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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter March 5, 2018

The Meaning, Causes, and Possible Results of the 2016 Presidential Election

Elizabeth Sanders
From the journal The Forum


Donald Trump owes his election to post-1972 changes in party institutions and economic developments that were largely the result of presidential policies supported by both parties. Political scientists and pundits who relied on survey data and assumptions about motives and character of Trump supporters failed to understand the deep causes of the 2016 election outcome, and to inform the public and party leaders about strategic and coalition options for the future. Focusing on expressive protest and labeling are probably antithetical to party reorganization leading to genuine reform and reduction in inequality.


Academic and media commentators have been, since Donald Trump’s rise in late 2015, preoccupied with the choice of words to describe him and his supporters. But most of the language and many of the assumptions behind it have been inaccurate and antithetical to analysis, understanding, and party strategy. The US has a rich political history, and its own appropriate political metaphors; there is no need to reach for analogies in other cultures. Trump is not a fascist; [1] nor is he a “populist” if those terms are used with any historical accuracy, although he could be said to resemble a demagogue from the American past like George Wallace. At the level of state politics, there has been no dearth of demagogues. [2] But no fascist, by any plausible definition of that term, has ever become a major contender for the presidency. And such labels do not offer much enlightenment about why the nomination system in 2016 produced such a remarkable candidate, and why there was such an inversion of traditional class patterns in the general election vote.

Donald Trump’s victory, it will be argued here, was a result of regime dynamics and post-1970s institutional change – particularly change in party rules, strategies, and coalitions – and economic change that was in large part a result of a quarter century of party policies. The best tools and theories for understanding the rise of Trump can be found in the scholarship and methods of American political development (APD) and socioeconomic analysis. Trump was a resourceful candidate, consumed by ambition and insecurity, [3] who threw himself into presidential politics and found an audience with serious, unaddressed grievances that saw no alternative political champion after the defeat of Bernie Sanders. Trump’s success, then, was a result of institutional change interacting with economic distress, with its greatest resonance within the party that had inherited, after 1980, much of the White working class. What must be recognized, however, is that elites in both parties had ignored the distress of a substantial segment of the population, until it finally erupted in open revolt in 2015–2016. Unfortunately, there was little effort in the Democratic Party leadership or mainstream national media – two institutions that have become increasingly intertwined – to understand the forces that produced Trump. Labeling is not a substitute for analysis in a polity that has serious economic issues to address, and two parties in need of reorganization and reform. The foci, methods and theories of APD and economic sociology are essential to such understanding.

Methods, Predictions, and Interpretations of the 2016 Election

Conventional ahistorical survey analysis predicted that Hillary Clinton would comfortably win the election on November 8. The New York Times on the eve of the election estimated that Clinton had about an 85 percent chance of winning. [4] Nate Silver, who claims to have predicted a closer race than most other pollsters, gave Trump a 29 percent chance of winning on Tuesday morning. Clinton had a comfortable lead in the great majority of polls, forecasting victory in both the popular vote and electoral college. The Trump campaign itself, believing the polls, expected to lose. [5] Clinton had her own impressive Big Data analysis operation (dubbed “Ada”) that performed 400,000 simulations a day and gave strategic advice on where, when and how to campaign or run ads. It failed, especially in the critical states of Michigan and Wisconsin. [6] Trump’s crude hunches about where and when to hold old fashioned rallies appeared to work better.

Leading political science theories also pointed to a victory for Hillary Clinton. The key election “fundamental” – the state of the economy – had experienced sustained growth since 2008, punctuated by a recent increase in median income, but that did not carry the day for the Democrats. [7] Nor did the distribution of partisanship propel the Democrats to victory. In October of 2016, Democratic identifiers surpassed Republicans 32 to 27 percent (though the proportion of independents had reached 37 percent). [8] Fundraising success did not produce victory, since Clinton had the largest presidential campaign fund ever amassed and outspent Trump by more than two to one. [9] Having a superior ground game guided by abundant data should have led to victory according to political science assumptions, but did not. [10] And despite the rise of primaries for choosing delegates to nominating conventions, party elites were assumed to be quite able to act behind the scenes to deliver the nomination to their favored candidate by directing fundraisers to him/her, and marshaling endorsements, as well as cuing favorable media attention. [11] That process did work for the Democrats, whose leaders, donors, and candidate achieved machine-like control of their party, but the prediction of invisible party power clearly failed for the Republican Party. Of course, no theory can predict history’s black swans. It is nevertheless important is to try to understand what produced them.

