Responsibility for Trump: Part II

Yesterday I talked about the intellectual treason ā€“ I don’t think the word is too strong in the circumstances ā€“ of most of the leadership class in the Republican Party and the broader conservative movement. Today’s subject is the rank and file, who have taken their cues from their leaders.

Unlike the behavior of the leadership, what Republican voters will do is still to some extent unknown. My view is that the polls are still overstating Donald Trump’s support, and that Hillary Clinton will win tomorrow by a larger margin than most pundits expect. (I could, of course, be wrong about this.)

Nonetheless, we have enough polling information to be confident that this will not be the almighty landslide that the detached observer might have expected. It will not be on the scale of 1964, when Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater with 61.5% of the two-party vote* and 44 of the 50 states, or 1972, when Richard Nixon beat George McGovern with 61.8% and 49 states.

Why not? On any plausible story, Trump is a much less qualified candidate than Goldwater or McGovern, and his campaign has been far more disorganised. (More controversially, I think Clinton will be a much better president than either Johnson or Nixon.) Why is he not being annihilated in the polls?

There are a number of possible answers to this question to do with the nature of Trump’s support and the nature of the hostility to Clinton. But although those things are part of the story, I think the more important part has nothing to do with either of these two candidates: it’s a general change in the way American politics works.

Put simply, the US is a more polarised country than it has been for a long time. Party identification matters more and is felt more strongly, and the trend has been clear since well before the rise of Trump. I don’t have time to chase down all the survey data, but much of it is notorious ā€“ one YouGov poll reportedly found that 49% of Republican parents would be bothered if their son or daughter married a Democrat. In 1960, the figure was only 5%.

In any case, you don’t really need surveys: the election results themselves make the point. Voters are more loyal to their party regardless of the position or candidate; the correlation between presidential, Senate, House and even state election voting has been steadily growing for more than 40 years. (Here’s a graph of the Senate/presidential nexus.)

When McGovern was wiped out in 1972, the Democrats nonetheless held on to clear majorities in both houses of Congress. It’s impossible to imagine anything like that happening now. Straight ticket voting has become the norm.

The tendency of Republican politicians to stick by their presidential candidate no matter what, while reprehensible, is at least understandable: their game is power, so they stick together. But as far as I know, no-one has offered any good explanation for why their voters have also become so wedded to the party.

As long as this continues, landslides in America will be a thing of the past: if Trump could not produce one, who could? None of the last four election winners have scored more than 54%, a run unprecedented since the nineteenth century. Tomorrow might even make it five.

Mention of the nineteenth century reminds us that this is not just partisanship, it’s a particular sort of partisanship. As Matt Yglesias explained in a must-read story last year, politics in the late 1800s was highly partisan, in the sense that voter loyalties were strong and the parties were evenly matched.

But there was little ideological difference at stake; the parties fought over the division of spoils rather than over significant ideas or policies. Now that has changed. As Yglesias puts it:

For decades, politicians found themselves cross-pressured between their commitments to a national party network and to various ideological causes. Today, however, politicians are no longer cross-pressured. We have strong Gilded Age-style parties, but organized around questions of principle rather than questions of patronage.

As a consequence, parties face a different type of internal dissent. Goldwater and McGovern both fractured their parties, but they did so on ideological lines, and the ideological divisions were already there. Republican dissent over Trump, however, as I pointed out yesterday, has been substantially non-ideological.

So we come back to the basic fact that Trump’s surprising strength is not primarily about his policies or character or campaign; it’s about the party’s loyalty to him and voters’ loyalty to the party. And as long as America maintains such an institutionalised two-party system, it’s hard to see how those dynamics will change.

That’s not a pleasant thought: the next Trump, perhaps with more political nous and fewer personal failings, may well succeed where this one fails. Either the system needs to change, or the Republican Party needs to undergo an ideological makeover, and neither of those things looks at all likely.

Tune in tomorrow for a preview of what to watch for as the results come in.


* Technical note: I give all results and margins in two-party terms, factoring out independents and third-party candidates. They will therefore differ slightly from the numbers usually reported in the American media.


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