By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
Current events are demonstrating that what moves political elites and what moves normal people often are two different things.
The big debate among the political elites is over the size and role of government, particularly regarding the economy. That’s why they donate hundreds of millions of dollars to an establishment candidate like Gov. Jeb Bush who promises to cut spending and taxes, and why they assume, like I did, that Donald Trump would eventually go away. As President Clinton’s 1992 campaign said, “It’s the economy, stupid,” right?
Well, not always. What really moves people often are social and cultural issues: guns, gay rights, abortion, etc. Economic issues are mostly about what people do. Social issues are about who they are.
The prevailing national example of this reality is this year’s presidential race, where Trump is driving conservative elites crazy because he’s never been one of them. He has a history of supporting liberal and moderate political positions and has given money to many Democrats, including the Clintons. During this campaign, he’s not really talking that much about cutting government, the Republican elites’ favorite topic.
But he’s established a connection with many voters talking about illegal immigration, which for elites is merely an economic issue but to average people is also a social and cultural one. He’s going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. That’s not an economic policy. And he’s made political correctness, which is definitely a social issue, part of his campaign by pushing the envelope with his words time and again and never apologizing for it.
Closer to home, on Sunday, thousands of Arkansans opposed to abortion participated in the annual March for Life at the Capitol. They carried handmade signs. They prayed. They donated money to Arkansas Right to Life, which has won a lot of victories in recent years and will push this next legislative session for a ban on dismemberment abortions, where the fetus is torn apart and then extracted from the womb.
Thousands of conservative Arkansans do not march on the Capitol to cut the capital gains tax.
This upcoming Saturday, the Arkansas Coalition for Reproductive Justice will respond with a pro-choice rally. Because this is Arkansas, and because abortion is already legal, there won’t be thousands of participants. But, weather permitting, there will be hundreds.
During the 2015 legislative session, the most far-reaching public policy debate was over Arkansas extending the private option, the program that uses federal dollars to purchase health insurance for 200,000 lower-income individuals.
But what really grabbed everyone’s attention was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which some saw as an effort to protect religious belief while others saw it as a tool for discrimination against gays. Activists chanted “Shame on you!” at legislators and then lined the steps inside the Capitol. Corporate interests like Wal-Mart also were opposed. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who initially supported it, sent it back to the Legislature when it reached his desk, and a milder version mirroring federal law was passed.
With economic issues, a lot of people care a little. With social issues, a few people care a lot. In politics, the second is often more powerful than the first. In an October CBS News/New York Times poll, 92 percent said they support background checks for all gun buyers, but Republican candidates know the other 8 percent will base their votes on that issue alone. So no background checks for all gun buyers.
While compromise is doable when it comes to economic issues, it’s very difficult with social ones. If one side says a tax should be 10 percent and the other 14 percent, the two can meet in the middle. With social issues, where the debate is over absolute right and wrong, finding the gray middle ground is harder. Then those deep-seated social divisions bleed into other areas. Elected officials can’t make the difficult compromises needed to balance the budget, for example, after the trenches have been dug over gay rights and guns.
I guess it doesn’t matter that much. Few candidates are seriously talking about balancing the budget, anyway. Maybe they would, if someone could figure out how to turn it into a social issue.