On the Future of American Politics

by Ali Minai

072815_baierIt is only the fall of 2015, and the United States is already in the grip of the Presidential campaign for an election that is still more than a year away. Since the emergence of 24-hour news, and especially with the explosive growth in social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, each successive American election cycle has become increasingly like a reality TV spectacle rather than a serious political event, culminating in the current ascendancy of an actual reality TV figure – Donald Trump – as the leading candidate from the party of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Millions are now watching Presidential debates purely for their entertainment value, and the American political system appears to have become a joke. But, of course, appearances are deceptive in this case. Anyone who pays attention to events around the globe understands that electing the leadership of the world's only superpower is extremely serious business with global consequences. And this is arguably more true today than at any time in history – even during the World Wars and the Cold War – because, while those challenges were dire and existential, the problems the world faces today are no less serious but even more complex. These problems – climate change, demographic and socioeconomic imbalances, the rise of jihadist militancy, mass migrations, etc. – all are, to a large extent, products of our hyperconnected, supercharged, always-on brave new world powered by the relentless march of technology towards ever higher activity, productivity, and connectivity. All of them, without exception, can be addressed only with global strategies, and not through piecemeal policy-making by national governments. But, at precisely this delicate moment, the world finds itself paralyzed with petty rivalries and feckless indecision. A lot of this is simply the inescapable product of history, but it is impossible to deny that increasing political dysfunction in the United States is a major risk factor for the many potential catastrophes staring us in the face. Anyone concerned about these dangers should care deeply about the political system of the United States and its prospects of recovery from its current funk.

Given the stability of the Democratic and Republican parties in American politics for more than 150 years, it is natural that most predictive analysis has focused on the prospects for these two parties. Through the six plus years of the Obama Presidency, a fairly widely held opinion has emerged among the American political punditocracy that the future belongs to the Democrats because of a widening demographic advantage, and that the Republican Party is staring down the abyss of irrelevance. The recent chaos following the resignation of John Boehner as Speaker has only reinforced this narrative. In the wake of Mitt Romney's defeat in the 2012 Presidential election, there was much soul-searching in the Republican Party, culminating in a definitive critical analysis by Reince Priebus, the party's chairman. Among other things, his Growth and Opportunity Project report said:

The nation's demographic changes add to the urgency of recognizing how precarious our position has become. …. America is changing demographically, and unless Republicans are able to grow our appeal the way GOP governors have done, the changes tilt the playing field even more in the Democratic direction. In 1980, exit polls tell us that the electorate was 88 percent white. In 2012, it was 72 percent white. Hispanics made up 7 percent of the electorate in 2000, 8 percent in 2004, 9 percent in 2008 and 10 percent in 2012. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, in 2050, whites will be 47 percent of the country while Hispanics will grow to 29 percent and Asians to 9 percent. If we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them and show our sincerity.

This analysis has been embraced eagerly by Democrats, who see it validated in their two recent Presidential victories and in Hillary Clinton's strong polling advantage so far for 2016. This, however, has not kept some liberal-leaning thinkers from worrying whether the Democrats' optimism may be misplaced. After all, recent history suggests that the Republicans keep making comebacks after every Democratic advance, and currently have a stronger hold on the American political machinery than at any time since Franklin Roosevelt was elected President in 1932. Probably the best encapsulation of concern over the Democratic Party's future is a recent piece in Vox.com by Matt Yglesias, who begins the article with this stark rejoinder:

The Democratic Party is in much greater peril than its leaders or supporters recognize, and it has no plan to save itself.

Yes, Barack Obama is taking a victory lap in his seventh year in office. Yes, Republicans can't find a credible candidate to so much as run for speaker of the House. Yes, the GOP presidential field is led by a megalomaniacal reality TV star. All this is true — but rather than lay the foundation for enduring Democratic success, all it's done is breed a wrongheaded atmosphere of complacence.”

