Political Divisions and What Might be Done

It would not be really unreasonable to say that Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory was a fluke. He trailed his opponent by nearly 3 million votes, two percent of all votes cast, but gained office through a peculiarity of the complex U.S. electoral system. Yet even if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency the fact that Trump had received nearly 63 million ballots, 46.1 percent of the total, would still say something very striking about our politics. He did make some specific policy proposals and promises, but few even among his voters seemed to truly believe he would or even could make good on them (as indeed he has not with a few marginal exceptions). But the real core of his campaign was a series of scornful (and frequently untruthful) calumnies directed against a long list of “enemies” and declarations of war against them, together with promises to reverse immigration and trade imbalances. In office he has continued to campaign on the same bases while making little progress in fulfilling them, but his level of support generally hovers around where it has almost always been, about 40 to 45 percent of the electorate. His popularity is low compared to that of most first-term presidents, particularly in light of generally good economic conditions, but still very substantial. It seems particularly remarkable in light of his open and angry defiance not only of American political norms but of law and the Constitution. Nor is he unique. In this second decade of the third millennium, politicians with authoritarian ambitions have gained power in many countries by playing on popular resentments and xenophobia.

What is going on? Where is this headed? And is there anything to be done about it? Lots of people are chiming in on this and here I am going to survey some of the more notable and useful contributions before offering some proposals.

Achen & Bartels

Over the past few decades Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels have contributed greatly to expanding understanding of how political processes work in the United States (and elsewhere) through analyses of statistical data on elections and opinions. In a book entitled, Democracy for realists: Why elections do not produce responsive government, published early in 2016, they summarized the main findings, together with the evidence these are based on. First, they demolish what they refer to as the Folk Theory of Democracy, the notion that most people vote for the candidate who credibly promises to support the issues they care most about; in reality, they show, issue voting is distinctly uncommon—even though most people claim to be issues voters if asked. Instead, most voting is based strictly in group identity. Mr. X votes Democratic because his family is Democratic and he has always voted for Democrats. Or Ms. Y votes Republican because the pastor and all the members of her Evangelical congregation always vote Republican. As people will, X and Y and other group-identity voters can offer reasons for their choices that make them sound rational, but from the data it is clear that in most cases these are rationalizations rather than real reasons; X and Y have the illusion of thinking but not the substance. Group identities are largely fixed, at least in the near term, and this is why election results almost always are close to 50-50 Republican vs. Democratic.

The margin is small but very significant, and the fact that it shifts from election to election has a great deal to do with vague, unanalyzed feelings about the incumbent party. When things seem to be going well, and particularly their own personal economic fortunes, people give some credit to the political party in power—and conversely when they are not going too well. But of course things never consistently go as well as we would like or as we feel we deserve and as a result people store up a certain sense of frustration and resentment with the ruling party which grows slowly over time. Thus Achen and Bartels produce formulas that can reliably forecast the swing in the vote based on how long the party in power has remained in power together with the change in disposable personal income in the very final months of the campaign. Regardless of who the candidates might be or how they waged their campaigns these formulas predicted that in 2016 the Democratic candidate would have a 2.2 percent margin over the Republican—very close to the 2.1 percent by which Clinton actually beat Trump in the popular vote.

In this sense the 2016 presidential election was a remarkably ordinary election which fully vindicated the Achen and Bartels model. Nevertheless the two authors felt called upon to do more than take a victory lap. In the paperback edition of their book, Democracy for realists: Why elections do not produce responsive government, with a new afterword by the authors, published in 2017, they review the results, finding little reason for surprise but much for disquiet. They show how our political systems are in disarray, at least in considerable measure because (with the best of ostensible intentions) …

we have drifted far from the view of the Founders that popular sentiment needs to be respected, but also tempered and refined by experienced, well-informed political judgment. The Founders were neither elitists nor populists; they sought a balance. In the current presidential primary system, that balance has tilted too far toward empowering popular sentiment. But we, the people, like the power, and we are resistant to sharing it with those more knowledgeable than ourselves. (p. 341)

Achen and Bartels are cautious about the cries that democracy is uniquely in crisis. Indeed, they observe, “the current political environment is probably more typical in the broad sweep of history than the mid-20th-century period that contemporary observers often think of as ‘normal.’ ” (p. 342) They nevertheless see a lot of danger in an environment in which “most politically engaged citizens are firmly committed to one party or the other, and they are willing to overlook a lot in order to feel good about ‘their’ politicians and opinion leaders…. [P]reserving constitutional democracy requires sound institutional structures and unfailing vigilance. At the moment, carelessness abounds, fueled in part by the folk theory of democracy. Foolish referendums and a slipshod procedure for choosing presidential candidates have had real consequences.” (p. 344)

I can testify that Achen and Bartels have been careful with their evidence and their analysis of it and its significance. Some of their conclusions, particularly regarding the implications of the 2016 election, do go beyond the strict limits of their evidence and rest instead on their considered judgement. But their judgement seems quite sound to me and I believe that they are right about the dangers in relying too much on the generally reactive and unreflective popular will. They do not really offer any proposals for remedies, at least not in this book.

