The Trump and the Restless

I promised myself I wouldn’t blog about Donald Trump. But Ron Fournier’s piece about Trump’s candidacy calls for a facts-infused response. Fournier claims that Trump’s candidacy signals “restlessness” in the electorate, specifically among protest voters. There are three main problems with this analysis: lack of specific data about citizens’ actual views and motivations; the absence of historical context for the Wallace, Long, and Perot movements to which he compares Trump; and the failure to acknowledge the racial dimensions of populist political anger.

These concerns go beyond responding to an article. Figures like Trump periodically emerge on the political scene, challenging or breaking away from the established parties, and their candidacies often feed a number of persistent myths about American politics. It’s important to understand how these candidacies fit into history and mesh with public opinion trends, and to draw careful, grounded inferences about the connections among them.

The Revenge of the Independent Voter?

Inferences are complicated and difficult to make. So when Fournier says this: “Even party-line voters, those who consistently side with Democrats or Republicans, increasingly identify as independents and are getting restless with their party homes,” it calls for more scrutiny.

I assume he’s looking at these data, from a Gallup poll in the beginning of last year, which offer the compelling headline that independent identifiers are a record-high percentage of the electorate. Now, perhaps the restlessness hypothesis is the correct one. But we can’t automatically infer that from the available data.

Source: Jeffrey Jones, Gallup

Looking at the shifts in the graph, I’m struck by two things. First, the last comparable climb in independent identification was during the Clinton years. As with the Obama years, there were several government shutdowns and partisan tensions between Clinton and the newly elected Republicans in Congress. Independent identification remained relatively high through the late Clinton years of soaring stock prices and low unemployment, and declined around 2000. Lots changed in the transition from Clinton to Bush, but the basic political forces that Fournier identifies as the problem – “duopoly” and “special interests” – didn’t decline when Bush took office.

The second feature that deserves attention is the one that I think probably explains the decline in major party identification: Republican affiliation increased around 2001-2005 – when security issues were salient, when Bush enjoyed a swell of support after September 11, 2001, and in the early stages of the Iraq War. In other words, what some political scientists have identified as a recurring rally effect. This declined through Bush’s second term, and Democratic identification peaked around the 2008 election, when the Obama campaign was out mobilizing in force and the financial crisis hit, forcing Bush and McCain into an uncomfortable dilemma about bailouts. Democratic identification, as the Gallup piece points out, declined after that but has been fairly steady since the initial drop around 2010. In other words, the decline in conventional partisanship and the rise in independent identification may be most simply explained as a dynamic of correction after event-driven spikes in party popularity.

Wallace, Perot, and Trump?

The article also identifies Trump as a political figure similar to George Wallace, Ross Perot, and Huey Long. The core of this argument seems to have something to do with populist protest. But in each case, the essence of the challenge is less about widespread dissatisfaction with both parties and more about intra-party splits and long durations of incumbency. Long is a weird one to include in this group in general, and the politics of the Democratic party in the 1930s is a complicated topic. But 1935 is a weird time to identify “dissatisfaction with both parties.” Rather, the Democratic Party was in a period of major transition (which would continue well into the 1960s as the conservative wing of the party moved into the Republican camp), and FDR had some major opponents within his own party – including former campaign associate James Farley and the party’s 1928 nominee for president, Al Smith. Long’s split with FDR is probably best understood in terms of FDR’s disruptive, controversial presidency and the divisions within the Democratic Party at that time.

George Wallace falls into a similar category. His 1968 candidacy came after two Democratic terms – one of which was LBJ’s eventful presidency. As with the FDR years, in the 1964 election brought a large, but highly varied, Democratic coalition to power. Wallace’s candidacy appealed to the wing of the party that opposed civil rights and other Johnson-era liberal policies. You can certainly tie the Wallace candidacy to dissatisfaction and protest. But the target of that protest is probably best described as changes to policy and society, not a stagnant status quo. Furthermore, to compare Trump to Wallace and not mention racial resentment and scapegoating is nothing short of baffling. Depicting “protest” candidacies that target racial integration and immigration, respectively, as colorblind expressions of dissatisfaction with the direction of the country denies a central aspect of this phenomenon.

Perot was a different kind of candidate and movement. Although Perot was not, in contrast to Long and Wallace, a breakaway candidate from a major party, his 1992 candidacy happened in the context of dissatisfaction with the incumbent president. Republicans had controlled the White House for three terms, and there was an economic recession. Perot, in contrast with Wallace and Long, also represented a long-standing strain of anti-partyism in American politics, and his appeals focused on direct democracy (electronic town halls) and eliminating the stasis caused by our veto-points-heavy system. While Perot was hardly Wallace’s equivalent on race issues, the race dimensions of his candidacy also bear consideration. Specifically, his address to the NAACP didn’t go very well. More broadly, the tradition of anti-partyism in the United States includes coded racial language and racist undertones. The idea of independent, individualist political thought is implicitly contrasted with urban party (machine) politics. This distinction is not free of racial baggage.

The protest candidacies that Fournier identifies are all distinct, and the differences among them suggest that they may not belong in a category together. But even if we buy populist protest candidacies as a reasonable conceptual group, it’s not clear that this means the party system is on the verge of collapse. Protest candidacies are best understood in relation to the fissures within parties and the recurrent nature of resentment politics. Historical (but not so distant) evidence suggests that angry movements that claim to speak for “ordinary people” need outsiders to blame, and this can get ugly fast. And although these movements claim to challenge the parties, they are products of routine conflicts that occur within and between them. The intersection of these factors is worthy of a closer look. But we should neither accept the claims of anger politics movements at face value, nor interpret their meaning without clear and ample evidence.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.