Doing Right versus Being Right: 2016’s Complicated, Confusing, Captivating Electorate

In this season of political prognostication, the differences between the GOP and the Dems will be parsed and analyzed in terms of personalities and issues. But what is the difference within the primary electorate? Simply put: voters are split between those who want to do the right thing and those who want to be right. These two fundamentally different and somewhat mutually exclusive forms of knowledge are actually fairly self evident in the political rhetoric and framing of issues, and explain the support of California’s Prop 8 in 2008 by black voters, the dominance of Donald Trump in the Republican primaries, the rise in Right to Work states, and the myriad other ways in which people stymie political scientists by regularly voting against their self-interest.

Doing the Right Thing

This “conservative” form of knowledge is the framework that people who rely on tradition, faith, and family use to make decisions about complex issues. Their internal logic informs them about how things should be, and they approve of traditional social structures that reinforce conservative, reactionary norms. The world is a very big place full of people, events, and ideas that are not really relevant to daily life, but it doesn’t matter, because one can always Do the Right Thing by calling on the wisdom of tradition, the morality of faith, and the integrity of family. Just so, these voters prefer the straightforward narrative of idealism. That term — idealism — has been cleverly demonized by GOP spin doctors as the feeble minded trait of the Liberal; but it is clearly and even painfully obvious that it is the Right who yearns for an ideal of America: strong, unified, morally right, bustling economy with a robust job market that ensures permanent employment for all earnest job seekers, protective of the weak and punishing of the wicked.

It is a great narrative. If you could write the story of your nation, isn’t that how you would tell it, too? And if you were a citizen of such a mighty and noble nation, wouldn’t you do anything to preserve it? Wouldn’t you fight like hell to keep it from crumbling into ashes, too?

Being Right

This form of knowledge relies on facts, rationality, and impartial judgment to deal with complex problems. It’s an external logic, which sees the world as it is and looks to society to solve its own problems. Liberals accept, to varying degrees, the belief that the U.S. is no longer the shining city upon the hill — and probably that it never was such a thing. Historical facts and political realities matter to Democrats, because Being Right is the basis of their framework for solving complex issues. Just so, they ask how government should align its stated mandates with its social obligations, and usually find the answer in process — i.e., oversight and regulation. This view demands that government be responsive to its rapidly changing society, and that task is necessarily based in facts: legal structures, agency resources, demographics.

The Left, in taking this strongly pragmatic view of society, suffers from exactly the kind of high-minded cynicism that the Right accuses them of. But this “liberal” form of knowledge innately provides a structural framework for thinking about big social problems, which is really the only way that such problems can be approached. Where it lacks a certain enthusiastic optimism for the status quo, it offers a highly hopeful path forward.

Are the Two Really Mutually Exclusive?

Well, yes. Even with the blessing of cognitive dissonance, it’s not possible to give these conflicting frames equal ground in any particular debate. People that put a high value on family, faith, and tradition are not prone to an impartial view of their family, faith, or traditions. Likewise, people that highly value facts, rationality, and impartial judgment are unlikely to base their opinions on the institutional norms and influence of family, faith, and tradition.

The Left and the Right are populated by people for whom 2–3 legs of their tripartite stool of knowledge is tightly coupled: family/faith/tradition (or any combination of two of the three), or facts/rationality/impartiality (or two out of three). They represent the farther extremes of the parties, and set the stereotypes that define both parties. Everyone else operates independently of the rubric, and these Independents use a mix of both forms of knowledge, which explains why this constituency is sometimes called the “issue voter.”

Independents are impossible to define and capture in successive election cycles because their internal logic is slippery and their external logic is complex. They value family, tradition, faith, facts, rationality, and impartial judgment to varying degrees with respect to any given issue. Independent thinkers want to Do the Right Thing on some issues, and they want to Be Right on others, and they may not really care about the rest of the issues in a candidate or party platform. For example, a minority voter might look to their “conservative” framework in support of Prop 8 (“Eliminates Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry”), but employ their “liberal” framework on that same ballot to vote against the Establishment for Barack Obama. In this case, such a voter might take their faith position on gay marriage, but use rationality to choose a minority candidate who offers a better chance of serving a minority agenda.

