In analyzing how U.S. politics went off the rails, Jonathan Rauch all-but argues that populism and extremism are inseparable. But are they? (More)

“Renegade political behavior pays”

In an intriguing article at The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch blames our current political breakdown on weakened political parties:

Yes, the political future I’ve described is unreal. But it is also a linear extrapolation of several trends on vivid display right now. Astonishingly, the 2016 Republican presidential race has been dominated by a candidate who is not, in any meaningful sense, a Republican. According to registration records, since 1987 Donald Trump has been a Republican, then an independent, then a Democrat, then a Republican, then “I do not wish to enroll in a party,” then a Republican; he has donated to both parties; he has shown loyalty to and affinity for neither. The second-place candidate, Republican Senator Ted Cruz, built his brand by tearing down his party’s: slurring the Senate Republican leader, railing against the Republican establishment, and closing the government as a career move.

The Republicans’ noisy breakdown has been echoed eerily, albeit less loudly, on the Democratic side, where, after the early primaries, one of the two remaining contestants for the nomination was not, in any meaningful sense, a Democrat. Senator Bernie Sanders was an independent who switched to nominal Democratic affiliation on the day he filed for the New Hampshire primary, only three months before that election. He surged into second place by winning independents while losing Democrats. If it had been up to Democrats to choose their party’s nominee, Sanders’s bid would have collapsed after Super Tuesday. In their various ways, Trump, Cruz, and Sanders are demonstrating a new principle: The political parties no longer have either intelligible boundaries or enforceable norms, and, as a result, renegade political behavior pays.

Rauch argues that the decline of party leaders’ influence enabled the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump:

Trump, however, didn’t cause the chaos. The chaos caused Trump. What we are seeing is not a temporary spasm of chaos but a chaos syndrome.

Chaos syndrome is a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization. It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers—political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees – that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal – both in campaigns and in the government itself.

Our intricate, informal system of political intermediation, which took many decades to build, did not commit suicide or die of old age; we reformed it to death. For decades, well-meaning political reformers have attacked intermediaries as corrupt, undemocratic, unnecessary, or (usually) all of the above. Americans have been busy demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties, which is like spending decades abusing and attacking your own immune system. Eventually, you will get sick.

Rauch cites several specific populist changes – primary elections, attempts at campaign finance reform, abandoning the seniority system in Congress, demanding transparency in legislative negotiations, curbing pork-barrel spending – combined to neuter party leaders and thus weaken our ‘political immune system.’


He then offers two “pathogens” that have attacked our political system: the Tea Party (more on that below) and the growing number of Americans who don’t understand – or want to understand – how our system of government works:

A second virus was initially identified in 2002, by the University of Nebraska at Lincoln political scientists John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, in their book Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs About How Government Should Work. It’s a shocking book, one whose implications other scholars were understandably reluctant to engage with. The rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, however, makes confronting its thesis unavoidable.

Using polls and focus groups, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse found that between 25 and 40 percent of Americans (depending on how one measures) have a severely distorted view of how government and politics are supposed to work. I think of these people as “politiphobes,” because they see the contentious give-and-take of politics as unnecessary and distasteful. Specifically, they believe that obvious, commonsense solutions to the country’s problems are out there for the plucking. The reason these obvious solutions are not enacted is that politicians are corrupt, or self-interested, or addicted to unnecessary partisan feuding. Not surprisingly, politiphobes think the obvious, commonsense solutions are the sorts of solutions that they themselves prefer. But the more important point is that they do not acknowledge that meaningful policy disagreement even exists. From that premise, they conclude that all the arguing and partisanship and horse-trading that go on in American politics are entirely unnecessary. Politicians could easily solve all our problems if they would only set aside their craven personal agendas.

The growing prevalence of “politiphobes” making demands on a system with weak party structures, he argues, paved the way for the Tea Party and Donald Trump. Rauch concludes:

Populism, individualism, and a skeptical attitude toward politics are all healthy up to a point, but America has passed that point. Political professionals and parties have many shortcomings to answer for – including, primarily on the Republican side, their self-mutilating embrace of anti-establishment rhetoric – but relentlessly bashing them is no solution. You haven’t heard anyone say this, but it’s time someone did: Our most pressing political problem today is that the country abandoned the establishment, not the other way around.

