I’ve been fortunate this week to spend time in Washington, D.C.. with a delegation of community leaders from the Salt Lake Chamber. The Chamber puts on an amazing program, including face time with each member of the Utah congressional delegation, Gov. Gary Herbert, cybersecurity experts, the speaker of the House, prominent senators, and a leading pollster. There were several thought jewels shared for those interested in politics and public policy. I thought I’d share a few.
I learned a new word from the U.S. Chamber’s man on the hill, Bruce Josten. After characterizing the 2016 election as a campaign between the untrusted and the unstable, he pointed out the Greeks have a word for this sort of government. They call it a kakistocracy, a government run by the least qualified and most unprincipled citizens. No wonder he suggested at the beginning of his remarks that we may want to have antacids on hand. Candidly, I don’t think it’s quite this bad, but I found the word descriptive.
While Josten, a 40-plus-year veteran of Capitol Hill, can spew out a litany of facts, figures and opinions about public policy and politics, he delivered a chilling warning to the Republican Party. He compared the demographics of the Grand Old Party to the customer base of a Cadillac dealership. The GOP is increasingly old, white and getting older. Meanwhile, according to Josten, the Democratic Party is becoming younger and more diverse. He acknowledged both parties have their problems, but if you believe the wisdom that “demographics is destiny” the Republican Party must change.
A pollster from Luntz Global shared insights about the mood of the electorate. He confirmed what we already know; this is a bitter, nasty, and negative election. He said, “We hear, again and again, anger.” One of the phrases in messaging that polls best in their research is “paycheck-to-paycheck,” which is a sobering thought. He said the difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is that people trust Trump more. Another sobering thought.
Speaker Paul Ryan was in his typical tip-top shape. Without a hitch he referred to Utah’s federal delegation by name, shared his thoughts on Utah’s sage grouse controversy, showed his policy depth on trade agreements, and called upon a Utah business leader by his first name. This guy is good. Beyond the niceties, what he really wanted to talk about was changing his party from the party of opposition to a party of proposition. He laid out his plans, packaged as “A Better Way,” to reduce poverty, restore the military, reform the tax and regulatory systems and replace Obamacare. His vision for a confident America remains one of our nation’s great hopes. We are going to hear more from this guy in coming years.
The quote of the week came from Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. He said, “Politicians don’t start parades. They find them, run up front and march in them.” His point? Politicians are a reflection of the people they serve. When we are angry, they are angry. When we are fearful, they play off that fear. The mood of the presidential election was not imposed on us ... it is us ... a divided country that distrusts its government.
The great thing about Brooks is he has ideas about how to fix problems. He has made two commitments — one philosophical and one rhetorical — to solve our nation’s problems. His philosophical commitment stems from a lesson he learned from the Dalai Lama. His Holiness has admonished followers to always practice warm-heartedness. Brooks applies this to public policy by focusing on two words: dignity and potential. He strives to respect the human dignity and potential of all people. He then applies this practice to his discourse by turning anger into love and speaking with empathy. Now that’s a parade I’d love to march in.
I left Washington feeling alarmed about our politics and hopeful about our policies. We need to get past personality and division and move towards policy and unity. I’m not confident we can figure this out in the near term, but I remain hopeful over time.
Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.