The Volokh Conspiracy

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Reconstructing American Politics

Trump, Failed Political Regimes, and the Illiberal Politics of the Future


On a recent episode of The Bulwark podcast with Charlie Sykes, Reason editor-at-large Nick Gillespie noted that Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan had more in common than we often think, pointing in particular to the deregulatory wave that began under Carter. Music to my ears.

The connection is worth thinking about. Stephen Skowronek, a political scientist at Yale, has provided some useful insights into the relationship between presidents and political parties over the course of American history. In what he called the "politics of political time," he noted that such surprising pairings as Carter and Reagan could help us see deeper patterns in the development of American politics. Individual presidencies exist within a matrix of ambition, opportunity and strategic constraints. I found it pretty useful for thinking about the relationship between presidents and judges and the contours of American constitutionalism as well.

Some presidents, which Skowronek called reconstructive, are able to significantly remake American politics, reorganizing ideological commitments, political interests and public policy in ways that leave a lasting impression on the political landscape. For a generation or more, politicians operate in their shadows. Historically great presidents like Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Reagan fit this mold.

The politics that characterize other presidencies are defined, in part, by their relationship to those reconstructive moments. Some presidents, such as James Polk and Lyndon Johnson, build on those legacies. Others, like Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton, accommodate themselves to a political era defined by the priorities and values of their partisan opposition. Still others, like Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, are trapped by their association with a failing political regime that cannot respond effectively to the needs of the moment. Skowronek gave this last group the somewhat awkward title of disjunctive presidencies.

Disjunctive presidencies have some interesting features in part because they tend to anticipate the reconstructive politics still to come. Hoover's bitter criticism of Franklin Roosevelt tends to obscure the extent to which his brand of Progressivism foreshadowed the New Deal. Ronald Reagan's effort to distance himself from the failed Carter presidency masks the extent to which Carter's efforts to remake the Democratic coalition and Democratic policies found echoes in what Reagan subsequently built.

Corey Robin, Julia Azari, and Jack Balkin have pointed out that the Donald Trump presidency looks much like the politics of disjunction. Trump claims the mantle of an old and established political party, but the coalition seems hollowed out and often a parody of itself. The competing demands of the old coalition are increasingly irreconcilable, and the old policy palliatives seem played out. Trump happily casts aside some of the intellectual, electoral and political constituents of the old Reagan coalition while trying to draw in his own set of Trump Democrats. He is willing defy conservative ideological orthodoxy, but has no meaningful ideology of his own.

All of which raises the question of what comes next. The future is hardly set in stone. Partisans always imagine that they are riding the wave of an electoral realignment that will wash away the political past and reveal a new political future. Donald Trump's partisans have embraced such fantasies themselves. They may well be right that the Republican Party that emerges from the present moment will bear the mark of Donald Trump rather than that of Ronald Reagan. Nevertheless, the prospects of such a party commanding an electoral majority do not seem promising. On the other hand, the Democrats might well overplay their hand and follow the path of William Jennings Bryan into an electoral dead end of their own.

What elements of the Trump presidency will be incorporated into the future political order? The norm-busting and institutional erosion? The race-baiting and identity politics? The economic nationalism and trade protectionism? The populist statism? For libertarians, the tenor of American politics in the long shadow of Ronald Reagan was hardly ideal but frequently reasonably good. The coming years look rather bleak. The future might not belong to Trump, but it might be pretty Trumpy.