The Demise of the Establishment

Some pundits note the implosion of the Republican Party with smug satisfaction, others with horror at the broad implications of a Trump presidency. But both sides might be missing the point. Although it has been thankfully excluded from media scrutiny, this is a year in which two Latinos, a woman, and a Jewish socialist are running against the sole (marginally) traditional candidate — a self-funded socially liberal billionaire with a fringe platform. In any other year, Trump would be the long shot. Now he seems to be the only sure thing in the 2016 race on either side.

So what happened? Did years of partisan rhetoric begin to disintegrate the GOP on the heels of Eric Cantor’s 2014 defeat, in predictable fashion? Even so, how is Bernie Sanders maintaining so much momentum — both in delegate support and donations — while the Democratic sweetheart, Hillary Clinton, struggles to break out and coalesce her base? Once again, we can look to the two forms of knowledge to answer this question, boldly predict the primary outcome, and make book on the general election.

In the Democratic Party, primary voters that fall into the “conservative” form of knowledge category will support Clinton, the “liberal” thinkers will vote for Sanders. In July, the superdelegates, which represent the “independent” framework that combines both rubrics and distills decisions to a narrow suite of issues (or, indeed, a single issue), will choose Clinton because she has a well-developed platform with a plan for every issue. Sanders, at least at the time of this analysis, has focused in on economic justice as a lens through which all other issues can be viewed. But the Sanders approach will not satisfy the concerns of all those issue voters, and his oversight will ensure Clinton’s nomination.

In the GOP, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz lack the persuasive appeal to the “conservative” form of knowledge that Trump has tapped, and despite regularly waffling on almost every issue in his platform, his message is explicitly about Doing the Right Thing. He doesn’t worry about policy and economic details; he just knows that America will be great again if its leaders do the right thing — whatever that might be. It’s a message that feels true for voters who know that Doing Right starts with action, and certainly Trump is a man of action, by anybody’s estimation. The “liberal” vote will go with Kasich, but it doesn’t take keen political analysis to know that this is not the year of the liberal Republican. Furthermore, the Pubs’ independent wing is burned out and spiteful, after a long stretch of broken promises and President Obama’s successful execution of his Plan to Kill America. Thus, to Donald Trump will go the Republican nod, which actually might be best for the Grand Old Party, by now in need of some world-class corporate restructuring.

And this, of course, leads us to November. After all of the highly-invested crazies have spent their collective millions on invective and dirty tricks, the moderates — that 35% crucial bloc comprised of left, right, and independents that is impossible to measure and therefore perennially ignored — will come out of the woodwork to register their vote and pull the nation back to something like a stable center. Although by that time, Trump will have toned the rhetoric way down (way, way, WAY down) and thrown his primary supporters under the bus with a platform that looks a lot like Clinton’s plan in prospectus form, he will not prevail. 2016 is the year of the Do Righters vs. Be Righters, and Trump just doesn’t have a plan, nor will he. His vague commitment to negotiate deals and Make America Great Again will wear thin with voters weary of empty promises, and a haggard Republican Party — terrified of the negative consequences that a flaky Trump administration would have on every layer of government, from Senator down to dogcatcher — will discreetly discourage their voters from supporting Trump, secretly celebrate Clinton’s victory, and use the opportunity to reenergize its base in its shared hatred of Madame President.

So dance in the moonlight, all you Clinton supporters! You shall triumph. But don’t relish your victory for too long. Her presidency will bolster the “vast right-wing conspiracy” to bring her down at any cost, and drag out the Congressional gridlock, partisan vitriol, and constituent dissatisfaction for another four years. In the end, 2016 will mark the demise of the Establishment, as independent candidates and fresh faces from all sides of the political spectrum begin to emerge in response to the Parties’ inability to deliver and support successful candidates who show up every day to do their jobs.

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