Understanding US politics circa 2017

For the past year I have been reading up on American history in an attempt to understand what the hell is happening in US politics today (a.k.a. why the hell is Donald Trump president?!). My overall conclusions are that 1) things are not as bad as they seem, and that 2) the next few years will be really interesting to watch.

Let’s start with some history. In the study of American politics, there is a popular framework 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 and the coalition continues to legislate elaborations to this agenda over the next decades. However, each of these governing coalitions 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 reducing the wastage of the welfare state.

Today the Reagan orthodoxy is finally 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.

The lack of new ideas from this slate of congressional Republicans gave Donald Trump an opening to hijack the Republican party nomination in the primary process by articulating the present needs of the voters, promising infrastructure investments and the reversal of outsourcing, and rejecting the Reagan orthodoxy of dismantling the welfare state. (More on this below.) 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 perhaps imminent demise. I suspect 2016 is likely the last time the Reagan coalition will win power in a significant way.

Why did Trump win? Alas. This belabored question must be belabored again. Much ado has been made about the impact of fake news and the FBI Clinton investigation on the 2016 election outcome, but I think these are distractions. I think there are two related reasons Trump won: 1) Blue collar workers really want change. 2) Many Americans want redemptive politics not pragmatic rationalism.

To the first reason first. The 2016 election, like many other US elections, can be understood from the viewpoint of good old demographics. During Obama’s administration, the Democrats 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. But after two decades of working class 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, opiods — see work by Autor et al.) — these constituents were desperately hungry for change. In the election of 2016, Clinton ran as Obama’s anointed successor. This was the opposite of what blue collar voters wanted. Instead, Donald Trump, with rhetoric that resonated with this segment of White working poor voters, flipped key swing states in the industrial Mid-West with the help of Reagan Democrats, many who had voted for Obama back in 2008.

This is a familiar story if you’ve been reading the news for the past year.

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.

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.

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 much less likely in the wake of the Jim Comey saga.

The fight between Trump and the “deep state” goes back to Skowronek’s point about the difficulty of redemptive politics as Trump sold to the public given the enormous and entrenched administrative state apparatus that is the US federal government. 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 how long can this last until something even more serious breaks? 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? The most important legacy of Trump’s presidency may well be to precipitate the next period of US history.

What’s next? I view realignment is a necessary step to political renewal. While Reagan orthodoxy is clearly slowly disappearing in the rear view mirror, it is less clear what new orthodoxy will replace Reaganism and how soon it will emerge. There is 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 be central to the new orthodoxy. It will be interesting to watch what happens as the Trump administration wears on. There are two interesting trends to watch.

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.

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