After the election, pollsters and political scientists offered reasons for the inaccurate predictions, particularly in relation to Trump support in the Rust Belt and other hard-pressed cities and rural areas. One important explanation was that exit polls systematically overestimated the number of well-educated voters and underestimated the number of White working class/non-college-educated voters, particularly confounding predictions in closely contested states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida. [12] Nate Cohn of the New York Times also pointed out – undercutting Clinton supporters’ claim that Trump voters were fundamentally racist and voted for the candidate who seemed to share their prejudices – that White working class areas in swing states had voted strongly for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. For example, Scranton and Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania, Youngstown, Ohio, rural areas in Iowa, and similar counties in Wisconsin, Michigan, and New England) shifted to Trump by substantial margins in 2016. [13] Did these areas break late for Trump because of campaign events, or are working class voters simply less likely to respond to exit polls and other surveys, as Cohn suggests (and are the polls themselves accurate for subgroups of respondents, like income categories?) [14] Or perhaps Trump supporters were embarrassed to tell pollsters of their preference, given wide condemnation of Trump’s personality flaws. [15]

But the key finding of more careful post-election analyses, one that points to the underlying causes, was that in 2016, “Among White non-college-educated voters in 2016, there was a 5-point decrease in support for Clinton relative to Obama” along with a small increase in support for Trump relative to Romney. Among Black voters “there was a 5-point decrease in support for Clinton, a 3-point increase in support for Trump, and a 3-point increase in third-party voting.” [16] Both findings seem to point to Democratic losses among working class voters, and disillusionment with the Democratic Party among traditional supporters.

Theories rooted in American political development and socio-economic analysis were more helpful for understanding 2016 election outcomes. Stephen Skowronek’s historical Regime Theory, based on cycles of party reconstruction and decline, correctly predicted that Clinton would lose. In over 200 years of structured party competition, each dominant party regime has contained two “preemptive” presidencies (presidents who are not affiliated with the Regime Party). Bill Clinton was the first preemptor in the Reagan Regime, and Obama was the second. The second preemption, Skowronek argues, presents more of a challenge to the dominant regime, and points, if weakly, to some of the contours of reconstruction to come. A number of media commentators and some political science election models did note the rarity of three winning presidential candidates from the same party, but in Skowronek’s theory, that prediction (of only two preemptors in each party regime, and thus little chance for a Clinton victory in 2016) is integral to regime theory dynamics, rather than based on assumptions about voter fatigue with one party. A sequence of three presidential administrations from one party DOES occur after an epochal “Regime” shift (for example, in the Truman victory of 1948 after Roosevelt’s three-plus terms, and the 1988 G.H.W. Bush election following two Reagan terms).

The 2016 election was thus a good exemplification of Skowronek’s theory of presidential elections, which can be interpreted as accurately predicting important aspects of party sequences and leadership behaviors over two centuries. [17]

Regime (“political time”) analysis is most useful for understanding mega-politics: the episodic regime reconstruction followed by gradual decline of party regimes over decades. Skowronek defines “regime” as a political philosophy, a coalition of groups/classes that it brings together, and a characteristic set of institutions [say, a reliance on national government regulatory agencies and social programs, as in the New Deal]. This is a much richer conception than the mere vote-based requisites of realignment theories, but it still does not spend much time analyzing the way class and economic change interact with institutions to cause electoral rebellions and party reconstructions. It does provide a large, long-time framework for class and institutional analysis, especially at critical junctures in political development, and it prods us to analyze the effects of policies over time, and their impact on classes of voters.