Interestingly, the book makes many references to the work on authoritarianism, ethnocentrism, and democracy by Kinder and Kam, and also some to that by Stenner, which tends to buttress my view that this is a serious and comprehensive analysis.


Well-known political scientist Francis Fukuyama has recently published, Identity: The demand for dignity and the politics of resentment (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2018) which he says was written specifically in response to Trump’s election, while incorporating ideas he had long been developing. His central theme is the struggle for thymos (also seen as thumos, both transliterations of the Greek θυμός). To the Ancients, thymos represented the element of passion or drive in our souls, but for Fukuyama it is specifically the need for recognition of our identity and value as individuals and members of our primary identity groups. While this need is a human constant, Fukuyama believes that modern circumstances have brought it to the fore and made of it a focus for conflict. He sees a need to merge particularist identities into an integrative overarching national (but not nationalistic) identity and proposes various policies to further this.

The book is coherent and offers many interesting observations but it doesn’t seem terribly satisfying to me. While the resentments of Trump supporters come though clearly enough in news stories and interviews, I am still not really convinced that they are primary rather than derivative of other factors, and Fukuyama offers little to still my doubts. Nor am I convinced that there truly are 63 million people for whom these resentments are a factor strong enough to be the primary reason to vote for Trump. Finally, while many of the proposed remedies do seem like attractive ideas in the abstract I wonder both about their efficacy and political acceptability.

Fukuyama never mentions the work of Achen and Bartels, of Kinder and Kam, nor of Stenner. Clearly, it seems, he has not cast his intellectual net very widely.

Sides, Tesler & Vavreck

In their recent, Identity crisis: The 2016 presidential campaign and the battle for the meaning of America (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2018), John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck painstakingly dissect the campaign, drawing on a great deal of data from many different polls and studies. They do not engage in any formal statistical modeling or hypothesis testing in the main text but they do present their data in a series of a great many clear and well-conceived graphs, which I think adequately support their arguments. (Some more formal statistical work is summarized in appendices.) They do not take issue with the work of Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels (which they cite extensively) but seek to penetrate to the factors which determined, strengthened, and undermined party identifications in 2016 and since. 

The authors show that the key factors were immigration and race. (Both of course are tied to the work of Kinder and Kam, which they make extensive use of.) Republicans were more likely to express xenophobic and racist views than Democrats before Trump came along, but he played to and intensified these tendencies as the cornerstone of his campaign and was rewarded with a substantial and intensely loyal “base.” No other issues in the campaign had nearly equivalent potency, Sides, Tesler and Vavreck show. But these issues are so important to many Republicans that they forgive any and all other sins or lapses on Trump’s part. However, his continued efforts as president have not rallied any significant number of others to the banners of xenophobia and racism, at least in net (just as Kinder and Kam would predict).

For the moment that makes the Republicans the party of xenophobia and racism, at least in electoral terms. The Republican electorate is ready to support policies of grinding the faces of the poor (whom it identifies with racial minorities) but policies of enriching the rich have met with much less enthusiasm than the party leadership had hoped, however disguised, and trashing health care guarantees, a dearly-held objective of hard-line conservatives, has proved to be about as popular as ebola. Moreover, regardless of personal preferences any Republican who tries to run on a platform that does not prominently feature wholehearted support for Trump’s xenophobic and racist views is quickly made to repent the error of his ways, or else face ignominious defeat.

The authors tell their story in clear and engaging terms, supported by their wealth of graphs. They close with

What gave us the 2016 election, then, was not changes among voters. It was changes in the candidates. Only four years earlier, issues like race and immigration were not as central either to the candidates or to voters. The 2016 election was different because of what the candidates chose to do and say—and then, after the election, because of what Trump has chosen to do and say as president. Those choices have had consequences for voters.

Political leaders will always have those choices. They can call someone un-American or a “son of a bitch” or “deplorable.” They can call someone’s country a “shithole.” They can tell us to “beat the crap” out of someone they disagree with. They can also ask us to welcome others, to find common ground, and even to heal the country. These choices are what helped build the identity crisis in American politics. They are also what can help take it apart.

Thus Sides, Tesler and Vavreck show a picture of the political system with greater agency than that presented by Achen and Bartels, but it is agency on the part of the candidates and their handlers rather than the electorate—whose role is to have their latent tendencies activated or not by the candidate. And although they mention the role of the media and the disproportion in their coverage of various aspects of the campaign they do not really engage regarding the extent of media influence, or the role of right-wing agitprop entities such as Fox News, Breitbart, and Rush Limbaugh in activating popular resentments and fears.

Inglehart (again)

I’ve written before of the work of Ronald Inglehart, which I regard as some of the most significant social science of our time. My earlier post included a reference to a paper he co-authored with Pippa Norris, “Trump and the Populist Authoritarian Parties: The Silent Revolution in Reverse” (Perspectives on Politics 15, no. 2 (2017): 443–54.)

