what it means that people prefer a businessman to a politician for president

The contrast between Donald Trump the businessman and Hillary Clinton the politician has been underplayed (although not entirely overlooked) as an explanation of the 2016 election. I don’t interpret Americans’ admiration for business leaders as a preference for the market over the government, although that distinction might influence some people. Instead, evidence shows that many people dislike deliberation and compromise in politics. That stance is compatible with admiring a president who expands the government, as long as he acts like a private-sector boss.

In 1998 (when HRC was First Lady), John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse* found that most Americans didn’t rate their fellow citizens as informed or intelligent. They didn’t want to participate in government or politics, nor did they prefer a political system with much public involvement. They had few policy preferences, but they strongly disliked the people in charge of the government. They suspected political elites of selfish and greedy behavior. For instance, they thought that elected officials get rich from government service. They believed that the public had consensus on most issues, yet agreement was mysteriously absent in Congress. They interpreted elites’ disagreement as a sign of corruption. A majority of their respondents (about 70%) agreed with two or three of the following propositions, which qualified them as believers in what Hibbing and Theiss-Morse called “Stealth Democracy”:

  • “elected officials would help the country more if they would stop talking and just take action on important problems” (86% agree)
  • “what people call compromise in politics is really just selling out on one’s principles” (60%); and
  • “our government would run better if decisions were left up to nonelected, independent experts rather than politicians or the people” (31%) or “our government would run better if decisions were left up to successful business people” (32%)

Fifty percent wanted the government to be run more like a business. There was also considerable support for billionaires and technocratic experts, since neither could profit from their own decisions. In 1992 Harris Poll, 55% of respondents had agreed that Ross Perot wouldn’t be influenced by special interests because he was rich.

In their book, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse used a survey that’s now 19 years old. In 2009, Michael Neblo, Kevin Esterling, Ryan Kennedy, David Lazer, and Anand Sokhey challenged their findings empirically, but in 2015, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse repeated the analysis and connected it to the Trump campaign. Believers in what they called “Stealth Democracy” preferred Trump to Clinton by 38%-13%; people who disagreed with that view narrowly favored Clinton.

Trump is a perfect example of a leader who says he’ll “just take action,” in harmony with the consensus of all real Americans. Hillary Clinton exemplifies a politician who is good at compromise, who acknowledges disagreements and engages in debates–and who has become rich as a result of her political career.

I believe that people learn from experience that disagreement exists and compromise is necessary. They learn those truths by participating in diverse groups that can make consequential decisions. But the proportion of adult Americans who either attend weekly religious services or belong to a union has dropped by 21 points, from a majority of 55 percent in 1970 to a minority of 34 percent in 2012. The proportion of all Americans who serve on any local board had plummeted by 75% since the mid-1900s, due mostly to consolidation of governmental functions plus professionalization. Juries are also much less prevalent: 1 in 40 felony cases now goes to a jury trial, down from 1 in 12 as recently as the 1970s.

People still know how bosses operate in the private sector. But few know what it’s like to be democratic leaders, because few are allowed to play such roles locally. That’s a recipe for a rejection of democratic values.

*Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work (Cambridge University Press, 2002). I draw here from my own 2003 summary.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.