Saturday, October 22, 2016

Rebuilding a party is easier than rebuilding diffuse support

Back in the Zero-sum politics series, in which I addressed the implications of Trump's rigged election talk (before everyone else, of course), I focused heavily on a concept that David Easton called "diffuse support," which is the extent to which citizens support, not those in power specifically, but the basic constitutional framework of government itself.

Empirically, measuring diffuse support has always been somewhat challenging because asking people what they think about the political system will always tap into their attitudes towards those in power at the time.  Still, the fact that we don't have revolutions is a demonstration of the fact that we do have high levels of diffuse support, compared to other countries.

I'll pose several observations today, then.

First, while the strength of support for any one party can wax and wane, as the title of the post suggests, diffuse support is very hard to build.  The Republican Party had, let's just say, a hard time of things after Watergate.  Then, 1980 came along.  While Ronald Reagan the legend is rather different from Ronald Reagan the actual human being, the fact that Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time in decades in the 1980 election just a few scant years after Watergate tells you something about how comparatively easy it is for parties to rebuild themselves.

How bad is Trump, compared to Watergate?  I don't know.  But, parties can rebuild themselves.  Diffuse support?  That's hard to build, and if that gets torn down by batshit crazy allegations of the election being rigged, we don't know how to get it back.

Second, the fact that we haven't had revolutions is an indication of the level of diffuse support throughout the country.  Make no mistake-- there are real dangers of violence on November 9.  Trump is highly likely to lose, and he is spreading and magnifying batshit crazy conspiracy theories about why he is losing.  That could lead to violence.  Not an organized revolt, but it doesn't take organization to have one nutjob take a shot at another.  However, 2016 is a sort of empirical test of our level of diffuse support.  How much do Trump Republicans really believe in our constitutional system?  We'll find out starting on November 9 if we see a peaceful transfer of power.

Finally, can a party break apart for non-policy reasons?  Empirically, the last major party to break apart was the Whigs.  That was over slavery.  Every time a political scientist is asked about the potential for a party collapse, we go back to the Whigs and talk about the necessity for a cross-cutting issue that divides the party.  While trade and immigration divide the Republican Party, and Trump is associated with those issues, that wouldn't be the thing that could break the party apart.  If there is a risk of Trump breaking apart the Republican Party, it would be this:  Trump loses, and blames the party establishment for not backing him.  His voters decide they have been betrayed, and everyone takes sides in a war of personalities that dissolves the party.  Can that happen?  Probably not.  But, right now, we can't rule anything out, and that brings me back to the title of the post.  Parties can be rebuilt.

At this point, we should default to the prediction of Clinton winning, some sort of mess after the election, and the Republican Party eventually rebuilding itself.  How bad will the mess be?  Will there be violence?  At this point, I have no idea.  I don't rule anything out.


  1. Key difference: Republican politicians distanced themselves from Nixon, almost universally.
    Dems are going to hang Trump around their necks for years.

    Will it work? Doubtful.

    1. Nixon left office with about a 25% job approval rating and had to be pardoned to avoid criminal charges. Trump's average favorability rating at RCP right now is 35%. Of course, Dubya left office with job approval ratings comparable to Nixon's, and Republicans haven't had to do the post-Nixon dance to distance themselves from him. They just pretend he never happened. Trump probably won't face criminal charges for assault, although we'll see what happens with civil charges and Trump University. Still, I agree that it is doubtful that Dems can make long term gains out of Trump. The real challenge is to exploit GOP weakness with minorities. They seem to be going out of their way to help the Dems on that front, but 2018 will be a midterm, and four presidential elections in a row would be nuts. Like, racist/rapist reality show host for president-nuts.

    2. One wonders if we start getting to the point where we start taking the demographic "Dems always win" models more seriously.

      Thinking was that, a la 2014, the GOP would find a way to moderate and fight to a 60/40 or 55/45 Latino split and salvage roughly even odds in presidential elections.

      However, I keep wondering if Trump is the national GOP's Prop 187 moment. At this point, I'm worried about the 2021 redistricting. If the demographic wave theory isn't right, your logic implies some dark shit.

    3. I'm still skeptical of demography-as-destiny arguments, and I have done a few posts here to that effect, but party adjustment is based on the notion that the party is allowed to, ya' know, adjust. If the Trump faction of the GOP keeps demanding white identity politics, well, I see parties as bottom-up organizations, and somebody will given the Trump faction what they want. If that's a plurality, the GOP has long-term problems, and if that pushes others out of the GOP, you've got a potential death spiral. On the other hand, just because my midterm+2020 logic implies some dark shit doesn't mean it's wrong.

    4. Since when would you think dark implications would mean I think something is wrong?