Yglesias goes on to argue – correctly – that, while the Democrats may be strong at the Presidential level, they have very little power at all lower levels. Both houses of Congress are strongly Republican. The Republicans hold “70 percent of state legislatures, more than 60 percent of governors, 55 percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state”. As anyone who understands American politics knows, most real power resides at these lower levels. This is especially true of redistricting – the process of drawing the boundaries of state and federal electoral districts – which has been the Republicans' main mechanism for achieving their legislative dominance. What worries Yglesias especially is that he sees the Democrats as having no plan to overcome these problems, whereas he finds the Republicans to be ideologically “flexible” in their willingness to nominate moderate candidates to make inroads in Democratic-leaning states such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Perhaps the first, obvious indication that Yglesias' analysis is “at least somewhat wrong” is this last bit about Republican flexibility. In the last seven years, the Republican Party has been anything but ideologically flexible as a party. True, moderate candidates such as Chris Christie in New Jersey have occasionally been nominated, but recent history shows many more cases where nominating ideologically pure candidates rather than an electable moderates cost the Republicans easily winnable seats. The prime examples of this are the nominations of Christine “I'm not a witch” O'Donnell in Delaware and Sue Lowden of chicken fame in Nevada in 2010. These losses actually kept the Republicans from a Senate takeover in that year, which was crucial to the passage of President Obama's health care reform. The Democrats have not lost a major election for ideological reasons since McGovern in 1972, and have frequently nominated non-liberal candidates. In states such as Wisconsin and Florida, the Republicans actually won governorships with very conservative candidates riding the wave of big money, not with moderates. So inflexible is the Republicans' ideology that their House Speaker just quit in desperation, and virtually no credible candidate was willing to step up to replace him for fear of the ideologues' wrath. Conservative writers are asking questions such as: “Is the GOP still a party?” The Democratic Party spans an ideological spectrum from conservative Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia to liberal Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. Meanwhile, Chris Christie, the poster boy for the Republican Party's ideological “flexibility”, cannot break 4% in national Republican support in his current Presidential bid. There is no reasonable interpretation of facts under which Yglesias is correct on his point about Republican flexibility. But what of the rest of his argument?

An important thing to keep in mind is that the political process is a dynamical one. Analyses based on a snapshot are very likely to be wrong, but political pundits often favor them because they are easier to sell to an audience with a limited attention span. Looking at the dynamics of the last twenty-five years, one can easily chart a plausible strategy for the Democrats to overcome the problems pointed out by Yglesias and others. The election of 2020 is the key to this strategy.

Given a Congressional electoral cycle of two years and a Presidential cycle of four years, long-term change must come from elsewhere. As Yglesias notes, one of the levers for such change is the power to draw congressional districts. The other is the power to appoint federal and state judges. Both of these point to the same crucial requirement for the Democrats: Resounding success in the 2020 Presidential election with a high turnout of Democratic voters. This makes the 2016 election especially important for Democrats and liberals because it must – absolutely must – put in office a Democratic President who can run a very strong, exciting 2020 re-election campaign, turning it into the “wave election” that is needed to overturn widespread Republican control at all levels of government. There are two reasons why the 2020 election is especially important.

First, redistricting is controlled by state legislatures and is based on census data. Though some states allow redistricting at any time, most states only do redistricting following a new census, which happens in years divisible to ten. The last one happened in 2010; the next one will occur in 2020. The party that finds itself in control of more legislatures after the 2020 election will, in effect, decide the map for the following ten years. The problem for Democrats is that large blocs of their voters – minorities, young people, etc. – do not show up to vote in non-Presidential year elections. This was demonstrated in the 1994, 2002, 2010 and 2014 elections, and may well happen again in 2018. The exceptions were 1998 and 2006 when Democrats were highly motivated for specific reasons – the Clinton impeachment and the Iraq war. The 2010 election was especially critical because the Republicans gained control of many state legislatures and were able to redistrict these states to ensure Republican majorities in the future. But, unlike 2010, 2020 is a Presidential election year, when a high turnout of Democratic voters motivated by a strong candidate can, in fact, flip many state legislatures and governorships to Democratic control, thus putting them in a position to draw districts more friendly to Democrats. This will greatly improve and entrench the Democratic position in state legislatures and the U.S. House. A strong Presidential candidate in 2020 will also enable the Democrats to elect more U.S. Senators, thus nullifying the Republicans' slight structural advantage in the partisan balance of states (24 lean Democratic, 25 Republican and one – Virginia – is evenly divided). The best option for a high energy, high turnout 2020 election for Democrats is to have an incumbent Democratic President running for re-election with all the advantages of incumbency.

