What does Donald Trump mean for our two-party political system?



Donald Trump is not a traditional conservative, says political economist David Brady, and his presidency is unlikely to change the Republican Party. | Reuters/Eric Thayer

The 2016 presidential election was deeply divisive, leaving some parts of the country jubilant and others worried about the fate of our republic. But voters on all sides might agree that Donald Trump’s blowout victory looks like more than the usual swinging of the pendulum from party to party.

David Brady | Nancy Rothstein

Stanford Business Insights talks to political economist David Brady about the future of America’s political system.

Is this a new era in American politics?

Well, the country hasn’t changed much. If you ignored the personalities and just looked at the state and party voting data, you’d say the 2016 election was strikingly similar to the 2012 election. Obama won the popular vote by 5 million votes; Hillary Clinton won it by 3 million, and the splits are very similar. The main difference is that Trump won more independents than Romney, and Clinton won fewer Democrats than Obama. But because a few swing states in the Midwest tipped, largely because Trump won over less affluent white voters by a wide margin, everything tipped the other way. The reality is that the American electorate remains very evenly divided, and our system creates this electoral instability at knifepoint. If you trade 77,000 votes in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, then Hillary wins and the headlines say the country voted against misogyny and racism.

Ahead of the November election, many Republicans and independents said they might not vote for Trump for a variety of reasons, including his treatment of women.

But in the end, they did.

In the end, these ambivalent Republicans and Independents voted for Trump even though they didn’t think highly of him and thought him less qualified to be president than Hillary Clinton.

The headlines called it “the election of wrath”.

Okay, that’s the go-to story in the media. The Huffington Post called it “the election of wrath”. Look, that was history, but anger in American politics is nothing new. We’ve polled reasonably high levels of anger since 2004, and it’s more of a partisan thing than a class thing. The most unhappy people are always those whose party is no longer in power. In 2016, 90% of white Republican men said they were angry about something in the news at least once a day, compared to just 28% of Democrats. For the next four years, it will be the Democrats who will be angry.

It’s not to lessen the bitterness that’s out there. Americans today are dissatisfied with economic and political systems. In 2002, a third of them believed that the country was run for the benefit of the rich; in 2016, three quarters were of this opinion. More than 60% say the government doesn’t care about people like them. It’s a high level of discontent, and it crosses parties. What was unique about the 2016 election was that Trump called Mexican immigrants rapists, abused Carly Fiorina and Megyn Kelly, dissed the family of a fallen soldier, and was recorded in discussing groping women – and still won both the nomination and the presidency.

So why do so many people vote for Trump?

Many did it because they preferred him over Clinton and others because they felt he spoke to them. He ran against political and media elites and, in retrospect, he couldn’t have asked for a better foil than Hillary Clinton. You had the establishment’s ultimate contender against someone who’s sworn to smash things. You know, if you live in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and you lost your job because the factory got automated or moved to a lower-cost country, you won’t be very concerned about identity politics . So his constituents thought, yeah, maybe Trump is a loose cannon, but at least he seems to understand my plight.

I think it’s pretty clear that the election result is a reaction to globalization and all the social and economic disruption it has caused over the past few decades. Globalization has made big winners and lifted a billion people around the world out of poverty, which is great. But there are a lot of losers, and they are finding their voice, and American politicians can’t come forward on the benefits of globalization in China or Vietnam. This is the real story here. Trump won where the jobs weren’t. On the left, Bernie Sanders tapped into that same resentment over growing inequality.

Has the United States ever faced this kind of challenge before?

Yes, in fact, it’s similar to what happened after industrialization and a global trade boom in the second half of the 1800s. The first era of globalization created wealth and jobs, but there are also losers and social changes, and the social cost has been felt: traditional crafts destroyed, agricultural jobs lost to automation, rural communities uprooted. It’s an instructive parallel, because what followed was a long period of instability and civil unrest, with eerily similar populist rhetoric, anti-elite, anti-wealth, protectionist and anti-immigrant laws. It should be noted that the American political system has survived and flourished.

Now that the GOP owns the White House and Congress, is there a mandate for a conservative agenda?

