Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's transition from state to federal politics has been bumpy, but it is indicative of broader social trends. Walker seems to have a firm grasp of the opinions and priorities of the median Wisconsin voter on state-level issues, but has seemed terribly confused about what Americans want on federal issues. The cause of that confusion might have less to do with Walker's idiosyncrasies than with the divergence of elite America from wage-earning America.
In his book Coming Apart, Charles Murray wrote that, in recent decades, America's elites have tended to isolate themselves from the rest of the country. “This growing isolation,” he warned, “has been accompanied by a growing ignorance about the country over which they have so much power.” Does Scott Walker resemble that remark?
Often he doesn't. Walker's record indicates he understands the concerns of home owners (many of them non-elite) who are worried about property taxes and parents who are concerned that their schools should be both high quality and affordable. His sense of public opinion gets shaky when he has to deal with issues outside of his immediate experience in state and local government.
Walker's 2013 interview with the Wausau Daily Herald has received some notoriety for his stated support of a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, but another part of the interview is more interesting for what it tells us about Walker's beliefs and how Walker sees American public opinion. Walker said:
You hear some people talk about border security, and a wall, and all that. To me, I don't know that you need any of that if you had a better, saner way to let people into the country in the first place.
The first point to note is that Walker does not sound like your typical Republican amnesty shill. The shills have made a study of public opinion on immigration and know the weaknesses of their position. The shills talk up the need for strong border enforcement, and try to avoid mentioning that the enforcement is supposed to start sometime after the unauthorized immigrants gain legal status (and are possibly never implemented at all.) The shills usually try to avoid publicly volunteering the information that they favor large increases in legal low-skill immigration.
In his contempt for any kind of immigration enforcement, and his seeming support for unlimited future low-skill immigration, Walker sounds like a guy who thinks he is stating uncontroversial opinions. Walker seems to assume that most people—and all good people—already agree with him.
Walker has since learned that most people actually favor increased immigration enforcement and are opposed to increasing low-skill immigration. Walker has embraced immigration enforcement and restriction with all the grace and sincerity of a man who has been stranded among a primitive tribe that is forcing him to participate in ritual cannibalism.
How could Walker be so uncomprehending of public opinion on immigration? One suggestion might be that Walker, when it comes to immigration policy, has lived in a bubble. While most Americans might oppose increased low-skill, legal immigration, there are pockets of America where scorning immigration enforcement counts as moderation. This is the same pocket of America whose members can demand increases in low-skill guest workers in the construction industry because America's current population of low-skill workers “can't cut it.”
Conservative critics of Washington-style immigration reform often decry the influence of billionaires who favor increased low-skill immigration, but we should be open to the possibility that the greatest source of business influence over establishment Republican politicians is exercised not by the raw power of billionaires, but by the accumulated social pressure of thousands of executives and business owners.
These are the people that Walker would have met in Wisconsin who were telling him that they were having trouble finding reliable workers at an affordable price. These people were not in some billionaire club. They were more likely to be members of the local Chamber of Commerce and activists who supported Walker during the public employee union-led attempt to recall him. These are, as Hillary Clinton might call them, everyday people, but they are an unrepresentative subset of everyday people.
This gets at another pattern noticed by Charles Murray. Over the last forty years, non-elite Americans have become less civically involved. They are less likely to be part of mass membership organizations than in earlier generations. This tendency toward what Murray called “community isolates” weakens the ability of people to work together and influence politicians between elections. Business owners have lobbyists, but perhaps an even bigger advantage is their network of local organizations that can mobilize their members between elections.
That might be the real source of strength of the Republican business class. More than the lobbyists and the campaign contributions, it might be the ability of the business community to act like . . . a community. That makes them visible to politicians, and this visibility influences the beliefs of those politicians as much by socialization as by direct pressure.
This organizational strength of the business community (and the relative scarcity of social capital among other segments of the population) has drawbacks for the GOP. When the priorities of the mass of Republican voters (and voters generally) diverge from that of the business community, establishment Republicans will often be the last to know. Maybe it is not too late for Scott Walker's presidential ambitions. Maybe he can learn more about the preferences and priorities of the rest of America. Maybe the rest of the political class can learn from Walker's troubles, and leave their bubbles.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.