David Brooks: Voters want change, but what kind of change?

Trump’s lead in swing states points to voters’ angry nostalgia to return things to their liking.

By David Brooks / The New York Times

What do American voters want? The latest New York Times/Siena polls of swing states offer some confusing evidence on this point. Some of the polling results suggest that Americans are in a revolutionary frame of mind: If you ask whether the political and economic system needs major changes, 69 percent say it either needs major changes or should be entirely torn down.

On the other hand, when the pollsters gave voters a choice between a candidate who would bring the country back to normal and one who would bring major changes, 51 percent said they would prefer the back-to-normal candidate and only 40 percent would prefer the major-changes candidate.

So which is it? Is 2024 a change election in which people want someone who will shake things up, or is this a stability election in which people are going to vote for the candidate of order over the candidate of chaos?

Well, different voters want different things. But if I had to write a single sentence that reconciled these diverse findings, it would be this: The people who run America’s systems have led the country seriously astray; we need a president who will shake things up and return the country back to normal.

When they hear “systems,” I assume voters are thinking of the network of institutions run by America’s elite: corporations, governing agencies, higher education, the news media and so on. If voters believe one thing about Donald Trump it’s that he’s against these systems and these systems are against him.

Voters clearly see President Joe Biden implicated in these systems. The heart of Biden’s problem heaves into view when you ask people which candidate will bring about change. Seventy percent of voters believe that Trump would bring about major changes or tear down the system entirely if elected. Yet 71 percent of voters believe that little or nothing would change if Biden is reelected.

In other words, the evidence suggests that the swing voter wants reactionary change, not revolutionary change. The mood suggested by the evidence is angry nostalgia. That would be my explanation for why Trump is so convincingly ahead in most of the swing states.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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