(This was a solicited, but eventually unpublished piece for a magazine)
The United States is facing perhaps the strangest presidential election in our lifetimes. Both candidates in different ways have defied expectations in their respective party primaries. On the one hand, Hillary Clinton, a proven politician—a former U.S. senator, secretary of state, and first lady—with a competitive run for the Democratic presidential nomination already under her belt faced a challenger from the far left of her party that stretched the primary race all the way to June. On the other hand, we have seen a businessman and television personality with minimal political experience emerge from a crowded field to claim the Republican nomination.
Strikingly, they are the most unpopular standard-bearers for their parties since polls began. Both are larger-than-life personalities and it is tempting to think that we are set up for an anomalous election that will revolve to a great extent around these personalities. In this respect, Donald Trump is certainly the main story of the campaign so far. But it could be that Trump (and to some extent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt.) represents important longer-term trends in U.S. politics that are worth examining in regard to the current election. We discuss some of these in one of my classes, American Politics: Issues and Institutions, and I’d like to share them.
Political Parties and the Constitution
In American Politics we spend a lot of time talking about the Democrats and Republicans. We think about elections in terms of political parties. Which party will win the White House? What does each party represent? Which voters might they be able to attract? It is hard to think about U.S. politics without the Democrats and the Republicans. One student in the class this past spring, Mostafa Youssef, an exchange student from American University in Cairo, noted, “Affiliation with a party has long been part and parcel of any decent attempt to win the race to the White House.”
But this year’s race did prompt students to question this association. Students wondered whether Trump and Sanders would run as independents if they did not gain the respective parties’ nominations. As Youssef put it, “Sanders and Trump have been antithetical to their respective parties' ideas … why not just run as independents from the beginning?”
This question challenges our assumptions about elections insofar as it suggests the possibility of voting without political parties. Why not have independents square off against each other? It might seem far-fetched. But historically it has precedent.
In the class, we always begin with the U.S. Constitution. As the nation’s founding document, it provides the framework for our federal government. It lists the powers of Congress, the roles of the president, and the responsibilities of the Supreme Court. However, the Constitution does not mention those institutions that have come to dominate elections in the United States—political parties.
At the time of the Constitution’s drafting, politics revolved around personalities, with no parties really operating in the United States until the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans began to oppose John Adams’s administration in the 1790s. Since then, parties have become important political institutions, central to our politics today. Although not mentioned in the Constitution, political parties enable the government, as delineated in the Constitution, to operate: they organize candidate selection, run electoral campaigns, coordinate policy, and ensure that the branches of government work together (when they do!).
Is the country polarizing?
As much as the parties help to make the government function, they have come to be regarded as a threat to good governance. This discussion regularly came up in the American Politics class. Isobel Coen ’18 echoed many voters’ concerns that the parties are moving further apart: “We've seen a huge push in both parties to break away from traditional platforms and political ideals of the GOP and DNC [Democratic National Committee].” Coen was talking about “the increasing political polarization” she observes in the United States.
During the semester, we debated this idea of polarization many times; it is invariably the word that comes up when discussing the current state of American politics. The parties are seen to be further apart and more ideologically rigid. As a result people claim “politics isn't working.” The perception that “normal” politics is not working and that the parties are more extreme are offered as explanations for the unexpected rise of Trump and success of Sanders.
At the same time, as one student, Stella Frank ’19, noted, “Many Americans feel the need to maintain their loyalty with their affiliated party despite who the candidate is.” In class we discussed the way in which individuals are increasingly unwilling to countenance voting for the “other” party. Surveys support this view by suggesting that the number of political moderates in the American electorate has decreased over recent decades. Pew Research, in its 2016 “political polarization” update, suggested that while 49 percent of Americans held a mixture of liberal and conservative political views in 1994, only 38 percent did so in 2015. By comparison, in 1994 only 3 percent were identified as consistently liberal and 7 percent as consistently conservative. By 2015 these numbers were 13 percent and 10 percent respectively. This suggests that the political middle is declining and more radical positions are gaining strength.
