation to posterity, and a total outsider. Someone with zero experience. Zero obligation to Wall Street, to DC. Someone reviled and hated by the establishment. In fact, the establishment's endless hatred of Trump made him even more attractive. Why?
Caddell said--and this hit me really hard--"The American people realized they could overthrow the system." They could, he said, "punch the establishment in the face and send a message."
For many of the Americans that voted for Trump, this was an uprising. Not an armed one, but a highly disruptive one. It was about sending a message: "You have ignored our fundamental obligations to the future too long--you no longer get to be in power."
The election of Trump, Caddell said, happened despite Trump's campaigning and many of his policies. Many people voting for Trump didn't agree with him or think he would be a good president. But revolutions are messy affairs. Whether Trump's election is a good idea is another discussion altogether, but Caddell believes this is clear: the establishment needs to change if it's going to make a comeback.