Many public intellectuals and political pundits were surprised by Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the Republican nomination. In my opinion, this is because they succumbed to what has (unfairly) become known as the “Pauline Kael syndrome.” Pauline Kael is the New Yorker critic who was reputed to have remarked after the 1972 Presidential election that “Nixon couldn’t have been elected. No one I know voted for him.” (She actually never said this; hence the unfairness.)
You see, political commentators spend so much talking to each other about public policy that they eventually come to believe that candidates’ policy positions determine electoral outcomes. This is silly, as would be obvious if commentators paid attention to what candidates do as opposed to what they say.
Let me illustrate this with a personal experience. The community in which I live, Lake Barcroft, has an annual Halloween parade the Sunday before Halloween so that children can dress up in their costumes during the day and walk with their friends for about a mile. A high school marching band leads them and there are goody bags and an opportunity to play at the end. It is a very friendly and heartwarming little event.
Meet Tom Davis
A few years ago, when my older daughter was five and her sister was three months old, I took them over for the parade. As I walked up to the back of the parade line with the five year old in her devil costume and the baby in her stroller wearing a little leopard suit, a man rushed over to hand my older daughter a tootsie roll lollipop. As I was instructing her to say “thank you,” the man stuck out his hand to me, said “Tom Davis,” shook hands, and ran off after other five-year-olds to give tootsie roll pops to.
Tom Davis was the Republican member of the House of Representatives for our district. He had come to our parade with two campaign workers, one dressed in a friendly-looking elephant costume and one in plain clothes. Their job was to follow Davis around carrying baskets of tootsie roll pops, constantly replenishing his supply so that he had four or five in his hands at all times.
As the parade began, I watched Davis as he literally ran after three-, four-, and five-year-olds thrusting tootsie roll pops into their hands. He did this for several minutes until, looking around for any munchkin he may have missed, he declared, “Did everyone who needs a sucker get one?”
What Tom Davis Teaches Us About Politicians
Say what you will about politicians, they are not stupid people (or, at least, their political consultants are not). They would not spend their time chasing children in Halloween parades unless doing so produced votes. Political commentators, academics, and pundits can argue all they want to about the legitimate scope of government, the proper interpretation of the Constitution, or the effects of tax reductions or increases in the minimum wage.
There is no harm in their doing so as long as they do not start believing that these questions determine who gets elected.
The essential question in of any election is never what policy will produce the best outcomes, but what actions will produce the most votes. It doesn’t matter if Trump’s policy proposals are incoherent or internally inconsistent if he is taking the type of actions that influence people’s votes.
Personally, I will always be grateful to Tom Davis for coming to our Halloween parade. For he provided me with a useful image of the essence of democratic government; the image of a member of the House of Representatives attempting to buy votes with tootsie roll pops.