Wednesday, May 08, 2019

The Disjunction That Was Promised

Guest Blogger

For the symposium on Sanford Levinson and Jack M. Balkin, Democracy and Dysfunction (University of Chicago Press, 2019).

Corey Robin

As a student of Steve Skowronek and a scholar of conservatism, I’ve long agreed with one of the arguments Jack Balkin presents and pursues in Democracy and Dysfunction—that the Reagan regime is crumbling and we’re heading toward a reconstructive presidency along the lines of realignments past. Like Balkin, I believe that the administration of Donald Trump is better viewed as a disjunctive presidency, similar to that of Jimmy Carter or Herbert Hoover, a symptom of the unraveling conservative order rather than the opening bid of a new authoritarian populist regime or consolidation of the existing Republican regime.[1]

I’d like to use the opportunity of my deep agreement with Balkin to explore one of the weaknesses of our shared position. As Balkin notes, in disjunctive regimes, the dominant party coalition fractures. Tensions held in check in the early days of the regime slacken during its end days; factions once willing to compromise with each other on their path to power (think of the fusionism that fueled the modern conservative movement) now refuse to cede ground. Presidents elected to manage these unruly forces face a difficult challenge. Desperate to break out of the vise they’re in and sensing the regime’s time is up, disjunctive presidents try to construct a new coalition, one less beholden to the existing poohbahs and players in the party, based on new and unorthodox policies. Carter, for example, pursued deregulation and tight money, courted evangelicals and suburban professionals, and distanced himself from unions. But because the foundation of disjunctive presidencies—the regime they were elected to manage rather than maul—is so tenuous, disjunctive presidents often rush back to safe havens, placating the party and its interests with goodies like a new Department of Education. The combination of that push and pull, toward and away from the party, antagonizes everyone, provoking a potent challenge not from the forces of the new (such as Reagan’s bid to supplant Ford in 1976) but from defenders of the faith. To wit: Teddy Kennedy’s primary challenge to Carter in 1980.
We haven’t seen that sort of challenge yet under Trump. Bill Weld notwithstanding, it seems likely we won’t. Nor have we seen the splintering of the party similar to the crackup of the New Deal coalition in the 1970s. The question is: why?

One possible explanation is the polarization that Balkin discusses throughout the book. With partisans cleaving ever more tightly to their parties, we’re not likely to see fragmentation. But that, it seems to me, only restates the problem. Polarization can’t be adduced as an additional feature of the current disjunctive moment, alongside the breakdown of the Republican order, for it is antithetical to the idea of disjunction, to the scrambling of the electorate and defections of party politicians that we see under disjunctive regimes (think of exodus of Southern Democrats in the lead-up to 1980). Some elected officials have left the GOP since Trump’s election, particularly in the Midwest, but it’s nowhere near the number of defections to the GOP since 1994. Party votes in Congress on an array of issues—from abortion and healthcare to immigration and taxes—are far more unified than they used to be. In the last pages of the book, Balkin runs these developments together, arguing that “there are at least three different cycles at work” right now—Skowronek’s political time, polarization, and constitutional rot—“and their intersection has generated our present dismal conditions.” But at least two of these developments—the unraveling of a political order and polarization—don’t intersect so much as contradict each other; one or the other claim may be true but not both. Balkin might reconcile the claim of disjunction with the facts of polarization by arguing that when a coalition unravels, it leaves behind a fanatical remnant (antebellum Southern Democrats could serve as a precedent here). But the current GOP still contains all three pillars of its coalition: free marketeers, cultural traditionalists, and national security statists. No core constituency has yet broken with the regime.

I’d like to advance three other possible explanations for the failure of a disjunction to materialize along the lines of a Hoover or Carter—again with the caveat that I think there are multiple signs of disjunction and we don’t yet know what is going to happen in 2020.

