New Traffic Patterns Ahead (Part 5 of 5) [WARNING: LONG]

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Trump voters wanted to blow up Washington. Regardless of what else they may disrupt, they have succeeded in disturbing the entrenched partisan divisions which for years have cemented our politics in a tedious and angry stalemate. The election has handed Republicans the imperative to govern and Democrats the need to regroup. These realities will place pressure on both parties and create a four-way political dynamic. Democrats will still oppose Republicans and Republicans will still oppose Democrats, but these disputes will be complicated by the heightened presence of intra-party wrangling. The stress of governing promises to exacerbate Republican divisions between conservatives and reactionaries. The stress of losing power will advance the cause of progressives in the Democratic Party and empower them to confront entrenched monied interests with greater determination.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Before the election, the Reagan coalition was in twilight but still resistant enough to prevent Barack Obama from repudiating it, and the lingering pull of a business-centered neoliberal politics prevented the Democratic president from bringing about the kind of progressive economic changes which might have broadened his coalition. Both these things may change in the months ahead.

Now that they have more power, Republicans paradoxically are more vulnerable to succumbing to internal strife between conservatives and reactionaries. Governing is hard. It puts pressure on coalition partners in the best of times, which these most certainly are not. Trump ran as the leader of a reactionary faction, which remains a minority even in the Republican Party. His governing options are tricky. Reactionary candidacies like Trump’s are oppositional rather than forward-looking. He is not positioned to implement a new agenda based on the campaign because he never asked for a mandate to do anything other than build a border wall, deport undocumented immigrants and keep Muslims from Read More

Donald Trump as Jimmy Carter (4 of 5)

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One of the key analytical frameworks of my book Next Generation Netroots is derived from the work of Yale political scientist Steven Skowronek, who views presidential administrations in terms of their relationship to prevailing political coalitions rather than as isolated entities. Skowronek contends that the options available to presidents and the results they achieve are determined to a large degree by their position in what he calls political time—whether they come to office in support of or in opposition to an era’s dominant political regime, and whether that regime is strong or vulnerable during the president’s administration. Political regimes are the electoral coalitions that dominate politics for long stretches of time before they succumb to infighting among coalition partners and lose the ability to govern. So the New Deal coalition, which dominated politics from 1932 through the 1960s, began to weaken as southern whites abandoned it in the wake of the civil rights reforms of the Johnson era. The Reagan coalition that followed is now running on fumes, its once strong alliance of fiscal, social and foreign policy conservatives burdened by divisions so great that a large number of party regulars wouldn’t endorse or utter the name of their standard bearer.

Presidents who serve at the start of a regime are the ones you remember. Skowronek calls them “reconstructive” presidents because they initiate a new regime on the strength of an electoral mandate they interpret as a rejection of the old. These presidents have the political space to get things done. Think Reagan, FDR, Lincoln, Jackson, Jefferson. Bill Clinton, who served at a less propitious regime stage, once said that if he could switch places in history with Franklin Roosevelt he would be remembered as a great president. No kidding.

“Disjunctive” presidents fall at the other end of the spectrum. These are the unhappy souls who serve at the end of a regime cycle. Try as they might, they are unable to hold together a spent coalition and find themselves reviled by their contemporaries and consigned to the worst-ever list with Herbert Hoover and James Buchanan. Jimmy Carter was the Read More

The Hard Path (3 of 5)

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In my previous post, I compared the political climate to an intense storm and suggested that it has been building for years. The frontal boundary is the place where the portion of the electorate that supported Hillary Clinton is pushing against the portion that supported Donald Trump. The Clinton electorate—young, multicultural, progressive and connected to the 21st century economy—has been building in size and political influence. The Trump electorate—white, older, conservative and connected to the 20th century economy—is shrinking in size and losing its political and cultural dominance. The Obama administration marked a noteworthy shift away from the rightward impulses of the Reagan coalition but it was held in check by the resiliency of a political system not quite weak enough to be repudiated and by a progressive coalition not quite strong enough to do the repudiating.

In this respect, the Obama administration resembles Richard Nixon’s attempt to move the country away from the New Deal. Just as Nixon’s rightward lean drew resistance from the press, the bureaucracy and an opposition legislature, Obama was squeezed by the Democratic Party’s allegiance to monied interests and the Republican Party’s institutional ability to resist his more liberal impulses. Like Nixon, Obama spoke to future leaders who might eventually change the country’s direction should they figure out a way to expand their coalition, as Reagan would several years later. And like Nixon, Obama was correctly viewed as a threat to the status quo and generated intense resistance from the other side. So while Obama was unable to establish a lasting progressive governing coalition, he did advance the interests and sensibilities of the emerging electorate, generating resistance from corners of the population where those interests are not shared. This contributed to the reaction that was Trump’s election.