But before we panic that the center will not hold, I maintain that this state of affairs is not necessarily (a) actually the case or (b) a bad thing in itself. On the first point, it is worth noting that 38 percent of Americans do still remain “mixed” in their political views—so the center is not collapsing but just reducing. To the latter point, it has been suggested that rather than a polarization of the American public, we are actually witnessing a period of correction in terms of party identification. Political scientist Morris Fiorina has argued that individuals’ political views have not radically changed but rather that ideological divisions in the country now hew more closely to the divisions between the major parties. To take one high-profile example, a similar proportion of the American public supported legal abortion under any circumstances in 1975 (23 percent) and in 2009 (21 percent). However, the alignment of those Americans with political party affiliations shifted significantly over the same period. In 1975, 18 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of Democrats supported legal abortion under any circumstances. But by 2009, only 12 percent of Republicans held that view, while among Democrats it had risen to 31 percent. This pattern can also be seen for issues like environmental protection, corporate profits, and immigration policy. Members of the public are increasingly likely to align with the “correct” party for their views and to hold views that are consistently liberal or consistently conservative across multiple issues.
The pace of this change has not been uniform across the whole of society. The most politically aware individuals tend to be the ones that are most able to “correctly” locate issues within an ideological framework and to most quickly respond to changes in political leaders’ ideological positions. Given this, as one might expect, the most politically active and aware individuals have been quickest in adopting new issue positions associated with the parties. Which is to say, it has been party activists that have become most ideologically “pure.” As a result, the parties themselves have become increasingly unified and distinct ideologically—perhaps nowhere more so than in Congress.
The Parties in Congress
Political scientists have long observed this trend, and use a score to identify the relative ideological position of members of Congress. A score of 1.0 indicates strong conservatism, while a score of -1.0 indicates strong liberalism. By this measure, the parties in Congress are further apart than they have ever been. Since 1976, the Republican Party in the House of Representatives has moved to the right on this scale (from an average of about 0.2 in 1976 to over 0.6 today). While the Democrats have also moved, it has not been by as much and is largely explained by more conservative Southern Democrats drifting away from the party since the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
At the same time as they are becoming more distinct, the parties in Congress are also becoming more unified. Once upon a time, moderate members of Congress in both parties overlapped in terms of political ideology, but that is becoming increasingly less common. Much of the change represented in the scores above is the result of moderate members of Congress being replaced by more ideological politicians. Pew Research’s political polarization survey notes that the 1973–74 Congress had 240 members of the House of Representatives situated between the most liberal Republican and most conservative Democrat—that is, the overlap between the parties amounted to 240 members, over half of 435 members of the House. By 2011–12, the analysis showed no House member between the most liberal Republican and most conservative Democrat; the parties had become entirely distinct.
Responsible Parties: Congress
Political parties that are separated from each other ideologically is not a very remarkable occurrence outside the United States. For many, if not most, democratic countries, it is to be expected. Parties consist of fairly stable memberships that select candidates and adopt party policies. Once in office, these parties behave in ways that further their party’s agenda by supporting legislation where appropriate and blocking government acts they deem unnecessary or against their interests.
Many have pushed for a similar system in the United States. As far back as 1950, the American Political Science Association called for American political parties to act more like those “responsible” parties abroad by developing very different solutions to the problems of government—thus providing the American people with a true choice in terms of government policy. To the extent that polarization and the separation of the parties in Congress underscore that process, we would expect the advocates of responsible parties to welcome these changes.
However, as I noted, the American federal government was designed in an era before parties. In designing the government of the Constitution, the founding fathers were not motivated by enabling party rule but rather by stopping government overreach. They worried less about the possibility of gridlock in the legislature than about its ability to do too much. To this end, they divided up power between the branches and gave each one distinct powers over the others. They sought to make it difficult to get all the branches moving in the same direction.
