I’m not a political animal. My views on just about everything are all over the map. Voting with my feet is my preferred form of political expression. Mostly I keep my head down and do my own thing. But I’m fascinated by our current national drama.
The first year I was eligible to vote saw a landslide victory for Ronald Reagan. He already had the vote of traditional Republicans on the right. Hard core liberal Democrats were never going to vote for him. But the broad middle was up for grabs – a middle that was deeply unsatisfied with the social upheavals of the 1960’s and the economic malaise of the 1970’s. Reagan won by continuing the policy developed by Richard Nixon who wooed socially conservative blue collar white males, particularly in the South and Rust Belt. These were the so-called “Reagan Democrats.”
By 1980 America was in the mood to throw off troublesome social obligations and pursue purely personal goals at home. The story put forth by Reagan was compelling. First, government regulations, high taxes, labor unions, and trade barriers were squeezing the life out of the economy. A hands-off approach by government would liberate private innovation and create far more wealth than top down central planning and failed attempts at redistribution. Second, America had drifted away from its moral roots with too much attention to the peculiar needs of minority subcultures.
Reaganomics did exactly what it promised. Barriers were removed, innovation thrived, and the economy grew tremendously. America is now far richer than it was a few decades ago. But… Back in 1980 the Reagan Democrats believed they would be the overwhelming beneficiaries of the Reagan Revolution. Turns out, not so much. On average real wages have remained flat for blue collar workers since Reagan’s election. All that extra money went to other people who were better educated, more ambitious, and better situated by birth or geography to take advantage of the new rules. That isn’t a defect in the system. That’s actually a feature. Competition induces winners and losers.
Fast forward to today. Donald Trump is doing far better than any of his Republican competitors ever expected in no small part because Trump is tapping the same demographic that followed Reagan: less prosperous, less educated, often older, white men in the South and Rust Belt. In many cases these are exactly the same individual voters who have aged along with the policies they originally voted for a few decades ago. And these folks are profoundly pissed off at how things have turned out. The wrong people won.