Some may wonder why Democrats should be able to win at the Congressional and state levels even with a strong Presidential candidate, since they would still be running in Republican-drawn districts. The answer lies in an interesting irony. In highly Republican states like Texas or Alabama, it is easy to draw strongly Republican districts, but when it comes to states such as Michigan, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, where Democrats outnumber Republicans statewide, a higher count of Republican districts is achieved by packing most of the Democrats into a few highly Democratic districts and distributing the Republicans strategically across the rest. This is made easier by the fact that Democrats often tend to be concentrated in urban centers. However, the Republican districts created by this process are often only weakly Republican because a smaller Republican population is being used to “cover” more districts. For example, based on data from the widely-respected Cook Political Report, only five of Michigan's 14 Congressional districts lean Democratic, but the Democrats' voter advantages in these are 10, 6, 15, 34, and 29 percent, whereas the Republican advantages in the remaining 9 districts are 5, 7, 4, 5, 1, 3, 2, 6, and 4 percent. Overall, Democrats outnumber Republican voters by 4% in the state, but Republicans enjoy a 4-seat advantage in the U.S. House because of this uneven districting. Similarly, of the 18 Congressional districts in Pennsylvania, only five lean Democratic, with margins of 28, 38, 13, 15 and 4 percent. The average margin for the 13 Republican districts is just 6.6%. Statewide, Democrats outnumber Republican voters by 1%, but the Congressional delegation is lopsidedly Republican. Similar schemes are in place at the level of state districts drawn by Republican legislatures elected through such machinations in the first place. Thus, the Republicans have developed a nice little self-reinforcing mechanism that works to cement their advantage in midterm elections when Democrats vote in lesser numbers, and in Presidential election years with a strong Republican candidate. However, in a wave year when Democrats are unusually energized (and the Republicans a bit depressed), many of the carefully constructed, barely-Republican districts can flip to the Democrats, as happened in 2006. Thus, the Republican scheme for ensuring their majority in state legislatures and the U.S. House carries in it the seeds of its own fragility. The key for Democrats is to have this kind of wave happen at a time just before a new census. It did not happen in 2000 or 2010, thus paving the way for the current Republican dominance. It is unlikely to happen in 2016 with a non-incumbent candidate, or in 2018, which is a non-Presidential election. The Democrats, therefore, must make it happen in 2020. If they do, they can entrench their control over all levels of government for at least another decade, and perhaps longer. Very importantly, they could also nullify the expected Republican advantage in the midterm election of 2022.

The second reason why winning in 2016 and especially 2020 is very important is the appointment of federal judges, including Justices of the Supreme Court. Ultimately, these courts decide what laws stand or fall, and what laws are even possible. There is no better instrument for long-term policy change than the endorsement of the judiciary, as has been demonstrated in the cases of abortion rights and gay marriage. The federal courts were systematically packed with Republicans by Reagan and George Bush Sr. during their 12 consecutive years in the White House, and many of their appointees still occupy the bench. The same is true of appointees by Republican governors at the state level. However, in his two terms, President Obama has begun to change this significantly, building upon the earlier legacy from the Clinton years, which George W. Bush was not completely able to undo. By the time Barack Obama leaves office, well over a third of the federal judiciary will consist of his appointees. Even more importantly, perhaps ten of the thirteen circuit courts of appeal will be dominated by Democratic appointees. But eight years of one President are not enough to make a truly decisive difference. Even 12 years may not be sufficient given that the legislature will still be Republican, but eight more years of a Democratic administration after Obama, with Democratic control of the U.S. Senate between 2020 and 2024, will truly place a Democratic stamp on the judiciary for decades to come. Again, this requires a Democratic wave in 2020.

Of course, winning elections in the United States requires more than majorities of registered voters. In particular, they also require a lot of money and voter mobilization. Thus, to win the Presidency in 2016 and 2020, and to fully realize the benefits of any redistricting, the Democrats must safeguard the strong donor bases built by the Clinton and Obama teams, and work to maintain their lead over the Republicans in terms of analytics and voter outreach. It is thus very important that they nominate a 2016 Presidential candidate with strong institutional support, a large donor base, high visibility, widespread loyalty from all blocs of Democratic voters, and an agenda that can maintain the demographic momentum towards the Democrats. Most Democratic voters would also like to ensure that the candidate share their principles and policy positions, but that is, in fact, less critical than the ability to appoint judges and entrench state legislatures. Barring any self-inflicted calamity, the Democrats are in a good position to ensure this with a strong Clinton candidacy in 2016.