Another theory derived from qualitative historical data on parties and presidents provides a useful framework for understanding how party organizations operated in 2016. Daniel Galvin’s book, Presidential Party Building: Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush[18] describes the Republican Party in the post-World War II era as more committed to party building than Democrats because of the latter’s edge in party identifiers. That party-building commitment is exemplified by the GOP investment in a party-wide ground game in 2016, and the fact that unenthusiastic party leaders rallied around their unwanted nominee, Donald Trump (who made his own last-stage effort to win favor with Republican leaders).

On the other hand, Galvin categorizes Democratic presidential nominees as “party predators” who use the party for their own ends, but do not invest much in enunciating large principles useful for coalition building or strengthening state and local organization. Hillary Clinton seemed to exemplify Galvin’s party predator model, using the DNC as her personal election and patronage machine, and making use of an unprecedented Super Pac treasury to support her ground game and make the DNC financially dependent on her campaign. [19] Party officials and candidates who backed Bernie Sanders felt shunned, and in some cases (one suspects these were more numerous than yet reported) state party organizations and media appeared to have been mobilized to defeat him in the primaries. [20] But Democratic Party leaders’ inattention to party building below the national level is a story that predates Hillary Clinton. Focus on their own power and electoral success and inattention to building the party collective were charges earlier levied against Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, [21] and one might argue, applying Skowronek’s logic, that “preemptors,” having to make their own way as presidents “out of their [regime] time” would not logically be expected to be party builders when the alternative for these ambitious politicians is to create their own composite slogans and strategies, aligning themselves with the dominant regime party and its fund-raising sources, to carve out an 8-year interlude for themselves as their party languishes in the wilderness. This was Bill Clinton’s strategy, continued by Hillary Clinton.

Theodore Lowi, a founder of the “policy feedback” approach (in which policies shape subsequent politics) is also relevant to this predatory personalization of presidential politics. Lowi attributed the secular deterioration of the president-party link to the institutional expansion of the presidency in the 1930s, the rise of mass communications technologies, and the 1970s rules changes for the delegate selection process. [22] He argued that the creation of separate party organizations for presidential campaigns would make presidential candidates, and presidents themselves, even more “plebiscitary” and less connected to their parties, as they raised money on their own for the ever more expensive nomination and reelection process, and built personal coalitions through direct appeals to a political audience. [23] The 2016 contest saw a Democratic “party predator” (in Galvin’s scheme) lose to a Republican unimaginably detached from the party whose label he bore, a candidate who won the GOP nomination with his own money, his own policy program, and personally-staged mass rallies. In both his nomination and governing style, Trump is the ultimate manifestation of Lowi’s evolving 1980s nightmare: a plebiscitary presidency gradually cut loose from the grassroots party and collective democratic control.

In addition to these theoretical contributions, scholars and journalists using both qualitative methods and hard data provided detailed studies of counties experiencing job loss due to industrial flight attributed to trade agreements. [24] In the industrial Midwest, Appalachia, and New England, sociologist Shannon Monnat identified areas where Trump support grew out of the misery of a downwardly-mobile working class facing job loss, declining life spans, and hopelessness starkly revealed in drug and alcohol use and suicide rates. [25] A 2017 article in Science measured the linkage between industrial decline and broad economic and psychological effects on young people. Its authors concluded that “increase in state-level job loss when a cohort is in adolescence leads to an increase in the gap in college attendance between rich and poor youth, driven by falling attendance among youth from the lowest income families and stable attendance among youth from the highest-income families.” [26] Books and articles by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild provided rich descriptions of the struggles of Louisiana workers who backed Trump. [27] J.D. Vance wrote of the difficult lives of his Kentucky/Ohio working class family in Hillbilly Elegy.[28] These portraits of struggling communities that voted for Trump stand in sharp contrast to the conclusions drawn in most poll-based accounts, among which a prominent pollster insisted that it was a “myth” that Trump supporters were working class. This and similar refutations of economic distress as a major cause of Trump’s victory were widely cited in the media. [29]