The first, counterintuitively, is that far from imposing himself on the GOP, Trump has proven all too willing to accede to the GOP’s demands. Trump’s signal and sole achievements in office—his judicial appointments, regulatory changes, and tax cut—are testament not to his mastery of the GOP but his submission to it. Many of his signature promises on foreign policy—getting out of NATO, for example—have gone nowhere; indeed, just last week, Trump sent on to the Senate a request that it ratify the accession of North Macedonia to the alliance. The one area where Trump has tried to buck longstanding party positions—on trade—has met with as much failure as success. Even now, his long-awaited renegotiation of NAFTA threatens to unravel due to opposition from not only Democrats in the House but also Republicans in the Senate. “Nothing exposes a hollow consensus faster than the exercise of presidential power,” wrote Skowronek. Ironically, exercising power along those lines is precisely what Trump has managed to avoid. For all the talk of his authoritarianism, what seems to have saved Trump from a Carter-like disjunction is his willingness to bend to the party’s will.[2]

The second possible explanation is the Democrats. One weakness of Skowronek’s thesis, and I fear Balkin and I may be guilty of this as well, is that it focuses too much on the dynamics within the existing regime. In graduate school I asked Skowronek about how much of a role the opposition plays in bringing down a regime. In keeping with his Skocpolian orientation (the Skocpol of States and Social Revolutions), he said, not much. Watching the failure of the Democrats to capitalize on the weakness and incoherence of the Republican regime (as evidenced by the Republicans’ inability, despite controlling the elected branches of government, to repeal Obamacare, break with Obama’s budgets, pass nativist legislation, fund and build the wall, and so on), I’ve come to wonder if Skowronek’s thesis may take for granted the very thing it disavows. During the disjunctions of John Quincy Adams, Pierce/Buchanan, Hoover, and Carter, there was intense ferment in the opposition, focused on the creation of a new party or transformation of an existing one. Indeed, part of what made those presidencies disjunctive was this opposition, the appearance of a new language of contestation against the existing regime. What toppled those regimes was not simply their internal weaknesses but the willingness of a political agent to give them a shove.

The Democratic Party doesn’t seem willing to go there yet. From the preeminence of Biden in the 2020 primary to the wariness of party leaders like Nancy Pelosi to embrace Medicare For All and the Green New Deal, the Democrats do not seem ready to make a realignment. As a firm supporter of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose primary campaign I canvassed for, I am the last person to diminish efforts to push the Democrats toward a realignment posture. But as hopeful as I am about these efforts, they are late in coming. In terms of making a realignment, we seem to be in the late 1840s or the mid-1960s. We have nothing like the organizational infrastructure, the party organization, the intellectual and ideological coherence, or political leadership we need. I don’t see anything on the horizon like the cadre of ideologues and activists that made the New Deal or Reagan Revolution—which happened not in a moment of political free-fall, as a shallow reading of the Skowronek thesis might suggest, but in the face of immense institutional intransigence amid the persistence of the old regime.

That leads to a third possible explanation for the failure of a disjunction to emerge. The two precedents that a left-wing as opposed to a right-wing reconstructive presidency would look to—those of 1860 and 1932—featured not only a full-scale party opposition to the old regime but independent social movements of the sort we don’t have today. There’s nothing like the abolitionist movement or movement of the enslaved to emancipate themselves—much less the half-century buildup of strikes and worker self-organization that preceded the labor upsurge of the 1930s. Yes, last year saw the largest number of workers involved in strikes since 1986—and I’ve compared the potential of the teacher strikes in red states to the portents of realignment we saw in Proposition 13—but workers don’t have the organizational capacity, or institutional memory and political lore their actions depend upon, that they once had. As important as the breakdown of the old order and rise of new party coalitions are to any reconstruction, it’s hard to imagine a left realignment without the breakout of the kinds of social movements we saw extending from long nineteenth century to the short twentieth, what the historian Steve Fraser has called “the Grand Army of the Triangle,” men and women willing to risk life and limb for the sake of an end to their oppressions. That that Army of the Triangle drove, in succession, two realignments from the left, and then disappeared with or was crushed by a counterrevolutionary realignment from the right, leaves open the question of whether and when we’ll see another realignment from the left.

What we seem to be mooting now is a purely political reconstruction, shorn of the social movements that helped make previous left reconstructions what they were. If that’s the case, the power of Sandy Levinson’s argument becomes even more salient. Constitutional obstacles—whether inherent to the text, as Levinson argues, or the product of its ambient order, as Balkin suggests—become higher the more dependent upon purely political forces we are. All those veto points, which previous reconstructive presidencies confronted with the help of social movements, cease to function as goads to further reconstruction (just think of how buoyed FDR’s Second New Deal was by the intransigence of the Court) and revert to being obstacles. It’s difficult to imagine how one could get Medicare For All past those veto points, a Green New Deal past a Roberts Court, voting rights reform past the states or the Senate, without a more fundamental upsurge. There’s talk right now of Court-packing or getting rid of life tenure for justices or eliminating the filibuster—reforms to the constitutional order Balkin might advocate that would not require changes to the text—all of which would help. But that’s all they are right now: talk. Once the economic actors that oppose Medicare For All yet have the ear of the Democratic Party get going (indeed, they already have), once the substantive agenda behind these constitutional reforms becomes clear, the talk may grow faint—and the absent force of those social movements will be felt.