Our political moment is precarious because both groups can claim a large number of adherents but neither has been able to establish a functioning majority. Our political disputes are intense because each group fears the loss of something fundamental if the other succeeds. This is intensified by the (correct) perception by the right that they are Read More

Change (2 of 5)

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Let’s return to the fundamental premise of this cycle: it was a change election. During the campaign, I wrote extensively about the irony that, according to available public polling, voters clamoring for a new direction were going to ratify the status quo by electing a Democratic president and a Republican congress. Even when a Democratic wave appeared to be building several weeks ago, Democrats were highly unlikely to win enough House seats to end divided government, and even if they could, Hillary Clinton was not a credible change agent. This is why, as I wrote during the campaign, she was a bad fit to the cycle. But her opponent, a boorish, bigoted, unqualified loudmouth, was a bad fit to the electorate, and this bolstered Clinton’s chances. In a change year, Clinton appeared to have gotten lucky by drawing an opponent who was even more disliked than she. By all accounts, the second most disliked candidate in polling history was going to comfortably defeat the most disliked candidate because the Republican Party had nominated someone who was fundamentally unacceptable to too many people.

If there were clues to the strength of the reactionary sentiment roiling the electorate they could have been found in the countless times we heard pundits say that (fill in the appalling Trump news) would have ended any other candidacy. He was almost derailed by the visceral Access Hollywood tape, which vividly confirmed what was already known about Trump’s attitudes and behaviors, but he survived and was ultimately elected despite it, a testament to how badly Read More

Sorting It Out (1 of 5)

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At the Democratic Convention this summer, a respected political operative told me that Hillary Clinton would win the election because Democrats have a structural advantage in the Electoral College, enough to make up for whatever weaknesses she had as a candidate. Demography drives this advantage, which remains in place despite the uprising of rural and suburban white voters that changed the electoral math on Tuesday. Democrats are powered by a large and growing coalition of young, female and ethnically diverse voters in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, Pacific Rim and portions of the South and Southwest where the information economy has taken hold. This is the so-called “blue wall” that Donald Trump breached by turning out record numbers of white voters attached to the old demography and the old economy, the voters who supported Trump because he promised to blow up a political system that no longer works for them and, in turn, re-establish their lost place in the economic and social order. They were angry, and they voted in large enough numbers to deny Clinton the Rust Belt states she was depending on to win.

These economic, social and cultural divides are responsible for the zero-sum character of our politics, and turnout differences between the two groups have prevented either side from forging a lasting political coalition. The Democratic coalition powered Obama’s two victories but didn’t show up in the off years, giving Republicans control of congress and Read More

What Happened? What Now?

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With a few days to reflect and some unsettled sleep, I’ve been able to put together a few observations about how I think we can understand what happened in Tuesday’s election and what it may mean for our politics in the near and long term. Starting tomorrow and over the next several days, I will share my thoughts in a series of five posts:

  • Sorting It Out looks at how a white backlash that was only partially captured by the polls may have been a necessary step on the road to breaking our political stalemate
  • Change explores how the fundamental dynamics of the election were reflected in the outcome, even though the result was so surprising
  • The Hard Path gets into the reasons why any political realignment to emerge from our present politics is going to first require a tumultuous period of uncertainty and risk
  • Donald Trump as Jimmy Carter employs a little social science to suggest why Trump’s election looks like the final chapter in the Reagan regime rather than the start of a new and lasting political alignment
  • New Traffic Patterns Ahead is a very long post explaining what I believe will be the contours of political conflict post-Trump, and why scrambling the status quo could be a very good thing.

The thread running through these posts is uncertainty and opportunity. For those finding it hard to come to terms with what happened, I offer a long-term perspective with hopeful possibilities. And while no one knows how things are going to play out, it may be reassuring to know that history suggests there are encouraging scenarios that may seem unlikely today.

First Things First

posted in: 2016 Election | 0

The shock of yesterday’s election will linger for some time, and the reality of what happened will dawn in stages as we move closer to the inauguration of the new president. I have never missed an election outcome as badly as I missed this one. I read the data and looked at how the campaigns were modeling the electorate. Nothing pointed to white rural and exurban turnout at the levels we saw, and although Clinton seemed to be hitting her turnout numbers in key states, she underperformed with the emerging electorate relative to Obama in 08 and 12. And that was always the key to the election: Hillary had more voters but she had to turn them out. She turned out enough to win the popular vote but not the election. I strongly suspect apathy will not be a problem next time.

There is a lot to be said about what this means and what it portends for our politics, and I will have more to say about that when I get some sleep and have more time to reflect. But first, to everyone who feared a Trump presidency, let me offer a word of support. I have talked to many people today who share a sense of shock and despair. This is normal, and one of the sad facts of yesterday’s election is that regardless of the outcome about half the electorate was going to experience it. To those invested in Hillary’s vision of America the significance of this loss goes well beyond the loss of a normal election. I don’t think it’s possible to move on without first coming to terms with what happened. That can take time. Remember, countless tens of millions are going through this right now. And there is strength in numbers.


