Understanding US politics circa 2017

Donald Trump's election last year was shocking and appalling to many people, me included. For the past year I have been reading up on American history in an attempt to understand what the hell happened. I now believe that 1) things are not as bad as they once seemed, and that 2) the next few years will be really interesting to watch. Here's why.

Let’s start with some history. In the study of American politics, there is a popular framework used to think about the various periods of US political history called “realignment theory.” My favorite version of this theory is Stephen Skowronek’s awesome analysis of presidential politics. In his analysis, there is in any given historical period a dominant orthodoxy. A reconstructive US president (think: Lincoln) articulates an orthodoxy and puts together a legislative coalition to enact a corresponding agenda. This orthodoxy dominates over the next decades and the corresponding coalition continues to legislate elaborations to this agenda. However, the orthodoxy eventually weakens in the face of escalating crises to which it has no response. When this happens, another enterprising reconstructive politician with an understanding of the demands of various political factions can articulate a new orthodoxy and build a new legislative coalition under that banner. Such a realignment inaugurates a new period of US political history.

In 1860, Lincoln rallied abolitionists, Whigs, and Northern laborers in opposition to the expansion of slavery, creating a governing industrialist coalition which lasted for 70 years. This industrialist coalition lost credibility in the face of the Great Depression. Amid this crisis, FDR assembled the New Deal coalition, consisting of unions, workers, minorities, farmers, white Southerners, and intellectuals, dedicated to expanding the provision of government assistance to the needy. This coalition was dominant until LBJ’s Civil Rights Act and the Vietnam War together sowed the seeds for the coalition’s dissolution. Then for almost forty years until today, the Reagan coalition, made up primarily of business interests and conservative middle/working class whites, rallied around lowered taxes and reducing the wastage of the welfare state.

Today the Reagan orthodoxy is slowly crumbling. In 2008, after the fiasco of the Iraq War and the Financial Crisis, Obama assembled a broad coalition which propelled him to the White House and gave him a supermajority in the Senate. It seemed as if the Republican Party was already in tatters and a new era of US political history was dawning. By 2010, however, Obama’s agenda was already held up by Republicans who had overwhelmingly retaken Congress, a sign that the Reagan coalition and orthodoxy still held considerable support. This Republican Congress opposed Obama’s agenda and sought to preserve Reagan’s orthodoxy, but had little ambition to enact any particular new legislative program. This resulted in the legislative gridlock of the past six years.

The lack of new ideas from conventional Republicans addressing the present and growing needs of voters gave Donald Trump an opening to hijack the Republican party nomination in the primary process by introducing ideas antithetical to Reaganite orthodoxy. The surprise return of Reagan coalition to power in 2016, now led by a non-Reaganite, is evidence both of the orthodoxy’s sustaining power as well as its now obvious internal tensions.

Now the belabored question must be belabored again: So why did Trump win?  Much ado has been made about the impact of fake news on the 2016 election outcome, which I think is a distraction. The Comey letters might have had an impact, but only because the media way overplayed its significance. Fundamentally, I think there are two related reasons Trump won: 1) Blue collar workers are really upset. 2) These Americans still believe in Jacksonian/Reaganite redemptive politics.

To the first reason first. The 2016 election, like many other US elections, can be understood from the viewpoint of good old demographics. In the preceding eight years, Obama’s administration had major legislative accomplishments for the poor (e.g. Obamacare) and for minorities (e.g. same sex marriage), but it also pursued policies such as immigration reform and free trade agreements that the working class disliked. These voters have experience two decades of misfortune — by which I mean the dramatic disappearance of manufacturing jobs due to the double whammy of China’s WTO ascension and the Great Recession (think: unemployment, broken families, opioids — see work by Autor et al.) , and no doubt felt left behind. Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump promised to remake America and bring back working class jobs. His rhetoric targeted this segment of White working poor voters who ready to be mobilized. This strategy paid off. Trump rode the excitement of these voters to capture the Republican nomination in the primary and then flipped key swing states in the industrial Mid-West during the general, giving him the presidency. This demographic story should be familiar if you’ve been reading the news for the past year. For example, the New York Times has some very helpful analysis of the election exit polls.

Source: NYTimes

Source: NYTimes

Now to the second (and more interesting, I think) way to understand the 2016 election. Consider the stark difference in style between the Obama/Clinton team and Trump campaign — really, the difference between the idea of the executive as a rational manager and the idea of transformative politics in the form of “Make America Great Again” and “Drain the Swamp.” These two competing visions represents a fundamental tension embedded in the current design of the federal government.

My favorite political scientist Stephen Skowronek had this to say:

Look, the 20th-century Progressives really screwed up the presidency in the sense that they envisioned every president as a transformative leader. So they instituted primary elections, which gave us these idiosyncratic presidential parties not beholden to any collective. Instead, they are personal organizations which feed this idea of transformational leadership. But at the same time, the Progressives rebuilt the government to create this enormous management apparatus we call the executive office of the president. So now we also expect the president to be a rational coordinator of institutions and actions throughout this massive federal government.

