Democrats and Republicans are increasingly self-segregated and mutually disdainful, each camp deploying the furious language of victimhood to justify its fear and loathing of the gullible deplorables in the other. One side boycotts Chick-fil-A (over gay rights), Walmart (over sweatshops) and companies that do business with the National Rifle Association, while the other boycotts Nike (over Colin Kaepernick), Starbucks (over refugees, gay marriage and non-Christmas-specific holiday cups) and companies that stop doing business with the NRA. We live in an era of performative umbrage. Every day is Festivus, a ritual airing of our grievances about Kathy Griffin, Roseanne Barr, fake news, toxic masculinity and those fancy coffee machines that Sean Hannity’s viewers decided to destroy for some reason. Every decision about where to shop or what to drive or what to watch is now an opportunity to express our political identities.
Policy skirmishes tend to metastasize into cultural battles when they involve identity issues, and after spending time on the campaign trail recently, I got the sense the next big Republican culture war will be a war on college. For generations, the notion of higher education as a ladder of opportunity for everyone has been an anodyne nonpartisan talking point, even if Democrats and Republicans disagreed on the appropriate levels of federal funding and regulation. But Republican attitudes are changing. In Ohio, I heard them talk about taxpayer-funded school bureaucrats who trick kids into believing that expensive and often useless liberal-indoctrination universities are the only way to get ahead in life; siphoning students away from vocational programs that could prepare them for well-paying jobs.
It’s probably not a coincidence that this shift is happening at a time when college-educated voters are trending Democratic and noncollege whites have been Trump’s most reliable constituency. Policies that hurt colleges, like policies that hurt cities, are policies that hurt Democrats. To listen to pols talk about college these days is to watch a wedge issue in its embryonic stage, as substantive questions about the cost and relevance of higher ed, the burdens of student debt, the adequacy of worker training and the power of political correctness on campus start to morph into red-meat attacks on pointy-headed elitists who look down on ironworkers and brainwash America’s youth. Republicans are starting to fit the Democratic push for universal free college into their larger critique of the Democratic urge to hand out free stuff to Democratic voters. And they’re portraying a liberal arts education as a culturally liberal thing, like kale or Kwanzaa or reusable shopping bags.
Renacci’s event was supposed to be about trade, but none of the local farmers expressed any concern about the beating they’re taking from Trump’s trade war. What they expressed concern about was illegal immigrants who commit crimes and demand handouts; the deep state; Democrats who want to steal from Medicare to fund Obamacare; and Antifa thugs. Even though their party controls Washington and Columbus, they believe they’re under siege; one 60-something farmer told me he’s afraid to speak out because “radical Democrats will burn your house down.” When I said that seemed unlikely in the rural expanses of Ashtabula County, he said I should check out the angry leftist millennials he’s seen when he’s visited the Ohio State campus, “wearing boots and backpacks and shouting stupid slogans.” I asked him whether he supports government spending on higher education for those millennials, and he shot back: “I’ll tell you what I don’t support: free college for illegals and higher taxes for me.”
But modern politics isn’t about these nuances of policy substance. It isn’t evidence-based. The debate over immigration isn’t really about measured wage effects or growth effects; it’s about whether a diverse America is the “real” one, and whether nonwhite newcomers make the country great. The Trump fans who came to see Renacci in Ashtabula County didn’t care any more about the details of higher education studies than they cared about the details of Paul Manafort’s guilty plea or our trade deficit with Canada. (It’s actually a surplus, a fact that will change approximately zero minds about Trump’s trade rhetoric.) The signal of substance breaks through the noise of politics so rarely that the noise has become the signal.
Where you stand—on questions of whether to believe Kavanaugh’s accusers and whether there was any collusion with Russia, as well as questions about corporate tax rates or lifetime insurance caps—depends almost entirely on where you sit. Deficits are bad when your team is in charge, benign when my team is in charge. I’m being denied due process by a witch hunt, but you belong in jail. I’m no puppet; you’re the puppet.