The voters, especially on the Republican side, seem to be despising experience this year and are looking for outsiders. Hence we have the rise of Donald Trump and Ben Carson. People like me keep predicting that these implausibles will collapse, but so far, as someone tweeted, they keep collapsing upward.
But imagine if we had a sensible Trump in the race. Suppose there was some former general or business leader with impeccable outsider status but also a steady temperament, deep knowledge and good sense.
What would that person sound like? Maybe something like this:
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m no politician. I’m just a boring guy who knows how to run things. But I’ve been paying close attention, and it seems to me that of all the problems that face the nation, two stand out. The first is that we have a polarized, dysfunctional, semi-corrupt political culture that prevents us from getting anything done. To reverse that gridlock, we’ve got to find some policy area where there’s a basis for bipartisan action.
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The second big problem is that things are going badly for those in the lower half of the income distribution. People with less education are seeing their wages fall, their men drop out of the labor force, their marriage rates plummet and their social networks dissolve.
The first piece of good news is that conservative and progressive writers see this reality similarly, which is a rare thing these days. The second piece of good news is that we have new research that suggests fresh ways to address this problem, ways that may appeal to both Democrats and Republicans.
The studies I’m talking about were done at Harvard by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren and Lawrence Katz. They looked at the results of a Clinton-era program called Moving to Opportunity, which took poor families and moved them to middle-class neighborhoods. At first, the results were disappointing. The families who moved didn’t see their earnings rise. Their kids didn’t do much better in school.
But as years went by and newer data accumulated, different and more promising results came in. Children who were raised in better environments had remarkable earnings gains. The girls raised in the better neighborhoods were more likely to marry and raise their own children in two-parent homes.
The first implication of this research is that neighborhood matters a lot. When we think about ways to improve the lot of the working class, it’s insufficient to just help individuals and families. We have to improve entire neighborhoods.
Second, the research reminds us that to improve conditions for the working class it’s necessary to both create jobs and improve culture. Every time conservatives say culture plays a large role in limiting mobility, progressives accuse them of blaming the victim.
But this research shows the importance of environment. The younger the children were when they moved to these middle-class environments, the more their outcomes improved. It’s likely they benefited from being in environments with different norms, with more information about how to thrive, with few traumatic events down the block.
I know the professional politicians are going to want to continue their wars, but I see an opportunity: We launch a series of initiatives to create environments of opportunity in middle-, working- and lower-class neighborhoods.
This will mean doing some things Republicans like. We’ve got to devolve a lot of power from Washington back to local communities. These neighborhoods can’t thrive if they are not responsible for themselves. Then we’ve got to expand charter schools. The best charter schools radiate diverse but strong cultures of achievement. Locally administered social entrepreneurship funds could help churches and other groups expand their influence.
This will mean doing some things Democrats like. We’ve got to reform and expand early childhood education programs, complete with wraparound programs for parents. They would turn into community hubs. Infrastructure programs could increase employment.
Basically we’ve got to get socialist. No, I don’t mean the way Bernie Sanders is a socialist. He’s a statist, not a socialist. I mean we have to put the quality of the social fabric at the center of our politics. And we’ve got to get personalist: to treat people as full human beings, not just economic units you fix by writing checks.
Then we’ve got to get integrationist, to integrate different races and classes through national service and school and relocation vouchers. And finally, we have to get a little moralistic. There are certain patterns of behavior, like marrying before you have kids and sticking around to parent the kids you conceive, that contribute to better communities.
Look, I don’t know if I’m red or blue. If you want a true outsider, don’t just pick someone outside the political system. Pick someone outside the rigid partisan mentalities that are the real problem here.
David Brooks is a columnist with the New York Times.