Will Trump Dare to Tackle Welfare Entitlements?

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Donald Trump at Snap-On Inc, a tool manufacturer, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, April 18, 2017. Bruce Thornton writes that reforming entitlements seldom is seriously attempted or even discussed because the people will punish any politician doing so. Nothing Trump has said so far indicates that he will attempt serious entitlement reform or debt reduction. Kevin Lamarque/reuters

This article first appeared on the Hoover Institution site.

The unexpected election of Donald Trump as president, along with the Republican control of Congress, suggests that a new political era may be dawning. After all, the progressive domination of the culture, schools, media and the federal government lay behind Trump’s populist appeal.

His attacks on political correctness, the left’s control of education, the over-regulated economy and an ideologically biased media resonated with voters in critical states that gave him his Electoral College victory.

Is this rejection of the progressive Democrat paradigm the beginning of its end, or is it a cyclic shift reflecting a particular moment in political history rather than an enduring transformation?

Those who believe that the change may be lasting can point to evidence suggesting that progressivism may have entered its dotage. The stock market has risen over ten percent since election day, reflecting optimism about the country’s economic future, confidence in Trump’s promises to reform corporate taxes and hope that his executive orders paring back federal regulations will bear fruit.

He has continued his battle against mainstream media outlets like CNN and The New York Times , calling them (among other things) the “enemy of the people” and ignoring their accustomed privilege to be called on first during press conferences.

And though his executive order restricting immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries has been blocked by federal judges, his policy is supported by 53 percent of Americans, according to a Harvard-Harris survey. The same poll finds 80 percent of Americans are opposed to sanctuary cities, which Trump has pledged to deprive of federal funds, and 75 percent want stronger border patrols.

Polls do continue to show that more Americans disapprove of Trump than approve. But two national midterm elections (2010 and 2014) before 2016, one of which gave the House to Republicans, the other the Senate, suggest that voters started preferring Republican policies well before Trump, and turned to the New York billionaire in spite of any reservations about his brash personality or lack of government service.

Yes, Hillary Clinton may have won the popular vote by almost three million votes, but that margin can be more than accounted for by her four-million-vote margin in deep-blue California. In contrast, nationally, Trump won about 2,600 counties, compared to Clinton’s 489.

Today Republicans control almost 4,170 state legislative seats, an increase of 1,000 since 2009. Sixty-eight of the 99 state legislatures are controlled by Republicans, and there are 33 Republican governors of states comprising 60 percent of the U.S. population—12 governors more than when Barack Obama was inaugurated.

Related: Why Are Republicans Backing Single-Payer Health Care?

By the end of Obama's presidency, Democrats had lost 13 Senate seats and 63 House seats. And more Americans continue to identify as conservative (36 percent) than as liberal (25 percent).

This Republican dominance of national and state government appears to represent a sea-change in national political preferences. And the behavior of the media and progressive Democrats since the election adds even more support for conservative optimism.

Despite the repudiation of the Obama presidency, the Democrats are moving even further left, doubling down on the very policies that lost them the White House and Congress in 2016.

The hysteria and rage of disappointed Hillary Clinton supporters, the Senate Democrats’ attempts to obstruct Trump’s cabinet appointments, and the raucous protests and even riots weeks after the election have confirmed for many Americans that Democrats are now the party of the extreme left.

Vice President Mike Pence was booed by the audience of a Broadway play. Anarchists abetted by “peaceful protestors” rioted at the University of California’s Berkeley campus to shut down Milo Yiannopoulos, a gay libertarian speaker.

Representative Keith Ellison, who was a leading candidate for chairman of the Democrat National Committee, has already called for Trump’s impeachment. And toxic garbage was intentionally left behind by those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in the service, we are told, of the environment.  

Americans have daily witnessed on their televisions similar displays showing that the Democratic Party, in thrall to its activist base and plutocrat donors, is out of touch with moderate voters, and has surrendered its party to the Bernie Sanders wing that demands bigger government, divisive identity politics and relentless political correctness.

With 35 percent of Americans identifying as conservative and 34 percent as moderate, the Democratic Party will be hard-pressed to connect with nearly 70 percent of voters without alienating its left-wing base.