Thus, one could argue that conventional survey-based methods contributed to prediction failures as well as post-election reactions by scholars and pundits. Quantitative ahistorical measures – polls, in particular – failed both to predict the outcome and to understand its dynamic, the evolving economic situation of particular voters (the downwardly-mobile White working class, as well as economically vulnerable young voters [30]) and particular places – especially areas that had lost industry since the Clinton years (as a result of trade policies, as well as subsequent technological change), and which suffered downward-trending incomes and lifespans, and upward-trending drug and alcohol use and suicides.

Since exit polls under-sample working class people and supporters of controversial candidates often withhold information or answer falsely when questioned about their voting preferences, polling data were particularly vulnerable to missing the deep economic dynamic of the primary elections. By the time of the general election, many traditional Republicans had reluctantly decided to vote for Trump (or against Clinton), producing a complicated composite electorate for Trump. And millions of downwardly-mobile working class and rural voters who despised Trump’s personal characteristics nevertheless decided to hold their noses and vote for the only change candidate left standing.

Because of these failures to grasp the deeper meaning of the election, it was particularly important that the political science profession catch up after the votes were counted and examine what pollsters and scholars had missed. But in large swaths of academia, and in the mainstream liberal media, there was little interest in such analysis. Instead, upper middle class professionals and academics fell back on reductionist labeling, insisting that, in the words of a scholar quoted by Joan Williams, “the only acceptable narrative is that those who voted Republican [in 2016] did so because they are racists, sexists, stupid, or all three.” [31]

Economist Eduardo Porter has made a point of publishing hard data about different economic experiences among ethnic groups that may affect their political attitudes, arguing in December, 2016, that “less-educated White voters had a solid economic rationale for voting against the status quo – nearly all the gains from the economic recovery have passed them by.”

“There are almost nine million more jobs than there were at the previous peak in November 2007, just before the economy tumbled into recession. But the gains have not been evenly distributed.

Despite accounting for less than 15 percent of the labor force, Hispanics got more than half of the net additional jobs. Blacks and Asians also gained millions more jobs than they lost. But Whites, who account for 78 percent of the labor force, lost more than 700,000 net jobs over the nine years.

The racial and ethnic divide is starker among workers in their prime. Whites ages 25 to 54 lost some 6.5 million jobs more than they gained over the period. Hispanics in their prime, by contrast, gained some three million jobs net, Asians 1.5 million and Blacks one million.” [32]

But for many political scientists and media commentators, If working class voters resented immigrants taking blue-collar jobs while they were losing theirs, that attitude was assumed to reflect a deep-seated fear of cultural diversity rather than a predictable response to economic competition. [33] If they resented people even poorer than they (sometimes only slightly poorer) [34] getting free medical care, subsidized housing and college scholarships, this resentment did not reflect perception of injustice or unequal treatment, but a prior, deep-seated racism. Despite considerable evidence that humans do value and demand equal treatment, perceptions of “injustice” were often reduced to “resentment” and “resentment” to “racism.” [35]

Many academics, pundits, and others appalled by the election outcome engaged in strongly worded denial, delegitimation, efforts to overturn the results via vote-challenges and encouragement of faithless electors, and massive protests. The liberal explanation for Clinton’s loss was seldom attributed to the maldistributed benefits of globalization and neoliberalism, the Clintons’ past personal and policy actions, or a campaign that ignored the working class and envisioned the Democratic party as an identity-focused coalition led by an educated elite; instead, Clinton and her supporters blamed “Russian attempts to undermine our democracy,” and unwarranted FBI announcements related to email servers for her loss. [36] They saw no need to reach out to White workers, since they were not really economically disadvantaged, and their motives probably racist, sexist, and Islamophobic as Clinton herself argued. Their numbers would inevitably diminish, according to demographic predictions, and the redistributive and nation-centered policies needed to get their votes would cost the Democrats support from college-educated professionals and immigrants. [37]

