2016: the two types of issue

In which I continue to try to parse the significance of 2016.  (I hope they come up with a standard term for the events of the past couple years, because Trump-and-Brexit-and-Europeans-revolt-against-the-elite is clunky.)

Megan McArdle has on more than one occasion talked about “Washington issues”:

A Washington Issue is something that sounds terrible, has little meaningful impact on more than a handful of people, and most importantly, allows you to pretend that you are addressing a different, very difficult issue that would impact a large number of people if you actually tried to make meaningful change — people who might get angry and do something rash, such as voting for your opponent.

This is clearly correct, it seems to me.  How does 2016 play in?  Well, on that particular subject area of political science, let me theorize a bit.

As I see it, there are two basic types of issue.  There are “retail” issues, and there are “luxury” issues.

Retail issues are the sort that the public really cares about.  They tend to be fairly simple and easy to explain, and they tend to touch many people’s emotions.   Jobs.  Taxes.  Defense.  Football.  The Left appears to me to imagine that their issues are mostly retail.  The administrative state?  Meritocracy and mandarinism?  They seem to think these are all things the public is really on their side about, and are shocked and mystified when evidence to the contrary appears.  (Washington Issues are a kind of retail issue that is high-margin, in business terms: high payoff, low cost in terms of tradeoffs.  They’re the sweet spot for politicians, so long as people are fooled into thinking they mean anything.)

Luxury issues, on the other hand, are the kind that only particular interest groups and politicians care about.  They don’t swing elections by themselves.  They’re the kind of thing that you can use to put together coalitions, because the interest groups care intensely about their particular issue or issues, but they’re not things whose presence or absence sways the public as a whole.

And, of course, these are not fixed points, anode and cathode.  They are points on a spectrum.  People can sometimes be gotten to care more about a particular issue, and in fact that’s the nexus between the media and politics.  Any time a politician says something like “let’s get a national conversation going about X issue”, the real meaning is, let’s try to move this issue from the luxury side of the spectrum to the retail side.  This can sometimes be done, but if it is not maintained, it may slide backwards once the victory is gained and the policy enacted.  And some things that were once inherently retail drift to the side of luxury issues by the operation of the entropy of public disillusionment with them.  Public education is an example of this.  People ostensibly care about it, but large amounts of money spent uselessly on it, together with a public perception that it’s been captured by administrators and teachers’ unions and run chiefly for their own benefit, has been causing it to drift in the direction of a luxury issue.

2016 demonstrates that the Left, and the global elite as a whole, has confused the two.   The public as a whole doesn’t care about the components of the administrative state.  The less able distrust meritocracy, a dynamic in which they are the losers, and non-elites as a whole dislike the identity politics of meritocracy, which is what we call elitism.  The Democrats, in fact, resemble nothing so much as the character of Martin Prince on The Simpsons, who gets pushed down by Bart, to laughter from the other children, and says in shock, “They laugh at me? I’d always considered myself rather popular… My speed with numbers? My years of service as a hall monitor? My prize winning dioramas? These things mean nothing to them?”  And he gets pushed over again, again to general laughter.

Unlike Martin, though, who responds, “You have made your point”, the Democrats have yet to acknowledge the point made by Trump when he pushed them over.  They still think the bureaucrats of the Hall Monitor Agency and the diorama-building of the National Endowment for the Arts, are things with genuine and deep popular support.