Despite these favorable portents of Republican dominance, however, there are many reasons why the Trump presidency may not mark the end of technocratic Big Government and spark a return to fiscal prudence and the limited government of the Constitution.

The unaccountable 2.6 million-strong employees of the federal bureaucracy—which comprises hundreds of bureaus, offices, councils, commissions, and agencies—are not going to be checked just by Trump’s hiring freeze, any more than it was by Ronald Reagan’s in 1981.

Federal workers enjoy civil service and union protections from dismissal and, according to one analysis of government data, their package of compensation and benefits is 78 percent higher than those of private-sector employees. They form a powerful political lobby that in 2016 gave 95 percent of its political contributions to Hillary Clinton.

Moreover, some federal workers can subvert or undermine the policies of the elected officials, who are actually accountable to the voters and the Constitution.

In recent weeks, intelligence agencies’ employees have leaked classified information to the press in order to embarrass Donald Trump and bring down his National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (who, it should be said, did himself no favors). And EPA scientists have been caught strategizing about how to slow-walk Trump’s policy changes. Reforming these agencies will require legislation from Congress that changes civil service rules and makes it easier to fire disloyal or recalcitrant executive agency employees.

But rolling back the scope of the progressive “deep state” would require surmounting another major obstacle: the legal battles sure to be waged by state governments, the 22 Democratic state Attorneys General, and private progressive organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center. And their efforts can rely on hundreds of federal judges sympathetic to their cause.

Related: The Hidden Costs the Rest of Us Pay for Illegal Immigration

Trump’s stillborn executive order restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries was blocked by several federal judges, one of whom had his decision confirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, with amicus briefs filed by 18 state Attorneys General. One can imagine swarms of such suits and rulings in the coming months, impeding Trump’s attempts to rein in the federal leviathan.

And even after his nominee for the Supreme Court is confirmed, the time it takes for these cases to wend their way through the appeals process can slow to a crawl the needed corrections, assuming the Court even hears such cases.

There’s also the hostility of the mainstream media, the entertainment industry and the academic establishment, which will remain a chronic impediment to change.

Political correctness and progressivism are deeply rooted in our social institutions, especially the schools that shape the minds of the young and influence the wider culture. It’s not just that progressives dominate the higher education faculty; standing behind every “snowflake” college student decrying “micro-aggressions” and every college program and department promoting a balkanizing politics of identity are numerous federal laws backed by the coercive and investigative powers of federal agencies.

The biggest challenge, however, to Trump’s agenda of change includes one problem that no one addressed during the election or has mentioned since––the mandatory spending on debt service and entitlement programs, which, by as soon as 2024, will reach 63 percent of the entire budget.

By that same year, the budget deficit is on track to increase 151 percent, from $486 billion in 2014 to $1.27 trillion. Just boosting economic growth, as Trump has promised, will not alone be enough to forestall a fiscal crisis.

Without significant reforms of the three fastest-growing entitlement programs––Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security––our economy will be seriously damaged, with political fall-out impossible to predict.

Add in the economic impact of $5.6 trillion in underfunded state government pensions, large numbers of working-age people dropping out of the labor force and subsisting on government transfers and the likely increases in the cost of servicing our near-$20 trillion national debt and today’s quarrels over political correctness or biased media will seem like luxuries from a lost Golden Age.

The ultimate arbiter of political success and failure is the American electorate, as the Democrats have recently learned. Reforming entitlements seldom is seriously attempted or even discussed because the people will punish any politician doing so.

The redistributionist state is the progressives’ political trump card, for once a democratic people “have become accustomed to feed at the expense of others,” as Greek historian Polybius wrote 2,100 years ago, “and their prospects of winning a livelihood depend on the property of their neighbors,” whatever their party, they will demand leaders who continue to redistribute wealth to them. And that party historically has been the Democrats.

Breaking the habit of getting something for nothing is one of the hardest political chores for any president or congressman, and nothing Trump has said so far indicates that he will attempt serious entitlement reform or debt reduction. And that means the redistributionist Big-Government is here to stay.  

Bruce S. Thornton is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.