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Taming the Base
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Taming the Base

Overreach is being recognized and corrected.

People protest the Kentucky grand jury decision in the case of Breonna Taylor’s death by Louisville police. (Robert Gauthier/ Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)


Warning: This “news”letter might read like I had a heatstroke. That’s only in part because it’s hot here. Too hot. 

I’m in Atlanta for the debate. When I arrived at the airport last night, the air was reminiscent of a Rangoon morgue three days after the electricity went out. Then this morning, I walked around the block to scout a place where I might be able to smoke a cigar later and ease my nicotine withdrawal, but I quickly figured that would be impossible.  There was already a thickness to the air, like the sweatpants crotch-fog of a trailer park meth dealer who has not started Ozempic quite yet. 

For reasons well above my pay grade, the CNN sets for debate coverage are outside. I’m very nervous about this and fear that I’ll go full Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. I’ve been yelling a lot at the temperature reading on my weather app like it’s John Candy in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles—“You’re going the wrong way!” 

But enough about my response to the thermostat. Let’s talk about thermostatic responses. 

Thermostatic politics is one of the more well-established phenomena in political science. When spending goes up, opposition to spending follows. When spending goes down, support for increased spending goes up. It happens with defense, with health care, in democracies everywhere to one extent or another. It annoys a lot of policymakers and politicians for the obvious reason that it’s annoying when the people get pissed at you for giving them what they want.

By the way, I don’t like the term “thermostatic” because I think the metaphor is confusing. Thermostatic doesn’t actually refer to the doohickey on the wall, but to the idea of holding temperature constant (“thermo” = “temperature,” “static” = “unchanging”). So, as with the doohickeys, if it starts getting too hot, the AC comes on and cools things down. If it gets too cold, the AC turns off. (Or, I guess, the heat goes on—metaphorical thermostats work differently from real ones). I can think of a bunch of better, or at least more entertaining, metaphorical descriptors: pendulums, seesaws, hangovers, gas pedals, waves, boomerangs, women’s hemlines, men’s tie widths, Nietzschean this, Hegelian that, and of course NFL draft picks. Weirdly, nobody at APSA consulted me. 

I bring this up because I’ve been meaning to write about a concept related to thermostatic politics. In my head, there are many angry lab monkeys banging ashtrays on the inside of my skull demanding more nicotine, but that’s not important right now. What was I going to say? 

Oh, right, in my head I call it political or cultural “dynamic scoring.” 

(Some of you may recall the term dynamic scoring from congressional tax-and-spend fights over the last couple of decades. The Congressional Budget Office previously used “static scoring,” which doesn’t take into account how proposed legislation might affect the broader economy. Dynamic scoring at least tries to consider the knock-on effects of tax hikes or cuts. Democrats hated dynamic scoring for a long time because they associated it with the idea that tax cuts could pay for themselves. Sometimes they can, sometimes they can’t, by the way. They’ve grown to like dynamic scoring more because it lends political support for the idea that spending is really an “investment” that will pay for itself, with “Keynesian multipliers” and the like. Again: Sometimes they can, sometimes they can’t.

I’ll cut to the chase. When Trump was in office, many, even most, of the cultural things the right regularly complains about the most were getting worse. Under Joe Biden, they’ve been getting better. This shocks and annoys a lot of my friends who are locked into the idea that the only way to stop things from getting worse is to—reluctantly—vote for Trump. But it’s (mostly) true (the outbreak of antisemitism being a huge exception). 

Remember all the freaking out over Antifa? The genuflection to the 1619 Project? The #DefundThePolice frenzy? That was all under Trump. Boston University professor Ibram X. Kendi was a superstar in the Trump years; he’s increasingly a laughingstock or cautionary tale in the Biden years. Mandatory DEI statements were all the rage in elite universities; now, under Biden, elite universities are abandoning them (and bringing back the SAT, too). The founding members of “the Squad” were all elected under Trump and the political wind was at their back. The winds have shifted directions under Biden. Jamaal Bowman, for example, was crushed yesterday in New York by a moderate Democrat. Indeed, moderate Democrats have been on a roll during the Biden years, beating far-left Democrats in a string of primaries

Now, let’s be clear. Biden did not intend these positive developments any more than Trump intended the negative ones. But that doesn’t mean the presidents aren’t responsible for them in a meaningful sense. The thermostatic thing is mostly a function of the ornery contrariness and contrary orneriness of the American people. When Washington zigs, zagging looks attractive. 