Spurred by the new president’s inflammatory words and rapid-fire executive orders, the academic and media focus quickly turned to protecting people seen as vulnerable and meritorious (unlike the disgruntled Trump voters). The impressive success of mass protests in countering the first executive order on non-citizen entry, and the November, 2017, Democratic victories in state campaigns fueled by hostility to Trump seemed to confirm the strategy of expressive protest at the expense of long-term party-building around policy issues and ideas. [38]

Institutional Roots of Trump Victory: Party and Policy Change after the 1972 Reforms

Essential to Trump’s victory in the Republican nomination process were the political reforms of the 1970s, [39] and the Democratic Party’s evolution in the Clinton administration of 1993–2000. The invention of the mandatory primary/caucus system in 1969–1972 was the perfect hatchery for an “outsider” candidate independent of a major party to succeed in getting the party’s nomination.

The expansion of primary contests for both presidential and congressional nominations strongly contributed to party polarization, since the twenty percent or fewer Americans who typically vote in primaries tend to be more ideological than the mass base of the parties. Delegates to presidential nominating conventions became more polarized from each other, and more distant from their mass bases after the reforms of 1969–1972. [40] Voters in congressional primaries, and presumably also in presidential primaries, are likely to be older, better educated and more affluent than ordinary party identifiers, [41] so it might be argued that the reforms, despite their democratic motives, also contributed to weaker representation for low-income Americans than was the case under the old system in which party officials who controlled the nomination process had to win votes from a much wider constituency.

The 1972 reforms also created a need for more candidate fund-raising because of the greatly expanded number of primaries and caucuses. Although the 1971 creation of a public funding system for presidential candidates who chose to abide by its limits initially held down spending levels, presidential hopefuls after the 1990s began to abandon the public system, believing they could increase their chances of winning with unlimited access to private donations. George W. Bush was the first president to opt out of public matching funds for his 1999–2000 nomination campaign. The Supreme Court in its 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision had unleashed millionaire candidate spending on their own races as a matter of “free speech,” and Bush feared that multi-millionaire Steve Forbes would run again for the GOP nomination. Bush went back into the public funding system in the general election, however.

The first presidential candidate to abandon the public funding system altogether (for both nomination and election phases) was Barack Obama in 2008. Hillary Clinton, his opponent for the nomination imitated his choice. Only the Republican nominee, John McCain, a pioneer of the bipartisan effort to restrain spending, remained in the public system. He lost overwhelmingly, vastly outspent by Barack Obama. [42] In 2010, another momentous institutional change occurred when the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling opened the floodgates for “independent” donations by corporations, labor unions and extremely wealthy individuals, especially through the device of “superpacs.”

A “New Democrat” Embraces Neoliberalism: the Clintonian Transformation of the Democratic Party

President Clinton, a classic “preemptor” in Skowronek’s scheme, presented himself in 1992 as a “New Democrat” with a strategy of “triangulating” between his own and the opposition party. He supported the dismantling of the New Deal regulatory and welfare state and he and Vice-president Gore undertook an ambitious program to privatize government functions.

With Republican help, Clinton persuaded Congress to ratify the North American Free Trade Agreement. The consequences for American manufacturing jobs of NAFTA and the Clinton-supported entry of China into the WTO were severe. [43] Then when NAFTA in its early years proved devastating to the Mexican agricultural economy, millions of undocumented Mexicans emigrated to the US (ultimately contributing a second issue to the Trump campaign). [44]

