Monday, March 7, 2016

Explaining Trump, Part I: Party Reform Strikes Back

For now, I think I'll take a break from the Trump To Political Science: Drop Dead series, and start talking about what political science has to say to explain Donald Trump.  As teased earlier, explaining Trump requires everyone to go back and read a 1983 book by Nelson W. Polsby.  Nelson is still right.

There is currently a series on political science and Trump over at The Monkey Cage in which John Sides and Michael Tesler talk about individual voters, and how what we know about voting behavior explains voters' willingness to support The Donald.  Big topics include race, the role of ideology, etc.  Well worth reading.  Not much in the way of grappling with failed theories, though, and I stand by my assertion from the Drop Dead series that Trump should have collapsed under the weight of media scrutiny if The Gamble's model had gotten it right this year.

While the explanations over at Monkey Cage focus on individual voters, what is missing is a party-level theory to explain Trump.  As it turns out, we have one.  Now begins an homage to Nelson Polsby, my grad school mentor, who wrote a book in 1983 that explains pretty much everything that is happening now.  The book is Consequences of Party Reform, and it should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand or comment on 2016.

Polsby's argument begins with 1968, which I keep referencing.  The 1968 Democratic race was a mess.  The incumbent president was Lyndon Johnson, and while he was constitutionally permitted to run again since he hadn't actually served two full terms, a funny thing happened in New Hampshire.  He won!  But, he won by a smaller margin than expected, and dropped out of the race.  The heir apparent was Robert Kennedy, but he was assassinated.  That left a contest between Johnson's VP, Hubert Humphrey, and Eugene McCarthy.  The big issue in the Democratic Party at the time was Vietnam.  Johnson had escalated it, and public opinion within the party was turning staunchly against it among voters, many of whom simply didn't trust Humphrey.  The antiwar activists backed McCarthy, who cleaned up in the primaries.

However, most of the delegates to the convention were just party muckety-mucks who could vote however they pleased, regardless of the primaries in their states.  They backed Humphrey, against the will of the voters, and McCarthy's supporters rioted.  Humphrey then lost to Nixon, who claimed to have a secret plan to end the Vietnam War.  It took somewhat longer than one might have expected.

Regardless, the Democrats then formed the McGovern-Fraser Commission to propose new rules in order to avoid this kind of thing in the future.  The new rules essentially required states to select their delegates through primaries and caucuses.  That way, the convention couldn't nominate someone against the will of the voters.  Republicans then followed suit.

The bigger mess came in 1976, when the Democratic primary voters selected Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, who had no connection to the national Democratic Party.  The pre-reform system never would have nominated him because the muckety-mucks wouldn't have even considered him.  After a messy presidency, Carter lost his reelection to Reagan in 1980.

OK, see what happened there?  The creation of a post-McGovern-Fraser system allowed a candidate outside the party establishment to win the nomination.  That was the whole point of the reforms!

Now, remember that Party Decides nonsense?  The whole point of that book was to claim that party establishment types had retaken control in the post-reform world.  Supposedly, the muckety-mucks figured out that if they endorsed and contributed to their chosen candidates, there wouldn't be any more Carters.

But here we are, with those darned voters doing exactly what post-1968 party reform empowered them to do.  And the result is a party headed towards the nomination of someone distrusted by the party establishment.  Doesn't this sound suspiciously familiar?  We are surprised that voters are nominating someone who isn't the party establishment's choice?  THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT THE CURRENT SYSTEM IS DESIGNED TO DO!

Two lessons here:

1)  Institutional rules affect outcomes.  Where the Party Decides-volk went wrong is in disregarding institutional rules.  The rules are set up to allow a Carter/Trump type candidate.  Guess what:  institutions matter.

2)  Institutional rules change.  Carter was the result of a new set of rules, adopted in response to the problems of 1968.  Rules were then changed again in response to Carter (superdelegates-- more on these people in a future post).  If Trump wins the nomination and then either loses the general or has a disastrous presidency, Republicans will change their rules to try to stop a future Trump.

If you want to understand 2016, then, read Nelson Polsby's Consequences of Party Reform.  There's more.  Polsby's book is more about the Carter presidency than the election, and his observations tell us a lot about what happens when an outsider, not well-respected by his own party in DC, becomes president.  It also helps understand what happens in a party in response to these kinds of circumstances.  These will be the topics of future posts.

For now, those worried that Trump is either Hitler or Mussolini should add another name to the list of historical comparisons:  Jimmy Carter.  Of course, there's this.

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