OPED: Why Trump’s politics will outlast him

Tyler Cowen
Bloomberg News
FILE - In this June 27, 2018 file photo, Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez  speaks to the media in New York, the day after her congressional primary upset over 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley. Ocasio-Cortez is now criticizing him for not getting his name off the ballot in the general election. Despite his loss in New York’s Democratic primary, Crowley’s name will still be on the ballot as the candidate of the lesser-known Working Families Party in November. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

Democrats, according to a recent Gallup poll, have a more favorable opinion of socialism than of capitalism. I don’t take this to be an endorsement of actual socialism as we might have understood the term four decades ago, however; I see it as the expression of a desire to move much further to the left, and if necessary to think outside the usual boxes.

Look at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic candidate who is likely to represent parts of New York City in the next Congress. Her agenda calls for single-payer health insurance, a federal jobs guarantee and the abolition of ICE. Whether or not you agree, it is striking how much these stances have become part of the broader debate.

On the Republican side, the presidency of Donald Trump has taken the party to all sorts of unexpected places, ranging from trade wars against our Canadian ally to a frontal assault on the legitimacy of the FBI. Even before Trump, a Republican Senate was unwilling even to consider the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland, an unprecedented step in modern times.

There is a broader pattern here: The space for possible policy outcomes has opened up. This will have important implications for the future of our republic.

On the downside, when out-of-the-box or “crazy” ideas are part of the discourse, political polarization will increase yet further. The likes of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may well be driving many Trump-skeptical Republicans into the arms of Trump. Many Democrats, in turn, have a sense that Trump and his violations of political norms must be stopped at all costs.

And if your party controls all branches of government, the political returns are now greater. Even if your party’s ideas are so unusual or “out there” that they would never get through divided government, you can tailor your electoral strategies toward “sweeping the board.” Furthermore, major election-altering events, such as recessions or unpopular wars, may assume greater historical importance in generating the preconditions for political breakthroughs. The importance of luck is rising.

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Were you sick and tired of gridlock? Well, welcome to a new political world, in which surprises come every year — at least until Democrats capture the House.

Under divided government, change won’t necessarily stop. It will just come in the form of unilateral executive orders, or through rhetorical and symbolic cultural battles that are extreme compared with a decade or two ago.

Every now and then, one party will control all branches of government, and then the rhetoric and the expectations will be in place for some pretty big changes. Not long ago, I thought that even a 5-to-4 conservative Republican majority on the Supreme Court would essentially leave Roe v. Wade in place, for fear of taking this Republican-friendly issue off the national agenda. Now I’m not so sure. All of a sudden, Americans are getting used to the idea that extreme political change is possible, for better or worse, and that means many of them will demand it. In the Trump Era, if I may call it that, it is harder to tell your base that big changes just don’t happen that easily.

Is there an upside to this expansion of policy choices? Absolutely. Whether or not you like the current administration, you still might think that, over time, an America with less gridlock will produce more good ideas than bad ones, and that some of the bad ones will eventually be reversed or corrected.

There are also plenty of good ideas that don’t have a partisan tinge one way or the other. Five years ago, I thought the Federal Reserve was far away from adopting “nominal GDP targeting,” an idea supported by many economists on both the right and the left. Today it seems entirely possible that the Fed will move much further in that direction, if only because it wouldn’t be seen as such a big, radical change compared to so many other developments. Trump is probably going to tweet criticism at the Fed no matter what it does, so it might as well just go ahead and do some things it wants to do.

Other causes that might have once seemed hopeless or unlikely will now attract more supporters, in the hope that maybe they will prove winners against the odds. The YIMBY (“Yes in My Backyard”) movement to deregulate high-density building, most of all in California, is winning over many enthusiastic young people, among both progressives and libertarians. Maybe these prospects for change will draw more talent and innovation into American politics, and for the better.

In the meantime, my advice: Buckle your seatbelts.

—Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”