It’s an interesting thesis and Rauch presents it as a plausible story. But is it backed by evidence?

“The party isn’t ‘the establishment’”

Rauch’s argument rebuts the conventional-until-2016 view expressed by Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller in their book The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform. (By “reform,” they mean the 1970s-era changes that shaped our current political primary process.) Their book has been this year’s most often cited model of our presidential primary system … more so in recent months because Trump’s presumptive nomination supposedly disproves the authors’ thesis that each party’s ‘establishment’ vets candidates from whom voters then make selections in the primaries.

But FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver argues that’s a simplistic misreading of the authors’ more nuanced argument:

The party isn’t “the establishment”

You might associate The Party Decides with an empirical claim made in the book: Endorsements made by influential Republicans and Democrats are a good predictor of who will win each party’s nomination. At FiveThirtyEight, we’ve been keeping track of a subset of those endorsements, those made by current governors and members of Congress in each party.

Our focus on endorsements by governors and members of Congress is mostly a matter of convenience, however. In The Party Decides, the authors consider a much broader array of endorsers, including state legislators, labor unions, interest groups and even celebrities. This is important because, in contrast to earlier scholarship that thinks of parties as consisting solely of politicians and party organizations like the Republican National Committee, the authors of The Party Decides take a more inclusive view. Their parties include not just elected officials but also “religious organizations, civil rights groups … organizers, fundraisers, pollsters, and media specialists” and even “citizen activists who join the political fray as weekend warriors.”

That means the term “Republican establishment” (in addition to its other problems) is not a good approximation for the book’s view on the party. “Anti-establishment” members of Congress, such as the Freedom Caucus, are parts of “the party” as much as members who always vote with leadership. Lots of people within Washington, D.C., are considered to be part of the “party,” but so are people in Kentucky and Alaska. The editors of National Review magazine are probably part of the Republican Party as the book’s authors would define it, but so are bloggers at RedState and conservative talk-radio hosts in Iowa.

The authors of The Party Decides use phrases like “party elites” and “party insiders” to describe this collection of people. An alternative that I sometimes prefer is “influential Democrats” and “influential Republicans.” That’s really the bottom line: These people have some ability to influence the nomination, and they have some interest in doing so. That influence could take many forms, including holding a position of power, having access to a donor network, possessing scarce skills or knowledge, contributing time or money, or having the ability to persuade others through a media platform.

Trump had few endorsements from members of Congress, the RNC, and mainstream media pundits. But he had plenty of support in the right-wing blogosphere, and the authors of The Party Decides include writers at Breitbart and other such blogs among the ‘party elites.’ What 2016 showed is that those voices had far more influence on Republican primary voters than did members of Congress, the RNC, and mainstream media pundits.

Because Trump was already a national celebrity, and rich enough to fund his own primary campaign – aided by a media who awarded him $2 billion in free airtime – he didn’t need the boost that other candidates get from members of Congress, the RNC, and mainstream media pundits.

“Echoed eerily, albeit less loudly, on the Democratic side”

More’s the point, Trump and the Tea Party are one-sided counters to the thesis in The Party Decides.

Hillary Clinton was endorsed by an overwhelming majority of Democratic Party elected officials, and by dozens of organizations whose voices matter to many Democratic voters. She won the Democratic nomination the old-fashioned way: through a career spent listening to and networking with elected officials, union leaders, women’s and minority groups, and others who both influence the Democratic primary electorate and also help enact and implement policy … exactly as Rauch says should happen.

And despite a lot of media hype, the Democratic Party has not fractured. Yes, Bernie Sanders arguably pushed Hillary Clinton and the DNC toward a more progressive platform for 2016. But polls show most Sanders backers will vote for Clinton in November, and probably about at the same percentage as Clinton backers voted for President Obama in 2008.

Even in Congress, Democrats still tend to vote en bloc. When they had majorities from 2009-2011, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Reid sometimes had to add concessions to bills in order to guarantee members’ votes. But again, that’s exactly what Rauch says should happen.

In short, I think Rauch reads too much from two examples of a single dysfunctional party. Our political problem is not too much “populism.” It’s that one party has spent decades stoking white male rage – against women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTs, Muslims, and anyone else they could Other – and now they’re paying the price.


Photo Credit: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung


Good day and good nuts