Recently Inglehart, with colleagues Jon Miller and Logan Woods, gave a talk along broadly similar lines at the American Political Science Assn. meeting, “The Silent Revolution in Reverse: Trump and the Xenophobic Authoritarian Populist Parties.” It has not yet been seen print but no doubt will and in the meantime is available in working paper form at the link.

What these two articles have to say can best be conveyed, I think, in a merged paraphrase of their abstracts:

Growing up taking survival for granted makes people more open to new ideas and more tolerant of outgroups. Insecurity has the opposite effect, stimulating an Authoritarian Reflex in which people close ranks behind strong leaders, with strong in-group solidarity, rejection of outsiders, and rigid conformity to group norms. The 35 years of exceptional security experienced by developed democracies after WWII brought pervasive cultural changes and the spread of democracy. Postwar prosperity brought these changes with a substantial time lag, since they moved at the pace of intergenerational population replacement; and though high levels of security were conducive to these changes, short-term economic downturns brought temporary reversions to Materialist values rooted in security anxieties. During the past 35 years, economic growth continued, but virtually all of the gains went to those at the top; the less-educated experienced declining existential security, fueling support for Populist Authoritarian phenomena such as Brexit, France’s National Front and Trump’s takeover of the Republican party.

This raises two questions: (1) “What motivates people to support Populist Authoritarian movements?” And (2) “Why is the populist authoritarian vote so much higher now than it was several decades ago in high-income countries?” The two questions have different answers. (1) Support for populist authoritarian parties is motivated by a backlash against cultural change. From the start, younger Postmaterialist birth cohorts supported environmentalist parties, while older, less secure cohorts supported authoritarian xenophobic parties, in an enduring intergenerational value clash. (2) But for the past three decades, economic gains have gone almost entirely to those at the top, while a large share of the population experienced declining real income and job security, along with a large influx of immigrants and refugees. thus increasing support for xenophobic parties:. Cultural backlash explains why given individuals support Populist Authoritarian movements. Declining existential security explains why support for these movements is greater now than it was thirty years ago.

The same underlying dynamic is still at work, but it is now moving in reverse. For example, in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, pure Materialists (for whom anxieties about economic and personal security are primary) were nearly four times as likely to have voted for Trump as for Clinton—while pure Postmaterialists confident of their security were fourteen times as likely to have voted for Clinton as for Trump. This value-based cleavage has become much stronger than the once-powerful cleavages based on income, education, occupation or social class.

Also quite recently, Inglehart has published another book, Cultural evolution: People’s motivations are changing, and reshaping the world  (Cambridge U.P., 2018) which discusses these themes in greater depth. I have only just started it but so far so good.

Finally, Norris and Inglehart are due very shortly to publish yet another book that is clearly relevant to the issues discussed here, Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism (Cambridge U.P., 2018).

What is to be done?

I want to go into this in greater depth in another post, but fundamentally I come away seeing two things to be done, one for the nearer term and one for the longer term.

Fundamentally we need to make our political system work better, and to make our electorate think more clearly. The latter is definitely a project mainly for the long haul, but something can be done more immediately on improving the functioning of the political system—and needs to be. Together, Achen & Bartels and Sides, Tesler & Vavreck provide the clue: we need to return to the ideas of the Founders (and specifically James Madison) about tempering popular passions through the influence of the pros who have the will and time to inform themselves and the motivation to exert themselves in favor of stability. In particular, the nominations processes need to be made less “democratic” and more subject to the guidance of the party “establishments.” The point (as Madison and his colleagues quite clearly understood) is not that the pros are smarter or more virtuous but that they have the motivation and means to try to keep the system on the Constitutional rails.

How is this to be done? The answer, friends, is leadership and politics. Those of us who care about such matters need to move to spread the ideas and persuade. Politics may be difficult but it’s unavoidable.

For the longer term project of getting a better, more thoughtful electorate it is Inglehart who provides the clues. It is the lack of security for much of our population over a period of several decades that has bred a generation or more of people who are fundamentally disposed to be hypersensitive to threats from foreigners, people of other races, and people with “strange” beliefs or cultural practices. No matter what happens many of these people will never be able to change this fundamental disposition, which will always be available for activation by unavoidable circumstance or through deliberate manipulation by the unscrupulous.

What can be done is to create an economic environment which essentially all children grow up in an environment of reasonable comfort and security, as well as a public order which makes good on the promise of equal protection under the law for all. Not to create Utopia but to make an environment which will not stunt the emotional development of children and will ready them to be truly independent and responsible adults.

Did I say that I had easy solutions? What this will require, first of all, will be to limit the  disparities in wealth that have grown so enormous over the past few decades, in the first instance by reinstituting heavy taxation for the very rich. It has been done before and it can be done again. Indeed, awareness of the need has already progressed so far as to infect the pages of Fortune magazine

More another time.