The problem is that those two functions don’t necessarily go together very well. How can you promise to shake the system up, to extricate the special interests and transform politics, while also being a responsible manager of the state? In the 2016 election, we saw a choice between candidates who were essentially caricatures of those two views. Hillary Clinton was all about competence and management and rational decision-making, while Trump was all about popular mobilization and disruption. We already know this doesn’t work. I don’t think we can take that rhetoric at face value. We need to look at what presidents mean by transformation. The closer you look at what Obama was proposing in 2008, we see that he meant was forgetting about transformation in the Jackson/Reagan mode and replacing it with a rational, problem-solving government.

Americans themselves hold these two conflicting expectations: they expect presidents to be transformative figures who shake things up, who redeem American values, and they expect their presidents at the same time to be responsible stewards of their affairs. Presidents need to be both, but you can’t do both well. This problem is not going to solve itself. Tensions between responsible management and transformation are getting more acute, not less so. Our desire to have both is tearing the country apart.

To sum up: In the 2016 election, the economic woes of those without college degrees played a pivotal role. That Trump rose to power with many anti-Reaganite policy proposals (e.g. protectionism, infrastructure investments, and even universal healthcare) also illustrates how Reaganite orthodoxy is slowly crumbling. However, Trump's victory also signals that many Americans still want Jacksonian/Reaganite redemptive politics and not Obama/Clinton pragmatic rationalism. Elements of Reaganite orthodoxy remains powerful in the imaginations of voters.

Now the bureaucracy rebels against Trump. It has now been more than five months since inauguration and Trump has no legislative accomplishments to show. Yes, Trump’s administration is slowly eroding the ability of various bureaucracy to function through budget cuts and vacant leadership position. However, Trump’s authoritarian inclinations have also been seriously checked by the bureaucracy through leaks and insubordination. Think of Sally Yates. Think of the Jim Comey saga, which culminated in a full week of bad press and the associated fall in Trump’s popular support, as well as the appointment of a special prosecutor investigating Trump and his campaign. This is a relief. There was rampant fear after the election, especially in liberal/progressive circles, that Trump will bring banana republic authoritarian politics to the United States and severely damage democratic institutions through power grabs. This looks less likely in the wake of the Jim Comey saga.

That Trump and the “deep state” are battling goes back to Skowronek’s point about the difficulty of redemptive politics as Trump sold to the public. The administrative state that is the US federal government is enormous and entrenched. Trump promised to “drain the swamp” but in fact is too politically isolated to push forward any of his own agenda through either the bureaucracy or the legislature. He is letting the bureaucracy decay and shrink through budget cuts and unfilled positions, but can this last without something serious breaking? Meanwhile, Republicans, still stuck in their 1980s orthodoxy but increasingly subject to disparate demands among their constituents, are as yet unable to agree on any significant tax or reform legislation of their own. Will this coalition be further discredited by a continued inability to accomplish anything despite controlling all three branches of the government? Will there be additional mismanagement crises due to Trump? While I'm sympathetic to the view that the US government could use some slimming down and that the influence of special interest should be reduced, I also think poor management will also generate a whole host of problems. If the administration creates more problems, 2016 may be the last time the Reagan coalition will win power in a significant way. The most important legacy of Trump’s presidency may then be to precipitate the next period of US history.

What’s next? Currently the US legislature is gridlocked and dysfunctional. I view realignment is a necessary step to political renewal. While Reagan orthodoxy is slowly disappearing in the rear view mirror, it is unclear what new orthodoxy will replace Reaganism and how soon it will emerge. I see a fairly broad consensus in both parties that a combination of tax and regulatory reform incentivizing capital, infrastructure, and education investments will be good for the country. I suspect (and hope) such pragmatic and centrist ideas will prevail. There are a few interesting trends to watch as the Trump administration wears on.

Trump support holds steady? Trump's core support seems hardly damaged despite the obvious train-wreck that is the Trump administration since he took office. This is at once remarkable given historic norms, and unsurprising given why Trump won the presidency. While historically low among presidents this early in their terms, popular support for Trump remains substantial at 35-40%, and this is the key factor in determining whether Trump survives four years. I suspect the most likely scenario is that Trump's core support will not boil away quickly. His support will perhaps drop slowly in a series of escalating crises, including perhaps a mismanaged recession or foreign policy crisis, as well as the Mueller investigation. 

Democrats squabble. The 2016 election laid bare internal fissures not only the Republican Party, but also in the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders’s economic populism gained a lot of steam during that time, and the Left wing of the Democrats continue to fight with the Establishment wing today. The power struggle can be seen most notably in the recent DNC chair race, which was viciously fought even though differences were papered over ex post. There are those who cheer on the rise of the Left, but I think old-school left liberalism is unlikely to gain enough support to become a dominant orthodoxy.

Hyper-partisanship. Another open question is the consequence of increasing partisan sentiments in the population. While politicians squabble and vie for power within parties, there has been an increasingly high level of party loyalty among voters in the past 20 years or so. Voters increasingly distrust members of the opposing parties and both parties have become more ideologically uniform. (See, e.g. Gentzkow 2016.)

These patterns almost certainly have to do with the growth of partisan radio and cable news which prey on partisan identity and ideological biases. Hypothetically, the current climate of hyper-partisanship could be an impediment to coalition realignment: If both citizens and legislators voted purely out of partisan loyalty, then realignment won’t happen and institutions will continue to decay and fossilize. The election of 2016, however, suggests that populist anger may have finally grown sufficiently loud to overcome blind loyalty induced by hyper-partisanship. Time will tell.