Balkin’s analysis of party polarization acknowledges, perhaps unintentionally, the force of this argument. At the dawn of the Cold War, the American Political Science Association issued a lengthy denunciation of America’s party system, decrying the fragmentation and decentralization of the two parties, their ideological incoherence and dissipation of programmatic force. As a solution, APSA recommended that the parties offer voters two clear alternative platforms, to which, depending on the party they belonged to, elected officials would hew. In other words, APSA recommended polarization. But in a system with so many veto points, it’s difficult for polarized parties to execute their programs—even when, as we saw with the Obamacare repeal debacle, one party controls all the elected branches of government (though this may be more due to disjunction than constitutional factors). The result is gridlock. Though Balkin initially attributes the problem of our contemporary moment to more contingent, Skowronek-like factors rather than to constitutional constraints, he seems eventually to concede Levinson’s claims. We’re now suffering, he says, because we have “parliamentary-style parties in a presidential system.” What does that mean if not that our constitutional order does not allow for what APSA called “a more responsible two-party system”—precisely the point that Levinson has been making throughout the text?

Though Balkin begins the book suggesting Trump is a symptom of the breakdown of the Republican order, he drifts over the course of the book to an alternative view: Trump is a demagogue whose strongman persona is proffered as a solution to the gridlock produced by polarization and oligarchy. As I suggested earlier, these two views—of a weakened Republican order and heightened party polarization—may be incompatible. But I also wonder what’s missing from that analysis and why. After all, in the ancient cycles of regime change, from monarchy to mob rule or anarchy, there is a critical step that goes unmentioned by Balkin or Levinson. Every cycle of regime change begins with monarchy, which descends into tyranny, which gives way to a corrective aristocracy, which descends into oligarchy. But then, before we reach the last phase of the cycle—mob rule (or what Balkin might call demagoguery)—there is democracy. Democracy, in other words, is the corrective in the cycle, the penultimate stage before the mob rule that then leads the cycle to begin again. In Balkin’s account, however, oligarchy gives way to demagoguery (or mob rule), which then may or may not lead to a new awakening of democracy. I wonder if there is not something to that reordering. That the iron law of oligarchy and demagoguery seems today more real than the classical cycle of oligarchy and democracy—indeed, the classic American cycle of oligarchy overthrown by democracy, which Balkin does invoke, albeit as a question mark[3]—suggests one of two things: either the constitutional constraints that Levinson emphasizes throughout need to be more fully confronted or the missing presence of an independent social movement is more of a challenge than Balkin (and I) realize.

Corey Robin is Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. You can reach him by e-mail at corey.robin at


[1] At the end of the book, Balkin does countenance the possibility of Trump managing something like what McKinley achieved in 1896: beating back a populist challenge from the left, extending the life of the Gilded Age regime by another several decades. Given the similarities between that moment—rampant white supremacy, increasing nativism, and plutocratic rule—and our own, it’s possible we’re in for another such ordeal. Levinson and Balkin, Democracy and Dysfunction, 192, 196-197.

[2] Balkin mentions this reality in the middle of the book—“It is much easier for Trump to ally himself with congressional Republicans than to attempt a seriously populist legislative agenda, which would be very costly and would be opposed by members of his own party”—but doesn’t consider how at odds it is with the disjunction thesis. Disjunctive presidents are disjunctive because they do oppose their parties. Indeed, immediately after this mention of Trump’s cleaving to the GOP, Balkin writes, “Trump represents the end of a cycle of politics rather than the future of politics.” Levinson and Balkin, Democracy and Dysfunction, 113.

[3] “The central question of constitutional and political reform is how to preserve republican government in the face of a changing global economy. This is not the first time that the American experiment in democracy has been threatened by oligarchy, although the problem arises each time in a different form. The Jacksonians fought the financial aristocracy of their day, the early Republican Party fought the Slave Power, and the populists and progressives fought the ‘malefactors of great wealth’ who dominated the country during its First Gilded Age. Now, in our Second Gilded Age, there is no guarantee that the pattern of success will continue. Even so, Americans should organize themselves on the assumption that they have the ability to defend republican government from oligarchy as they have done many times before.” Levinson and Balkin, Democracy and Dysfunction, 114.

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