Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Trump's Victory and Regime Theory

Stephen Griffin

Consider three general perspectives on the meaning of Trump’s victory for political regime theory.  One we can call “change as order.”  It is said that 2016 was a “change election.”  But doesn’t this sound a bit too familiar?  I believe we were told the same thing from Clinton to Bush II in 2000, Bush II to Obama in 2008 and now Obama to Trump.  Considering this sequence, we might ask whether voters were looking for change from the rule of a particular party, or change regardless of party.  Most commentators are in effect assuming the former, but I think we should consider the plausibility of the latter, that our governing order is being influenced by the desire of voters for change as such.  Otherwise, it seems to me we have more explaining to do.

Why?  Well, if voters were seeking relief each time from the irksome rule of a president of a particular party, they could have accomplished that quite easily in 1996, 2004 and 2012.  Remember the 1970s, when scholars worried about the health of the presidency amid a string of one-term (or failed two term, Nixon) presidencies?  Whether the presidency was actually in some difficulty or not, this is not us.  We are living in an era of apparently successful two-term presidencies.  And at least two of the presidents, Clinton and Obama, left office (will leave office) reasonably popular.  But obviously the presidencies that replaced them involved (will involve) some fairly substantial policy shifts.  What moves voters to keep rejecting the status quo?  

“Change as order” means voters keep rejecting the efforts of successful presidents to extend their policy legacy out of a desire for change as such.  All non-incumbent presidential elections are now change elections.  This suggests that something is wrong at a deeper level, with the constitutional order itself.  No president regardless of party can generate their own order, an electoral coalition that persists.  Because I think the decline of trust in government since the 1960s is one of the crucial issues for our constitutional order, it seems likely to me that continuing low trust is one of the factors destabilizing the efforts of each president to create a lasting legacy.  Another factor seems to be the persistent unhappiness of many voters with the policy and candidate options they are presented with.  Recall how many “regular Republican” candidates and policy positions were trampled in Trump’s rise.

The second perspective I will call the federal order versus the national order, or red states versus blue cities.

Right now, the Republican party controls the federal order and appears to be dominant because of this control.  Most states are controlled by Republican governors and legislatures.  Republicans control the federally-organized Congress and Donald Trump prevailed in the electoral college.  But for the most part, cities, the favored gathering places of college educated elites, are blue.  The red state-blue cities phenomenon has been noticed.  But I suggest we should focus on what this means for the relationship between elites and outsiders (the term “masses” seems a bit old fashioned).  On a federal basis, cities are outnumbered in our representative system.  But cities have their conspicuous strengths.  Unless I am missing something, they are economically dominant in the nation, creating most new jobs and providing a critical and creative social dynamism.  They are “Hamilton” – uncompromisingly multi-racial, multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan cultural metropoles.  Once the economic centrality of cities is taken into account, it seems off to me to claim the Republican party is dominant simply because it dominates the federal order.  Rather what we have is a very uneasy bipolar coexistence – neither the federal order or the elite-driven national order is truly dominant.

The third perspective I am less certain about.  The idea is that policy space is dominating electoral space.  Our presidential elections are changing less and less (I dimly recall Garry Wills arguing that presidential elections are not designed to change much).  The elected branches are being dominated by the institutional government, the builded-out state (hopefully not to be burned out!).  This is less because of the inherent expertise of the bureaucracy than the persistent dysfunction of the elected branches.  But now that we have unified government, things will be different?  I am skeptical.  We have had unified government several times since, say, 1992 and I’m not sure it’s made much of a difference.  If I’m right that presidents can’t build lasting electoral and policy coalitions, then the latest instance of unified government will lead pretty quickly to divided government as voters continue in their restless search for the kind of government they want rather than the constitutional order we actually have.

But I can be a little more specific as far as predictions.  Let’s say Trump really is skeptical about the reality of human-generated climate change.  The Republican party certainly is.  Now that they are in power, however, can they avoid the mounting policy costs of doing too little?  More and more Americans, especially those on the coasts, have accepted (or will be forced to accept) the reality of climate change in terms of its actual, present impact on their homes and communities.  This will not change.  That is, policy, or the consequences of past policy decisions, will eventually dominate whatever Americans thought they were doing in the 2016 election.  The same goes for the consequences of an aging population, the advantages of free trade, cyber security, take your pick.  Policy and events are in the driver’s seat because we haven’t made the sort of adjustments to our constitutional order necessary to gain political traction over them.

All of this relates to the ongoing viability of Skowronek’s theory of locating presidencies in political time.  I am on record in this blog in 2012 as saying that “Skowronek should have stuck with his original insight that the phenomenon of political time was waning as Reagan took office.  Skowronek tends to admit that Reagan’s supposed ‘reconstruction’ was only partial in nature, but he then later assimilates Reagan into the pantheon of reconstructive presidents including Lincoln and Roosevelt.  This was never very plausible.  Skowronek accurately described a gradual ‘thickening’ in the institutional order over time, making it more difficult for presidents to be truly reconstructive.  This should also have meant that the presidents operating in Reagan’s shadow had their own difficulties operating within Reagan’s ‘reconstruction’ and handling a complex set of state institutions.”  And this is indeed what we are observing.

To put it another way, because of the enormous amount of state building that has occurred, we can’t have reconstructive presidents.  Our situation is more akin to the one Skowronek hinted at in his “waning of political time” discussion, a series of preemptive presidencies, in which each president attempts to show mastery over our resilient built-out state by selectively preempting policies of the prior president.  Consider in this light Skowronek’s central insight: “the power to recreate order hinges on the authority to repudiate it.”  But arguably no president since FDR has possessed the sort of warrants necessary to repudiate the New Deal-Cold War state.  If he wishes, Trump can try to repudiate the entire world order built after 1945 (which is why I initially termed him the ultimate preemptive president) and, at home, the activist state.  If I’m right, he won’t get very far.

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