Global Policy Studies & International Security LBJ School Politics and Governance University of Texas at Austin

The Policy Student’s Approach for Defending Progress in the Trump Era

Photo: Paul Kuhne

Last fall, I decided to quit my full-time job and apply to policy school. After some consideration, I enrolled at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs as a candidate in Global Policy Studies. I had two reasons for attending LBJ. First, I believe in the values that LBJ espoused and his roadmap to achieving them. LBJ dedicated his life to public service, delivered programs that matched his promises and cemented the liberal tradition in the United States.

The second reason I chose Texas was to understand the nuts and bolts of policy. While my progressive outlook is sometimes at odds with my more conservative classmates, we all unite behind the school’s mission of “providing educational opportunities grounded in theory, ethics, analytical skills and practice.” We train to become well-versed in developing, evaluating and modifying policy at all levels of government. Our efforts are guided by a faith in evidence-based decision making and fact-driven evaluation.

The stark divide in the 2016 presidential election was not one of ideology but one of impulse. Trump and Clinton differed less on conservatism and progressivism, and more on emotion and evidence. Moreover, few pundits and journalists predicted the outcome. In the days leading up to the election, The New York Times, CNN and even Nate Silver’s infallible FiveThirtyEight pegged Hillary Clinton as the clear winner with a 71.4% chance of victory. Beltway politicians framed her as the qualified policy wonk who would get things done for the American people.

Trump’s victory was a twofold blow. The first jab was the upset victory by a fearmongering nationalist who trafficked in narcissism and tweeted in absolutes. The second blow, however, stung more: Despite the trending dismissal of facts and information, Trump’s victory represented the triumph of emotion over truth. As the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump has made emotionalism the order of the day.

But the chants of “Not My President” and comparisons to fascist dictators will not stop Paul Ryan from repealing Obamacare, nor will they halt the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Denigrating the new president won’t stop his controversial policies.

Despite our reluctance to engage Trump’s politics, we must exhaust every democratic channel, from petition to protest, to stop his agenda. And we must take the high road of evidence-based decision-making and safeguard progress through policy. Matthew Yglesias, in his Vox piece “The case for normalizing Trump,” argues that populist blowhards derive their strength from a media that convulses with every shocking soundbite. Rather than evaluate the effects of legislation on everyday Americans, the media focus on each inflammatory tweet. Yglesias says “progressives will need to do as much as they can to get American politics out of reality show mode.” In other words, turn off CNN and get to work.

While the symbolic emotionalism of the presidency is undeniable, the practical impact of policy often diverges from stump speeches. Symbolic rhetoric can provide hope or instill fear, but policy decisions terminate healthcare, separate families and construct walls. Obama inspired countless Americans but never championed a comprehensive progressive agenda like The Great Society. After all, under Obama wealth inequality widened between African-Americans and Whites, poverty rates remain high, and more undocumented migrants were deported than under Bush.

Progressives must frame Trump’s presidency as conservative politics rather than authoritarian demagoguery. And we must expend our energy evaluating Trump’s policies rather than Trump himself, in three ways:

First, pick your battles. Examine the website and dissect the vision that is currently advancing through Congress. Make a list of expected policy actions from the Trump administration and order it from most destructive proposals to least. These policy proposals will vary based on your personal connection to the issue, but you can overcome the tyranny of choice by targeting two to three key causes.

Second, based on your policy interests, invest your resources into a specific advocacy organization that is already addressing your issue. Consult websites like TheSixtyFive, Indivisible or the ACLU for their weekly calls to action and practical tips for involvement. From phone calls to petitions, these sites offer concrete steps to stall or advance your chosen issue.

Finally, and perhaps most important, cross the emotional divide and speak with those in your networks that supported Trump. And do so outside of the echo chambers of Facebook or Twitter. From family members to former colleagues, more than 60 million people voted for President Trump. Our continued rage hinders the possibility of dialogue and furthers polarization. Substantive conversations will help reduce the lingering resentment that has kept us apart and help us find common ground. Finding common ground is the first real step to reclaiming the high ground of truth and reducing the influence of emotion.

While anger can catalyze action, it can also paralyze it. It is incumbent upon us to channel this resentment towards evaluating evidence, building movements, and investing in our institutions. From the riots of LBJ’s presidency to the scandals of the Nixon administration, the American people remained resilient in the face of instability. As LBJ famously said, “Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose.”

Edited by: Mary Vo

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