Clinton’s preemptive strategy was also implemented in the administration’s support for deregulation of telecommunications and finance, tax cuts, deep structural changes in New Deal policies on welfare and agriculture, and a strong tough-on crime stance. The administration’s trade and deregulation policies were continued by the George W. Bush administration and the two presidents’ financial deregulation policies strongly contributed to the financial crash of 2008 and the worst recession since the Great Depression, adding another dimension to working class decline. [45] In 2016, the effects of financial deregulation were still strongly felt at the lower rungs of the class ladder and were materially visible in the backlog of foreclosed houses that represents almost two hundred billion dollars of lost wealth for working class and lower-middle class Americans. [46]

These Clintonian decisions and their neoliberal inspirations – the agenda of a preemptive president who abandoned the political philosophy of the party whose nomination he won in 1992 for one that, in Skowronekian style, embraced most of the regime party’s program, had profound and lasting effects on the Democratic Party that began as the party of the common man.

The Replacement of Economic with Social Issue Liberalism

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Democratic Party began to reconfigure its base by courting upper-income professionals, women and LGBT groups, and paying less attention to the working class. Bill Clinton was the first Democratic presidential candidate to drop references to the “working class” and to talk instead about the problems of the “middle class.” [47]

The Democratic Party had begun to lose working class identifiers in the 1970s as they adopted liberal social issue positions unpopular with people holding traditional religious values. Divisive social issues like those dealing with alcohol, morality, and school prayer had once been largely confined to the states, where they posed less threat to national party unity. The nationalization of religious/moral issues, which gained momentum in the same decade as the change in party nomination rules, was bound to be reflected in delegate selection processes and presidential elections. The new primary rules of the early 1970s increased Democratic success with socially liberal women, particularly after the institution of a gender quota system for Democratic delegates and the emergence of liberal campaign funding groups like Emily’s List that supported only women candidates who backed abortion rights.

The Party had, for nearly two centuries, won working class votes with liberal economic policies and social policies that did not openly challenge traditional working class values, but that combination did not survive the 1970s. Jimmy Carter, the last Democratic candidate to win the majority (10/11) of states in the South, was openly religious, supported civil rights and human rights abroad, but was not very sympathetic to abortion rights. He took liberal positions on most economic policies, except for deregulation of transportation (which Liberal Democrats also supported), and new natural gas supplies. He sponsored a public works program to reduce unemployment and was the last Democratic president to make passage of a pro-union labor law a policy priority.

Post-Carter Democrats replaced the policy package preferred by working class voters – economic liberalism and social conservatism (or at least keeping moral issues in the realm of state politics), and embraced economic neoliberalism paired with social liberalism. With the two parties essentially tied on economic policy, many working class Whites moved to the Republican Party after the mid-1990s (with a modest Democratic recovery in 2006–2008, followed by resumed loss after 2010). [48]

Democratic Party elites after Bill Clinton had calculated that they could afford to let much of the White working class go if they could attract more upper middle class professionals and women, and that southern and Midwestern working class votes lost to the party could be replaced with votes of Hispanics (a vote exchange proposed by political scientist Thomas F. Schaller in his book, Whistling Past Dixie). [49]

This break with Democratic tradition – the alienation of the evangelical protestant and Catholic working class in both the South and non-South – was unprecedented, a consequence of economic policy, institutional change, and the nationalization of divisive social issues once mostly confined to the states, but which became national issues with Supreme Court decisions on prayer in the schools, abortion, and later, gay marriage. From the 1950s through the 1970s, with the exception of the Nixon landslide in 1972, the Catholic vote, mostly working class and lower middle class, was overwhelmingly Democratic. Beginning in 1980, it dropped to a rough 50–50 split, with the exception of a majority for Obama in 2008. Promising both economic change and social conservatism, Trump carried Catholics (about a quarter of the electorate) by 52 to 45% in 2016. [50]

The Republicans who opened their arms to the White working class offered them at least some policies they could embrace – traditional moral values and a more muscular nationalism. But in the post-recession economy of the Bush/Obama era, working class voters were becoming restless for substantive economic improvement. [51]

Figure 1: Democratic Share of Two-Party Popular vote.Source: Guy Molyneux, “Mapping the White Working Class, American Prospect, Dec. 20, 2016”,

Figure 1:

Democratic Share of Two-Party Popular vote.