A Moment To Reflect

posted in: 2016 Election | 0

Tomorrow, barring the biggest polling failure in history, Hillary Rodham Clinton will be elected President of the United States.

This interminable, hideous campaign will be over and our attention will turn to the frightening prospect of addressing the irreconcilable rifts it has revealed. It may be coincidence that the first female nominee of a major political party drew as her opponent a cartoonish buffoon who embodies every imaginable sexist trope, but it is not by chance that the elevation of a woman to the most important office in the world unleashed so much bile and ugliness from those who do not want to see the world change. Nothing of this magnitude happens without dislocation.

Regardless of what you think of Clinton’s character or politics, she merits enormous respect for staring down an opponent who belittled her, physically stalked her around a debate stage, and threatened to put her in prison for the crime of pretending to be worthy of the office she seeks, and she did it with gritty determination and almost superhuman strength. Like Barack Obama before her, she kept her cool when most ordinary people would have exploded in anger at the things being said about her. She had to if she was going to convince enough people to do something they never had done before, to make real the impossible. In 2008, Barack Obama won the electoral votes of Virginia, a state where his parents’ biracial marriage was illegal when he was a little boy. His soon-to-be successor is the daughter of a woman born in 1919 into a world where women were disenfranchised in most states. Tomorrow’s vote may have been almost a century in the making, but that is merely a heartbeat in human history.

A number of my college students do not sense the historic nature of what is about to occur. Ever since they have been cognizant of the larger world, a black man has been president. It only makes sense to them that a woman will be, too. They do not remember a time when if you were female your professional opportunities ranged from secretary to school Read More

Almost There

posted in: 2016 Election | 0

So here we are, in the closing hours of this abnormal and abysmal election, moving inexorably toward a zero-sum decision about our future. The magnitude of the stakes has generated a level of anxiety and concern that feels unmatched in recent times. People can’t sleep or concentrate. I don’t recall this level of fear about a McCain or Romney presidency, as odious as those prospects may have been to Obama supporters, and for good reason. It is almost impossible to imagine the scope of damage a Trump presidency would do to the nation and the world. Yet to core Trump supporters the stakes are just as irreversible. The America they long for is disappearing and if the candidate who has disingenuously promised to bring it back is defeated by the candidate who believes we are stronger together, what options will be left to them to roll back the social and economic changes of the 21st century by ordinary political means?

The anxiety level among Clinton supporters spiked after the Comey story broke and the media abandoned the narrative of certain Clinton victory. It defies logic that a nation as polarized as ours could lurch from a potential Democratic landslide to a possible Trump victory in less than a week, but in the emotional realm where we experience elections anything short of certainty is terrifying. The prospect of a Trump presidency is so frightening that just entertaining the possibility is enough to cause sleepless nights.

So let’s get back to basics. I have always contended that this election boils down to the simple observation that there are more Clinton voters than Trump voters, where the key unknown is whether they will turn out. We now have ample evidence that they will. We don’t have to wait for Election Day to know this, because they already are.

Look at North Carolina, where the New York Times suggests Clinton holds a strong lead in early voting built on the ballots of new or infrequent voters. Or look at Florida, where Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said early voting was up 52% over 2012 as of Friday, with Latino participation up 120%, Asian-American participation up 90%, Millennial Read More

Three Scenarios

posted in: 2016 Election | 0

As I write, the 2016 election is well underway, with 12.6 million votes already cast as of yesterday and with the prospect of perhaps 40 million being cast before November 8. For these millions of voters, the election is over. But even for those who still could be influenced by events yet to unfold, we have reached the point where attitudes have settled and the remaining uncertainty surrounds who will show up to vote.

The electorate is now like a molten chocolate cake, hardened on the outside with a soft center of undecided voters and weak supporters. The final margins of the contest will depend on what these voters decide to do, but so much is baked into the electorate that it is hard to see how their decisions overwhelm the constants I wrote about earlier. Some of these undecided voters will no doubt decide that staying home makes more sense or is less stressful than making a choice between two unacceptable options. Others will vote for the candidate they have been leaning towards all along. Unless something happens to upset the underlying parameters of the election, few will change their mind at this point.

Here are three possible scenarios for how things will play out:

Landslide. Before the Comey email revelation, this is where things were heading. Clinton was expanding the map into Arizona, Georgia, Utah and even Texas, a luxury she could afford because she had essentially locked up enough electoral votes to win. Riding a median national lead in the 6-8 point range, she could afford to allocate resources to traditionally red states where Trump is underperforming. With Trump being written off by national Republicans and in media narratives, he faced the prospect of losing support on Election Day if his campaign came to be viewed as a lost cause. And talking about the election being rigged didn’t help matters. This scenario, which is still reflected in our State of the Race electoral map, would give Democrats an excellent chance to take back the Senate. If the spiral Read More

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