Thursday, August 31, 2017

A "once in a generation" opportunity for tax reform?

This line caught my attention.  Political science time!  Trump, in typical Trumpian fashion, asserted that right now, there is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for tax reform.  I've written before about the technocratic case for true tax reform, which won't happen, but the sentiment here actually lets me talk about some debunked political science!

In 1955, a prominent political scientist named VO Key wrote a piece called "A Theory of Critical Elections."  With the benefit of hindsight, he was kind of writing out of his ass, but it was extremely influential ass-writing.  Basic idea:  every 30-40 years, there would be a "critical election," or, a "realignment," in which several things would happen.  There would be a change in power where one side would win a massive landslide electoral victory, the parties' social/geographic bases of support would change, and it would establish a new long-term system.  There's more, but I'm just writing a morning blog post.  Which were the critical elections?  1860, 1896, 1932, and then... and then... and then problems because there was supposed to be an earth-shattering kaboom.  Where's my earth-shattering kaboom?  You're making me very angry.

Regardless of that missing realignment which was supposed to happen, but didn't in the 1960s, the model was influential, and David Brady wrote a book called Critical Elections and Congressional Policy Making, arguing that these realignments had important policymaking consequences.  That's... kind of Trump's argument, actually.

Of course, Brady wrote before David Mayhew debunked this whole "realignment" bullshit with Electoral Realignments.  There were supposed to have been three main realignments:  1860, 1896, and 1932.  1860 was kind of unique, and Mayhew found that 1896 looked a whole lot less like a "realignment" by any quantitative measure than several other late-19th Century elections, so why the hell do political historians talk so much about it?  Kinda bullshit.

And the bigger joke, obviously, is that Trump didn't even win that landslide he loves to talk about.  There were a few states that flipped in 2016:  Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.  In recent electoral history, those had been Democratic states, which Trump won very, very narrowly, but to call that a realignment... no.  We still see the same basic demographic faultlines.

So, at the end of the day, no, this isn't an opportunity for tax reform at all.  This isn't an opportunity for major policymaking of any kind except for tax cuts.  Major policy changes happen these days when there is one party government with a cohesive majority.  That wasn't always the case, but it is now.  2008 wasn't a critical election.  Why not?  It didn't establish a long-term Democratic majority, and I warned a lot of people about that.  Also, the basic political demographics stayed similar to previous years.  A small shift handed power to the Dems because it moved just enough states in the electoral map, House and Senate, but the basic geographic and political demographics were pretty similar to previous years.  Major changes happened, though, because the majority party was unified.  2016 wasn't a critical election.  Major changes aren't happening now because the Republicans don't know what the fuck they are doing.  Tax reform is hard.  They can't do hard things, and don't really want to do hard things.  They'll pass some tax cuts set to expire in 10 years because budget reconciliation rules, which allow the Senate to bypass filibusters, can only increase the deficit for 10 years.  That's it.

I bet you didn't think I could write this much political science about a throw-away Trump line!


  1. But 1932 also counts, don't forget.

    Which then reduces the theory to:
    Umm, every so often, something major like the Civil War or Great Depression happens, and governments do more than normal after that, and people change their voting habits.

    This theory has the benefit of being correct. It has the drawback of being kinda tautological (things don't change a lot unless they do).

    1. Not "also." Only. Mayhew's argument was that 1932 was the only real realignment because 1896 was a nothingburger, and 1860 was a) totally different, and b) after a different major party had collapsed. So, basically, "realignment theory" is a theory of 1932. That's not a theory. That's... hey, 1932 was cool and weird!