Why Trump Won:
The limited shelf life of governments and Obama’s ideological overreach
Professor of Economics (Emeritus)
Simon Fraser University
If you are not fed up with the repetitive and self-reinforcing flood of pundits’ explanations on why Trump won, you may want to read my own two explanations that are different from the ones in the main media.
My first explanation involves a powerful law of politics: Governments have a limited shelf-life because their appeal to the public inevitably deteriorates with time, much like that of food on grocery shelves. In politics this deterioration is driven by the fact that every policy a government adopts makes some voters unhappy whiles another set of voters becomes unhappy because the government did not pass policies they had wanted.
Through time these two sets of disgruntled voters grow inexorably and after eight years typically their numbers have become so large that they determine the outcome of elections. This explains why since 1981, every eight years Americans switched between the election of Republican and Democratic Presidents. The only exception occurred when in 1989 Republican President George Bush Senior followed the Republican President Ronald Reagan, which might be considered evidence of the working of the law of limited shelf-life.
The existence of large pools of disgruntled voters every eight years suggests that the optimum strategy of candidates for election is to have their campaign platforms dominated by the promise of change, which captures the support of voters disgruntled by policies adopted by the past president and of voters who expect to see their preferred policies enacted by the next. This strategy was successfully used by candidates Barack Obama’s with his slogan “hope and change” and Donald Trump’s with his slogan “complete change”. To her disadvantage, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton could not use this strategy because she had to support the Obama policies she had helped to create as an administration insider.
The second reason for Trump’s win involves what Charles Krauthammer considered to be “the most overlooked factor in the election”: the historic and never ending battle between the political right and left in which “Obama overreached ideologically”. The American system of governance has prevented presidents from moving the lines of battle too much, even as it has moved through time in small incremental steps to the ideological left.
Obama’s overreach involved the pursuit of policies in the tradition of the political left, which sees a large role for governments in the fields of national health care, climate change, foreign policy, income redistribution, immigration and strengthening the rights of minorities. The evidence that these policies represented an ideological overreach is found in the fact that starting in 2012, four years after Obama took office, every election brought to Washington more Republicans who had campaigned on the promise that they would stop these policies, which ultimately led to Republican majorities in both Houses of Congress.
Obama disregarded the signal these election results had sent and pressed ahead with his legislative agenda with few changes or compromises, forcing Congress to prevent the passage of most of his legislation and producing the infamous Washington stalemate. Obama responded by using executive orders to advance his agenda.
The American public became increasingly more angered by Washington’s left politics that they believed caused unemployment, kept down wages, worsened domestic and foreign security and interfered with their traditional cultural and religious practices. Shortly before the election, the loss of employment in coal-producing industries and regions and increases in medical insurance premiums effectively reminded voters of this problem while large numbers of voters dealt daily with the annoying and costly regulations affecting their work on farms, as fishermen, in financial institutions, doctors’ offices, hospitals, schools, accounting offices, manufacturing and many other forms of employment.
Trump’s appeal to voters was due to his promise to end the Obama’s ideological overreach by dealing harshly with the Washington establishment, which had failed to respond to the message the voters had sent through the election of a Republican majority of Congress. Clinton lost because she had no choice but to promise continuation of the hated Obama policies. She was part of the establishment that had created them, as Obama reminded voters throughout the campaign.
In sum, Clinton lost in spite of Trump’s confrontational and politically incorrect campaign and style resented by many voters simply because she could not overcome the law of limited shelf-life of governments and the widespread resentment caused by Obama’s ideological overreach.