Why Is American Politics so Loud?

Professor James Morone of Brown University’s Department of Political Science spoke on “Why is American Politics So Loud And What Can We Do About It?” earlier this year in Philadelphia. He is the author of The Devils We Know: Us and Them in America’s Raucous Political Culture.

First, Professor Morone gave us a quick overview of the history of the American presidency. The presidency was not well-thought out by the writers of the Constitution. In fact, Article II had the sketchiest of job descriptions. They only wanted George Washington as their leader; they constructed the presidency on the fly.

Morone referenced the “weak presidents”: Carter, Tyler, Harrison, Garfield, and Adams and the “strong presidents.” The strong prominently included Lyndon B. Johnson, about whom he related several colorful anecdotes of how Johnson led with his personality and sharp grasp of political skills. After his landslide election in 1964, Johnson got Medicare passed with all three parts of coverage (hospital, physician, seniors) in a short period of seven months. Obama later attempted a similar rush on health care; his health care bill passed in Month 11, but it just squeaked by, a month before the Massachusetts legislature changed and the Senate lost a crucial vote. Clinton made his proposal in Month 8, lost the momentum, and his health care bill died in Congress.

Then Morone segued to an overview of the current electoral climate. A year ago, both political parties were sure they had their candidate in hand: Jeb Bush who had raised $144 million in the first quarter and Hillary Clinton. However, the New Hampshire primaries blew their expectations out of the water, with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders the winners.

We now have a five-and-a-half party system:

  • The Republican coalition, put together by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and now falling apart, consists of:
    1. Mainstream (readers of the Wall Street Journal);
    2. Evangelicals (who liked Huckabee, Santorum, and even Palin);
    3. Populists, the blue-collar Democrats who now favor Trump;
  • Democrats, whose party is also under tension:
    1. Center/Left;
    2. Liberals;
  • Independents, who are never truly independent (“if it was not on Jimmy Kimmel, they never heard of it”).

Remarkably, 64% of Americans of all political affiliations feel their side is losing more than they’re winning.

What do the leaders of the Republican Party fear? They fear that Trump is another Barry Goldwater, who won the Deep South in 1964, but still the historic Medicare/Medicaid bill passed two years later. What do the leaders of the Democratic Party fear? They rue that they’ve lost control during the 20 years from 1968 to 1988. They also fear, the rise of the Republican Party, which gave a home to disaffected white voters. White people now comprise about 53% of the Democratic Party and it’ll drop below the 50% mark soon.

What makes 2016 an unprecedented presidential election? One, the United States is changing in its race and immigration profiles. Already by 2012, only 63% of the population was non-Hispanic white. Morone: “We’re seeing the end of white America.”

The political parties have changed: they no longer have both conservative and liberal wings, as in the past. Whereas they both had their nativist tendencies decrying the dangers of “Irish Paddy and African Cuffy,” now it’s white versus non-white platforms. We also now have very close election results, such that the minority party no longer has to work with the majority. In the past, the minority party’s only way to survive was to work closely with the other side.

The so-called Gingrich Rules mean that party loyalists no longer congregate, socialize, or support the efforts of the Democratic party. The Democrats have reciprocated. And we have the new media, where the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine means that shock jocks and talk radio can monopolize the air waves with their partisan (and vitriolic) commentaries.

The reality is that economic inequality has become exacerbated. Upward mobility for Americans is far more difficult and rare than ever before.

In conclusion, Morone said, we can take reassurance in a strong economy. Our statecraft may be the worst, but we still come out all right and there is more volunteerism than ever. To paraphrase Churchill, “we can count on Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else.”

Women are 5-10% more likely to vote Democrat (only Reagan was immune to this statistic), although female office holders are about equal to men. The Democrats’ (sole) successful trope is that the Republican Party is waging a war on women.

When asked about Trump’s fascism, Morone called it more “Peronista,” that Trump looks more like Berlusconi, who modelled himself after Mussolini. Trump’s stance is that the people’s will is expressed in him, so all checks-and-balances fall away.

When asked about white nationalism and home-grown extremism, Morone pointed to the frustration and disaffection of the people left behind by the changing economy and demography.

When asked about abolishing the Electoral College, Morone said the fear is we would no longer be limited to two parties. The reason it seems problematic is that Democrats live clustered together in cities while Republicans live spread out.

When asked about the role of gerrymandering, in which Pennsylvania is a top player, Morone said that people exaggerate its importance. The Senate looks just like the House, even though there is no gerrymandering there. Morone is more concerned about the amount of money now flowing into electoral pools affecting outcome, citing $10,000 for a seat on a school board. The middle of Pennsylvania (between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) looks like Greater Appalachia, whereas West Virginia is now solidly Republican.

When challenged about his grandiose claims of an unprecedented election, Morone answered yes and no: American politics moves in small increments, except when there’s major change such as occurred in civil rights, tax policy, and Medicare/Medicaid.

When asked about the lasting impact of Bernie Sanders, Morone said that Sanders has shown the power and influence of the Millennial generation.  Obama won in 2008 with a tremendous grassroots campaign, but he abandoned the Left to govern cautiously, in the Clinton mold. Sanders has tremendous resonance among the campus constituency. After all, it was the young voters who have moved legislatures on same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana.

In the last decade, the illusion of the Supreme Court being above politics has fallen away, said Morone, and he doesn’t expect a change from the 4:4 court split for another four years, unless a Republican wins the White House.

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  1. says

    I agree with most of Morone’s analysis but I take exception to his offhand dismissal of concerns about gerrymandering. He defends gerrymandering by saying “The Senate looks just like the House, even though there is no gerrymandering there.”

    First of all, the founder designed Congress as compromise between the larger and smaller states. A bill could be passed only with a support of a majority of the states in the Senate and a majority of the equally sized districts. as determined by the vote in the House. Thus, saying that the House is as democratic as the Senate is faint praise.

    Second, the House is not actually as democratic as the Senate. Though the Senate is currently in the hands of the Republicans, it was in Democratic control as recently as two years ago and may very well retake control in November. (Betting website pivit currently gives the Democrats a 41% chance.)

    The House is an entirely different story. The districts are creatively re-optimized every decade in many states to lock away as many Democratic votes in as few districts as possible in order to give the Republicans disproportionately large representation in the House of Representatives.

    In the 2012 election, Obama was reelected a margin of 3.9% over Mitt Romney, the Democrats extended their control of the Senate to 55 out of 100 seats, However, despite winning more votes in Congressional elections nationwide (48.8% vs. 47.6%), the Republicans retained a 234 to 201 seat majority. My analysis shows that in order to break even in the House of Representatives, Democrats would have needed a true landslide of history proportions.

    In other words, this effect of the gerrymandering in the current Congressional redistricting is equivalent to a 7.5% head-start in House elections.

    Morone makes important points about other problems with our electoral system, but we can not truly solve our political problems without addressing the corrosive effect gerrymandering has on our democracy.

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