The return of the chastened establishment
What should we do during the next two years of divided government? We could spend them as we’ve spent the last two: React to every Trump outrage. Keep Trump’s narcissistic provocations at center stage. Express daily contempt from within the safety of our political silos.
This seems to be the business model for cable news and online media. There’s a big, reliable audience of people who will tune in to feel appalled by and superior to President Donald Trump, and who are addicted to their daily rituals of moral onanism.
On the other hand, we could put the Trump soap opera off to the side and pay attention to actual Americans and actual solutions. We could acknowledge that we are an evenly divided country. We could build the bipartisan governing coalitions and agendas suited to that reality.
Fortunately, many people are opting for plan B. For example, the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution gathers stakeholders across the political spectrum and gets them working together on common visions — union bosses with Walmart executives, teacher union leaders with charter school heads.
Washington think tanks are undergoing a fundamental evolution. A lot of them, like the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, were built to advise parties that no longer exist. They were built for a style of public debate — based on social science evidence and congressional hearings that are more than just show trials — that no longer exists. Many people at these places have discovered that they have more in common with one another than they do with the extremists on their own sides.
So suddenly there is a flurry of working together across ideological lines. Next week, for example, the group Opportunity America, with Brookings and AEI, will release a bipartisan agenda called “Work, Skills, Community: Restoring Opportunity for the Working Class.”
Written by a wide array of scholars, the report starts with the truth that the working class has been mostly ignored by the rest of society. Government has welfare programs to serve the poor and they have programs like 529 savings accounts to subsidize the rich. But there’s very little for families making, say, $50,000 a year.
Businesses like Amazon will invest in rich places like New York and Northern Virginia, but they won’t invest much in working-class communities in Ohio or Kentucky. Universities, religious organizations and activist groups will recruit from the affluent suburbs and serve those in dire poverty, but they barely touch the working class.
What you get is a layer of society that has been denuded of institutions and social bonds. Working-class men have been dropping out of the labor force at alarming rates. A generation ago, working-class families were about as likely to be part of religious communities as affluent Americans, but now their participation rates have plummeted. A generation ago, working-class families were nearly as likely to be married as affluent people, but now only half the children in working-class families will be raised in adolescence by stably married parents. From the 1970s to the 2000s, the share of working-class people aged 25 to 60 who were involved in a neighborhood organization fell from 71 percent to 52 percent.
As the authors of the Opportunity America report lay out the evidence, you see how the debate has evolved over the past few years. First, there used to be relatively little research attention paid to the working class at all. Now it’s the epicenter. Second, there used to be a silly debate over whether economics or culture explained social breakdown. Now these two elements are woven seamlessly together. Third, geography plays a much bigger role. Social problems are concentrated in specific places.
The authors of this report dismiss the policy slogans coming from the extremes. Building a wall is not a policy. Universal basic income degrades the work ethic that is at the core of working-class life. Free college is a massive subsidy for the upper middle class.
Instead, the authors come up with a broad left/right agenda that 70 percent of Republicans and Democrats could support: wage subsidies, improved parental leave, work requirements for some federal benefits, child care tax credits.
I especially like their point that we have overemphasized four-year colleges as the only route to success. In 2016, the federal government spent $139 billion on postsecondary education and training. Only a sliver, 14 percent, went to career education and training. Private sector employers fetishize the college degree even where it’s unnecessary. Two-thirds of the job postings for production supervisors now require a college degree. But only 16 percent of the people currently holding those jobs have such a degree.
One of the core questions before us is this: Who is going to lead this country? Is it perpetual outsiders like Trump, with no governing or policy competence, who say the establishments have forfeited all credibility? Or are there enough chastened members of establishments, who have governing experience, who acknowledge past mistakes, who take the time to reconnect with the country and apply their expertise in new ways?
I don’t know about you, I’ll take a chastened establishment any day.
Brooks is a New York Times columnist.