Source: Guy Molyneux, “Mapping the White Working Class, American Prospect, Dec. 20, 2016”,

The economic disadvantage of low-education, unemployed or underemployed workers was increasingly obvious after the 2007–2008 recession. Both parties had supported sharply expanded immigration and free trade policies that, in today’s already quite free commerce, promise fewer advantages than in the past, while indisputably conferring significant advantages on class sectors that are already doing very well. Economists argue that free trade and open borders may lead to a slightly higher overall GDP, but to laid-off Massachusetts or Alabama textile workers, North Carolina furniture workers, Illinois appliance factory workers, upstate New York machine workers, or Iowa meat industry workers who were not in a position to learn computer skills, leave family and friends, and look for a job in the new economy, the benefits of globalization seemed illusory after the 1990s. [52]

Many White and African-American construction and other low-skilled workers lost their jobs to immigrants, [53] but so did relatively high-skilled workers. Consider the Disney technology professionals forced to train their South Asian replacements. Where does a 53-year old computer tech worker find a new job? (While she searched, she led the Disney lawsuit, and spoke at Trump rallies). [54] The open borders argument was strong among elites of both parties, as Republicans looked for cheap labor, and Democrats sought cheap votes. These were the elite policy commitments that provoked the 2016 electoral uprising.

The Rise of “Outsider” Candidates

The insurgent candidate who responded to working class discontent in the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders, was an outsider but with government experience on the fringe of his adopted party. As an independent, pro-labor social democrat who caucused with the Democrats in Congress, he was more loosely attached to Democratic trade, deregulation, and immigration policy. Sanders was very skeptical of the new round of trade treaties backed by President Obama and Hillary Clinton and had voted against immigration bills that he saw as threats to labor unions. He represented the class of voters orphaned by the post-Carter Democrats, but with different social/political characteristics from the Trump voters. In particular, Sanders supporters were younger, and more secular. [55]

Polling data in the primaries suggested that Sanders was stronger than Clinton among White voters with low incomes and without college degrees; his percentage was 37 to Clinton’s 30 percent in those groups, with the difference mostly an effect of age. Younger voters who do not have college degrees experience considerable economic insecurity, and their economic status was another reason that the young were far more enthusiastic about Sanders than Clinton. Among voters under 29 and without college degrees, Sanders led Clinton 68 to 10; he held a similarly large lead among young voters with incomes under $25,000 a year. [56]

Sanders represents an important ideological thread in American political history: the populist/socialist variant exemplified by Eugene Debs, William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, and George McGovern (who came from a state [South Dakota] with a strong populist tradition and was labeled, in his day, “The Prairie Populist”). Sanders is an authentic populist, without the ethnic prejudice associated with Trump. He had been active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, though that fact failed to strengthen his support among African American leaders. [57]

One advantage claimed for the national two-party system and the old-style presidential nomination system was that they weeded out “extremist” candidates. A party’s candidate for president had to be broadly acceptable to thousands of elected officials from across the country. Even when an extremist or race-based faction won locally, or split off as a third party nominee, he was easily defeated at the national level. In 2016, that was not the case. A primary system that allowed “outsider” candidates to exploit economic grievances against the elites of both parties also allowed them to raise money in unconventional ways – for Sanders, in small donations via internet appeals; for Trump, self-financing authorized by the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision allowing wealthy candidates to spend unlimited amounts from their own fortunes. Insurgent candidates not dependent on party leaders or their donor networks can produce a perfect storm in presidential election politics. In 2016, the supreme outsider, an unpredictable novice with no party or definable ideology, won the Republican nomination and ran against an elite-supported regular Democrat. Hillary Clinton was able to defeat her insurgent competitor in the primaries because, unlike the Republicans, Democrats in the 1980s had created a large block of superdelegates (nearly all of whom were early endorsers of Clinton’s candidacy) and the Clinton campaign organization was extremely well funded and not hesitant to extend its control over the Democratic National Committee, state party organizations, and sympathetic media (see above).

