In Pursuit of Fiscal Unicorns

May 23, 2019
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Pollsters want to know: Would you like to make the world a better place and help plants, animals, and small children? How about a program to save the earth from imminent destruction that won’t really cost you anything, cuz it’s free?

I mean who wouldn’t? And why wouldn’t progressives in places like Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. think they are massive political winners?

All we need is a Fiscal Unicorn –a magical source of cash that makes the desired object – universal child care, health care, and Green New Deals – pain free. The national debt now tops $22 trillion, but we live in an age that is more than willing to suspend disbelief and mathematics alike.

Unfortunately, delusional politics occasionally bumps up rudely against reality, and the results are often unpretty. A case in point: the Australian elections, where the Labor party was universally expected to sweep into power, only be stunned when the center-right staged an improbable upset.

The Labor Party and its supporters were absolutely convinced that voters would embrace higher taxes and its radical climate change agenda. Commentary’s Noah Rothman noted:

Labor’s educated, well-to-do voters were responsive to a radical reduction in carbon emissions that was projected to cost the country up to 167,000 jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars, but the party’s working-class voters weren’t sold. It was their jobs that were on the chopping block, after all. But why didn’t the polling reflect this trepidation? What happened to the consensus around both the threat posed by climate change and the need for dramatic reforms to stave off the worst? Maybe it never existed in the first place.

There was a rather important lesson here: Climate change works as a conceptual issue, but when voters find out the price tag, support craters. Saving the planet is a political winner until blue collar workers find out that a radical plan will kill their jobs. People take these things personally.

Mitch McConnell understands this. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and her supporters do not, in part because they tell themselves stories about unicorns.

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Like the Australian Laborites, some Democrats have convinced themselves that ideas like Green New Deal —even with its massive economic and financial disruptions—are quite popular. Naturally, they have polls to back them up. Sort of.

One widely cited poll conducted by a team of professors at George Mason and Yale claimed that more than 80 percent of the public supported the Green New Deal. But as the conservative American Institute for Economic research noted, the survey was basically a push poll.

Before asking respondents about the GND, the pollsters read them a “glowing paragraph-length synopsis that touted the proposition’s fantastical claims.”

Some members of Congress are proposing a “Green New Deal” for the U.S. They say that a Green New Deal will produce jobs and strengthen America’s economy by accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy. The Deal would generate 100% of the nation’s electricity from clean, renewable sources within the next 10 years; upgrade the nation’s energy grid, buildings, and transportation infrastructure; increase energy efficiency; invest in green technology research and development; and provide training for jobs in the new green economy.

Not surprisingly four out of five respondents wanted to sign on to all that good stuff. (They were not told about the massive price tag, the proposals to phase out some air travel, or the plan to renovate every building in America to meet new energy-efficiency rules.)

In March, Sean McElwee, co-founder of the progressive think tank Data for Progress, again assured the readers of theNew York Times that “People Actually Like the Green New Deal.” He explained his group’s polling:

In our latest polling with Civis Analytics, a data science firm founded by alumni of the Obama campaign, we informed respondents that the Green New Deal is a Democratic proposal. Voters were told that the Green New Deal would “phase out the use of fossil fuels, with the government providing clean energy jobs for people who can’t find employment in the private sector. All jobs would pay at least $15 an hour, include health care benefits and collective bargaining rights.” Many commentators have argued that the Green New Deal would become unpopular when voters were informed of the cost, so we added that the plan would “be paid for by raising taxes on incomes over $200,000 dollars a year by 15 percentage points.”

The pollsters also offered some counter-arguments, but you can see where this is going:

In Colorado, Cory Gardner’s state, 60 percent of likely voters supported the Green New Deal, and in North Carolina, Thom Tillis’s state, 56 percent did. In Maine, where Susan Collins is likely to face a tough re-election battle, 57 percent of likely voters supported the Green New Deal and in Iowa, a wind-heavy state where Democrats hope to pick up a Senate seat, 54 percent did.

National Review’s Kevin Williamson was moved to point out that “the fact that bullsh** polls well does not make it non-bullsh**…

It matters how you phrase the question. “Lots of nice stuff at no cost to me? Awesome!” Vs. “Turn over much of the productive capacity of the U.S. economy to the management of a half-educated bartender from New York …

And here we get the political reality check. In a political campaign, advocates are not going to be allowed to frame their ideas without a counter-argument. Free health care will poll well, but how will voters react when they find it will cost $32 trillion and destroy the private insurance market?


This brings us back Down Under. The split over climate change was only one aspect of the dilemma the left faces in Australia and throughout the West. Quillette’s Claire Lehmann breaks it down:

Picture a dinner party where half the guests are university graduates with prestigious white-collar jobs, with the other half consisting of people who are trade workers, barmaids, cleaners and labourers. While one side of the table trades racy jokes and uninhibited banter, the other half tut-tuts this “problematic” discourse.

That’s essentially the base of mainstream progressive parties—in Australia as well as the U.K. and the U.S. The problem, Lehmann notes, is that “they have increasingly divergent attitudes and interests—even if champagne socialists paper over these differences with airy slogans about allyship and solidarity.”

Progressive politicians like to assume that, on election day at least, blue-collar workers and urban progressives will bridge their differences, and make common cause to support leftist economic policies. This assumption might once have been warranted. But it certainly isn’t now—in large part because the intellectuals, activists and media pundits who present the most visible face of modern leftism are the same people openly attacking the values and cultural tastes of working and middle-class voters.

When those divisions extend to basic pocketbook issues and massive job losses, you have the makings of an electoral disaster. So far, Lehmann writes, “No centre-left party in the Anglosphere has adapted to the ongoing class realignment,” except to attribute their losses to xenophobia, racism, or voter ignorance.

She warns progressives that unless they find “a way out of this endless loop of toxic pre-election posturing and post-election blame-shifting,” there will be more shocks ahead, especially when voters realize that unicorns are magicalbut purely imaginarycreatures.

Charles Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.