Congressional Republicans think so, but disagree on which questions it applies to and how conservative the response is. In my opinion, this is partially true when it comes to taxes, regulations and the ACA [Affordable Care Act]. But Trump is not a traditional conservative, at least on economic issues. He is against free trade, he wants to preserve rights like social security and health insurance, etc. I think some party leaders hoped it was just campaign grandstanding, but he seems determined to deliver. You have to understand that Trump’s power base is not particularly ideological. In pre-election polls, only 13% of his supporters described themselves as “very conservative”. Less than a third were in the Tea Party movement.

What happened was that less educated and less wealthy voters sided with the Republican Party because of social issues — they tend to be more right-wing on culture war stuff than wealthy Republicans. But they also want to raise the minimum wage and raise taxes on the rich. So with Trump as the man, the White House is not entirely on the same page as the party leadership.

So is he governing as an outsider, or is he reshaping the GOP in his image?

I don’t think Trump is going to change the party in the long run. He’s not an alliance builder, and his own base will erode over time, because I don’t think he can solve the problems he ran on. Pretending you’re going to stop globalization is wrong, and you can’t keep jobs in the United States by bullying CEOs. It doesn’t change the economy.


Look how easy it was for Trump, who was a Democrat for many years, to pass the primaries and take control of the Republican Party. So why bother throwing a party when you can hijack one? This is perhaps one of the great lessons of this election.

The only way to ease the pain of globalization is to grow the economy, and if Trump’s protectionist ideas and belligerent unilateralism are followed, it will not create growth in the real economy. Republicans in Congress know that if they screw up health care and ignore taxes and regulations, they won’t be the majority party for long. They don’t want to mess up and get elected. So I think what they’re trying to figure out is how far they have to go with him to further their own plans, and then he’s on his own.

That said, Republicans in Congress are going to struggle to hold all elements of their coalition together while reforming taxes, health care, and regulation, so don’t seek solutions or laws on these issues anytime soon. The political turmoil is going nowhere.

Does this create an opening for a viable third party?

May be. The two major parties have become much more ideological than the electorate. It goes back to our system of primary elections; we are the only country that has democracy not just between parties, but within parties. Well, the people running in the primaries are the ones most affected — the hardliners and the ideologues — and that drives both parties away from the center.

So, yes, there are a lot of people who are unhappy. In 1937, only 5% of the electorate identified themselves as politically independent. Now it’s 42%. How this group breaks up is what decides the elections. But most of them aren’t committed, problem-oriented people who watch CNN every night. They just want things to work out and the politicians to stop bickering. It’s hard to build a movement around that.

The other thing is that it was easy for Trump, who was a Democrat for many years, to get through the primaries and take over the Republican Party. So why bother throwing a party when you can hijack one? This is perhaps one of the great lessons of this election.

Are there lessons for Democrats? Should it rethink its platform?

No, the party is pretty well positioned. There are more registered Democrats than Republicans, and demographic trends are widening that gap. They just didn’t show up in 2016, thanks to an uninspiring contestant. What Democrats need is new leadership.

Now they’re going to face pressure from the Elizabeth Warren/Bernie Sanders wing of the party to go further left, which I don’t think is a winning position. It’s a battle they must have. But Republicans also have to decide whether to stand for free markets or this Trump-style populism, and it’s harder to sort things out while you’re in government because you have to govern while everyone else is campaigning.

Do you have any crippling advice on the 2018 and 2020 elections at this point?

I’m not sure the Democrats can win back either house of Congress midterm 2018. They have an inherent disadvantage in the House because there are just a lot more red precincts in Congress. . Democratic voters are all clustered in cities. The Senate will be difficult because of the calendar – who must be re-elected. Now, if the Republicans screw up health care, all bets are off.

But I also think Republicans are in a perfect position to read too much into their success and overstep the mark. Just like Bush did when he was re-elected in 2004 and tried to privatize Social Security – or like Obama did when he overstated the benefits of the Affordable Care Act. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the scales tip in 2020.

In the meantime, what are the prospects for the rule of law?

People’s position on political institutions pretty much depends on their political position.

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