But what of the longer term? Are we truly in for a permanent Democratic majority? Far from it, though for reasons that do not bode well for anyone. The scenario described above represents only a “political” mechanism to establish Democratic control for a decade or two, not a fundamental transformation. Natural and historical processes are far more powerful, and will eventually prevail. These – unfortunately, in my opinion – favor a conservative resurgence unless progressives and moderates can fundamentally change the societal narrative.

Though both Republicans and Democrats have significant intellectual components to their world-views, these move only small fractions of the electorate. The vast majority of voters are motivated more by gut feeling than by analysis – by “fast” thinking rather than “slow”, to use Daniel Kahnemann's memorable formulation. Both conservatives and liberals have always realized this, but the instruments of emotional manipulation available to the two sides are quite asymmetric. Conservatism – at least as practiced currently by Republicans – can use the deep-seated, ancestral and universal mechanisms of faith, tribal solidarity, self-interest, anger and fear quite readily. Democrats, in contrast, have needed to evoke their resentments and indignations through more complicated means, relying on constructs such as social justice, economic fairness, universal human rights, gender equality, etc. Wonderful as these principles are, they are of recent historical origin, and connected more to learned response than to primal instincts. Making them politically operational by linking them to deeper emotions has created an ad-hoc patchwork of group-wise motivations on the liberal side that conservatives deride justifiably as “identity politics”. The alternative of defining a universal liberal ideology that connects with human nature at the same visceral level as faith and patriotism is still a work in (slow) progress – perhaps awaiting a time when humanity as a whole would need to define itself as a tribe against aliens from outer space! Until that momentous event, we are stuck with the asymmetry that makes “paranoid style” conservatism the base state of human nature, and liberal humanism a learned attitude.

Meanwhile, on planet Earth things are deteriorating rapidly. A changing climate, economic crises unsustainable demands on resources, transnational conflict, massive migrations, pandemics,– all point to a most turbulent and stressful near-future. History indicates that, with few exceptions, the natural response of human societies to stress is to turn towards ideological and tribal attitudes, and to seek solace in blind faith and ritual rather than reason. Addressing these problems may require rational strategies, scientific advances, technological innovation, and international cooperation, but the more likely response from societies at large is a reversion to illiberal attitudes, a revival of religious intolerance, a resurgence of xenophobia, a renewal of age-old animosities, and a general repudiation of humanist values. We are already beginning to see this in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. Some European states are responding to the current migration crisis with decidedly xenophobic measures. Ultra-right wing nativist parties are surging in several European countries. Conservatives in Canada – Canada! – just tried (but failed) to win a national election by inciting fear and loathing for Muslim immigrants. How long can the world's first modern democracy escape this trend? Indeed, the rise of openly nativist candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson shows that the process is already underway.

The real challenge, then, is not for the Democratic Party per se, as Yglesias would have us think, but for the larger liberal humanist enterprise that the Democratic Party claims to champion. Can progressive Democrats develop a truly unifying humanistic vision capable of capturing the imagination of the American electorate at the basic, instinctive level, rather than simply defining themselves in opposition to conservative Republicans? If not, then the weakening of the Republican Party will inevitably be followed by the disintegration of the Democratic Party, and the collapse of the liberal project. It may take another two or three decades, but the current American system of two political parties and their left-right dichotomy will then be replaced by a new alignment that will scramble the current structure, with constituencies on both sides finding new allies. It is hard to say what, if any, party structure will emerge from this chaos, or if the Republican and Democratic parties would survive in some form. Perhaps new parties will emerge to preach an effective gospel of Science or of truly compassionate, universal Faith. But it is quite possible that a visitor to the United States in 2050 or 2075 will not find the optimistic country of Lincoln or Obama, but a dystopia from the swamp of Donald Trump's imagination. That is, if they can get a visa to enter at all!