Because the parties were not very far apart ideologically during most of the post–World War II era, as indicated by the “overlap” numbers above, they managed to work around the divisions between branches written into the Constitution. But as the parties’ positions have solidified in recent years, this cooperation has become less prevalent.
Some political scientists, such as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, have argued that the separation of the parties in Congress has made enacting legislation more difficult. This deadlock has seen recent Congresses vie for the title of “Do Nothing” Congress, a reference to Truman’s criticism of 1947-49 Congress. Such low output has affected Congress’s popularity. At the beginning of April 2016, Gallup found Congress had a 17 percent approval rating among Americans (it has rarely reached more than 20 percent in the last 6 years). The same polling firm has found that since 2007—with exception of 2008 and 2012—a majority of Americans have favored a third political party since the major parties "do such a poor job" of representing the American people. Ironically, the more “responsible” our political parties are, the more they seem to offer the United States choices the public would prefer not to accept!
While Congress has never been that popular as an institution, such high dissatisfaction might open the door to candidates like Trump who promise to make “deals in Congress” and to tackle the “establishment.” Analysis of Trump supporters has suggested a strong “anti-elite” sentiment that would correspond with a frustration with congressional inaction and a willingness to seek representatives outside of the party hierarchies.
Political Parties at the Polls
Along with more ideological parties and their separation in Congress, a third development in American parties has set the stage for Trump. In the 1970s the spread of primaries—direct elections for party nominees—as vehicles for selecting presidential candidates set the stage for the current mode of presidential contests. The emergence of the modern primary system seems to empower voters at the expense of party leaders. The romantic narrative claims that instead of candidates being selected in smoke-filled backrooms, the primaries put nominating power in the hands of the people. However, scholars of American politics are suspicious of this narrative. Examining the ways in which presidential candidates are selected, the scholars associated with “the party decides” thesis argue that party leaders still hold considerable sway. Through the need for endorsements and interest-group support, the field of potential candidates is winnowed down before voters even get a chance to express their views.
Trump’s success in capturing the GOP nomination seems to undermine that claim. In a field rich with established Republican stalwarts, the outsider surged through to claim the nomination. Moreover, the GOP leadership fought tooth and nail for months to find a way to stop Trump from winning, only to gradually fall in line. Trump never led in terms of endorsements while the race was competitive and did not receive any endorsements at all before the Iowa caucus.
Perhaps the power of party leadership has ebbed in recent elections. In 2008 Barack Obama entered Iowa with only 10 percent of the party’s endorsements up until that point but went on to win the nomination. In 2004 John Kerry also became the Democratic party’s nominee despite being weakly placed in terms of pre-Iowa endorsements. What Obama and Trump—and Sanders—have in common is an ability to mobilize the grassroots of a party through a message that appeals to its activists’ ideological commitments. Strikingly, both Trump and Sanders have run not just against Congress but also against their own party. They have effectively run for the party nomination by running against the party leadership. It may still be the case that the primary system has not handed power over nominations to the people, but increasingly the system seems to be handing power to the parties—at the expense of the parties’ leadership. With political parties growing more ideological and the Constitution increasingly unable to accommodate them, members looking to more extreme candidates to voice their frustrations.
Making predictions is something that political scientists try to avoid. After all, as Harold Wilson is alleged to have said, “A week is a long time in politics.” But Trump might not be an anomaly but rather a foreshadowing of a type of presidential candidate that will become more common in the future.
As the parties “sort” themselves into greater ideological cohesion and activists assert more control over the nomination process, we are likely to see more candidates whose primary appeal is to an activist base rather than a party elite or general electorate. These modern “responsible” parties are mobilizing around issues might appear obscure or unpopular to a general audience but in fact will work to capture the support of a majority of their party. The U.S. Constitution provides veto points and a system of separated powers that make opposition to legislation easy while requiring cooperation for successful governance. These tendencies – ideological parties and a constitution that falters in periods of rigid opposition – mean frustration with political leaders in both parties is likely to increase.