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Monday, November 07, 2016

Weak parties, strong partisanship

This Ezra Klein piece is instinctively appealing--our system has weak parties that are unable to control who is nominated (because of the relatively modern prevalence of primary elections) combined with polarization of the parties combined with strong partisanship such that most supporters and leaders of one party will fall in line with the party nominee, whoever she/he is. Klein argues that this explains how Trump, for all his beyond-the-pale craziness, is as close as he is to the presidency. Klein closes with the following:

But if he loses, it will be because he is a crude, undisciplined demagogue. The world also produces clever, disciplined demagogues. And they are the ones who truly threaten republics.

It helps that parties are not built into the federal constitutional system and may have been a somewhat unexpected development. That the Constitution itself does not speak to, or control, this practical feature of the political system means it is free to develop on its own, perhaps in a way that undermines the constitutional structure.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 7, 2016 at 04:13 PM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink


I find all Ezra Klein articles instinctively unappealing (like Professor Horwitz, I loathe Vox), but this one sounds especially unhelpful in two respects. First, the premise - that Trump is really close - is wrong. He's going to lose by 4% or so, has less than a 10% chance of winning, and it seems quite probable that Trump's being Trump is the but-for cause of Clinton winning this election. One could more sensibly ask - and I say this entirely descriptively - how it is that a candidate who's been under multiple FBI investigations for the duration of the race, who the FBI director has described as an extremely careless mishandler of classified information, who a substantial majority of voters deem untrustworthy, who has a net favorability rating of -13%, is going to win the presidential election without much difficulty, when no one like that has ever won a presidential election before. And the answer, of course, is Trump. What this election actually shows is that someone like Trump can't get elected President no matter who he runs against (he'd have had even more trouble with Sanders, a self-styled socialist), not that our system is vulnerable to the Trumps of the world.

Second, besides the premise being a fiction, Klein doesn't explain it whatsoever, other than to say that parties can't prevent candidates like Trump from winning their nomination, and if a candidate like Trump wins his nomination, he won't get beaten in a landslide due to polarization. That's partly true, though not entirely true - if Trump were running against a normal Democrat, like Obama, instead of a politically toxic one, or if Trump were running at a time when people were happier with how the present Democratic President has run the country, or felt safe from terrorism, or liked the economy, Trump might well have lost by a landslide. But even if it were correct, it has very little explanatory power, because it still doesn't begin to explain how Trump won the nomination in the first place - other than to say that there wasn't a great deal the party could do to stop it, which doesn't explain anything at all.

Like the fellow above says, Klein is an exceptionally shallow analyst and silly person who's about as capable of explaining trends in American politics as Bob Woodward. Having no frame of reference outside of Washington and the arcana of healthcare policy, or any academic background in anything, his idea of explaining Trump's nomination is to complain that the nice moderate Republicans who give him interviews can't control the outcomes of primaries the way they supposedly used to be able to. He interviews a host of one of MSNBC's more pseudointellectual talk shows for his piece and comes away with the brilliant insight that newspaper endorsements don't matter anymore. Quite so - though there are plenty of new sorts of "influencers" in new media replacing newspaper editorial boards - but how does that explain a thing? Is the theory that without the Washington Post to guide us Republicans would have been nominating Trumps a long time ago? Is there any evidence for that? Are there any instances where media and the parties stopped people like Trump in the past? Or actually, haven't people like Trump (like George Wallace, who might have been the Democratic nominee in 1972 had he not gotten shot, or Pat Buchanan) run pretty well in the past when they've run at all? I don't know that Trump's success wasn't always possible, given a weak and fractured field where the candidates with money were the weakest candidates, but this piece doesn't engage with the question because Klein doesn't know anything about American history or electoral politics.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Nov 8, 2016 3:09:39 AM

Actually, this is just another remarkably shallow piece from Ezra Klein. Let's just focus on two aspects:

The parties are weaker and that is due to two reforms pushed by the "good government" folks - the primary system and campaign finance reform which hampers the ability of the parties themselves to fundraise, in comparison to spending by non-party actors. Though there is one element of control left, at least for the Democrats; the superdelegates used to thwart the demagogue Sanders from winning their nomination.

The joke is the Ezra's lack of historical perspective. Trump becomes the symptom, but he needs to explain what happened between the Republicans nominating McCain and then Romney, both moderates in 2008 and 2012 and this year. Yes, I know Ezra and his crowd thought McCain and Romney were also Nazis, but let's get real.

But the parties are the least of the issues, when Trump gets one nomination and Sanders is only thwarted by the superdelegates bigger things are at play. Given the distrust of Clinton, it seems clear that a Trumpian candidate without all the awful personal characteristics of Trump would win.

And when one worries about authoritarians, Mr Klein is focused on the wrong candidate.

Posted by: MS61 | Nov 7, 2016 11:44:15 PM

Trump complicated a perfectly good word more than modern language usage made the Flintstones' theme song a concern for some people.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 7, 2016 7:23:41 PM

I am looking forward to reading the piece - sounds thought provoking.

(Has anyone else chuckled a bit at the fact that the subheading for this blog has the word combo "trumped partisanship" in it? Just checking.)

Posted by: Andrea Boyack | Nov 7, 2016 5:04:01 PM

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