But I’m thinking about something different. Presidents have become avatars in the culture wars, and the responses to them are often at odds with their actual agendas. Trump aroused and inspired a response to his presidency that empowered some of the most ideologically extreme people on the left. Moderate Democrats closed ranks with the hard left, and the mainstream media followed along, too. Universities and other elite institutions openly joined the “resistance.” This amalgam of groupthink, moral panic, and popular front lasted through the Trump years. But with Biden in office, saner voices are starting to come out of hiding. Overreach is being recognized and corrected. The stupidity and unworkability of bad ideas is becoming too obvious to ignore simply for the sake of cultural unity. 

But what if Trump hadn’t spent so much of his presidency pandering to or indulging his base (and his ego)? What if instead he spent an inordinate amount of time trying to seem reasonable to people outside of his base? I know this is quite the if-grandma-had-wheels-she’d-be-a-bus contrafactual, but bear with me.  

When politicians ponder a major policy proposal these days, the first question they ask is, “Will my base like this?” Now, politicians have always cared about “the base.” But the definition of the base used to be something like “the voters who will stick with me almost no matter what” not “the voters I should pander to no matter what.” When your first goal is to pander to the people who support you the most—but who, ironically, will also never be fully satisfied—the chances you’ll turn off people outside your base go up. It’s like politicians care the most about not pissing off the voters who will give them the biggest benefit of the doubt and care the least about the ones who need the most reassurance. 

Put another way, the people who want Donald Trump to talk about being a dictator are going to vote for him no matter what. At the same time, the people who don’t want Trump to talk about being a dictator are less likely to vote for him every time he talks like one, or says he’ll be one. But Trump tends to treat his losable voters as unlosable and his unlosable ones as losable. 

Here’s where things get dynamic. In politics, the more unreasonable one side sounds, the more reasonable the unreasonable people on the other side sound. 

Think of it this way: There have been people on the left who have called every Republican presidential candidate a “fascist” going back to the 1930s. Most normal voters rolled their eyes at this crap. But when Republican presidents or presidential candidates talk or behave fascistically or when they don’t correct their loudest surrogates when they sound like fascists—a lot of normal people will suddenly find the Chicken Littles persuasive. Every time you convince a movable voter that Steve Bannon or Laura Loomer does in fact speak for Trump, that’s another vote for Biden. 

Joe Biden has similar problems. No, he doesn’t have gargoyles like Bannon and Loomer claiming to speak for him. But it’s not like he’s worked very hard or been very effective at persuading people that he’s not on the same side as Jamaal Bowman and Ilhan Omar. 

The last president who really grasped political dynamic scoring was Bill Clinton. In almost everything he did, Clinton’s goal was to make his opponents seem like extremists and weirdos. Obama and George W. Bush weren’t necessarily bad at it, and perhaps if they had the kind of peace and prosperity of the 1990s they would have seemed equally good at it. But the point is that Clinton didn’t mind when parts of his base attacked him. Why? Because he knew that would buy him credibility with the middle. Of course, Clinton would have preferred to get unhinged attacks from the right—but he was also really good at making hinged attacks seem unhinged. Some of it was defensible, some of it was grotesquely cynical, but it was almost always smart politics. Clinton wanted to have 60 percent of the American people on his side at any given moment—he just didn’t care if a lot of those people weren’t hardcore Democrats. 

Anyway, in today’s base-obsessed politics, when you say, “If you do that, our opponents will lose their minds” that’s considered a feature, not a bug. And don’t get me wrong, there are times when it is entirely right and worth it to cause the other party to lose its mind. As a conservative, I’d put entitlement reform, abolishing nearly all public sector unions, a massive increase in defense spending, and a bunch of stuff like that on my list of things that would be worth driving progressives crazy over. 

But there are two caveats. First, the policy needs to be worth it. Doing stuff simply to drive the other side nuts will, over time, turn off more voters than it attracts. After all, trolling in politics isn’t surgical. Behave like a jackass to “own the libs” and a lot of non-libs will conclude that you are, in fact, a jackass. Moreover, they’ll think the people in your party who didn’t object to your jackassery endorse it. Both parties suffer greatly from the transitive property of jackassery. 

Which brings me to the second thing. Making the other side go nuts is worth it if your goal is to actually fix a real problem. You can “own” the other side with an executive order, but the other side can own you right back. Trump reversed nearly all of Obama’s executive orders. Biden did likewise to Trump. That stuff gets exactly the desired reactions from friendly and unfriendly media alike. Republicans love huzzahs from Fox News and Democrats adore praise from MSNBC; Democrats love to piss off Fox News, and Republicans love to freak out MSNBC. 

The way you actually fix problems in our system is by passing laws, not via executive orders, press releases, or symbolic congressional votes, or even passing bills that will die in the other chamber or get vetoed by the president. 

Given the nature of our problems, any serious effort to solve them will elicit howls of outrage from some constituency or party. The trick is to make sure that those howls of outrage seem unreasonable—not to your base, but to the voters you need for an actual majority.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.