Had she experienced no strong intra-party opposition, Hillary Clinton would probably have moved to the right before the primaries were over, an ideological position where she has always been comfortable, and a continuation of the preemptive “triangulating” model of the Bill Clinton presidency. However, had she followed her inclinations on militarism, trade, regulation, and climate issues rather than reversing her previous positions to counter the Sanders threat, she would have risked losing young and change-hungry supporters of Bernie Sanders. Fancy footwork by Clinton, combined with extraordinary financial resources and the unprecedented merger of campaign and national party committee defeated the much more popular insurgent, one who might well have been able to defeat Donald Trump and in the process, restructure the Democratic Party, returning it to its traditional position as the party of have-nots. [58]

Conclusion: Slouching Toward Realignment

Donald Trump owes his election to post-1972 changes in party institutions, economic developments that were largely the result of presidential policies in both parties, and sheer happenstance.

It is virtually impossible to predict the behavior of the most unusual president in American history, one with no previous experience in political institutions, parties, or movements, who has chosen to bring into his policy circle advisers and cabinet members many of whom are themselves political amateurs. An additional complication is his unusual personality, with its suggestions of narcissism and “active-negative” characteristics. The only prediction one can reliably make of active-negatives is that they will react with personal aggression to challenges of any sort; and that, following James David Barber’s reasoning, they will end badly. [59]

Stephen Skowronek’s prediction, based on regime theory, is that Trump will serve only one term and thus take his place in political history as a “disjunctive” president whose failures lead to a new and long-lasting realignment (“reconstruction” of a new party regime, in his terminology) [60] The prediction seems quite plausible given the disruption within the regime party (the GOP) and the electorate, but that reconstruction would require that the Democratic Party, as the current non-regime party, reorganize itself on the basis of a new, expanded coalition with a new set of principles, policies, and institutional mechanisms.

After the election, Democrats became absorbed in protest and personal attacks on the administration, with the most common tropes being corruption within the Trump family and illegal relations with Russia, seen anew as a major foreign threat to American democracy. Such strategies are not particularly promising for constructing a new majority party, and the lower ranks of potential candidates are thin, thanks to the domination of the party and DNC by the Clinton organization and lack of party-building effort in the Obama years.

The immediate problem of focusing exclusively on denial, delegitmation, and deceitful Russians is that it impedes learning in the out-party, or remedial policy change to regain its working and lower middle class base. The Democratic establishment may instead be tempted to find a way to revive the Clinton party system with less objectionable candidates. The attraction of the Clinton model was that it could expand with demographic trends: a continued increase in college graduates, and a base of identity groups whose numbers are predicted to expand. Promising only to celebrate diversity, legalize immigrants, and resume multinational trade treaties entails no domestic redistribution philosophy and no constructive foreign policy; It would thus pose little threat to the economic and cultural domination of elites.

It has become common today to speculate about a realignment in which a party of college graduates (Brookings labels them “high output Americans”) confronts globalization’s losers, the poorly educated and downwardly mobile “low output” Americans. [61] It is unclear at this point how the party of successful college-educated Americans might reach a majority if it eschewed any significant cultivation of the working classes via policy benefits. No elite-led party has been able to succeed without a working class clientele. But history suggests two possible models.

One is the Gilded Age Republican coalition of capitalists, the growing urban middle classes, and a base of workers content with protection of US industry from foreign competition but little in terms of distributive benefits. [62] In addition, as long as domestic manufacturing growth was vigorous, new immigrants were welcomed for their low-wage costs and controllability (aided by the fact that up to a third intended to make some money and return to the old country). [63] The contemporary Republican version of this alliance, similar to that of the Gilded Age, would leave capitalists in control of essential economic policies (taxes, social spending, and regulation) and deliver a modicum of working class accommodation through trade and immigration restrictions.

The Democratic version of Gilded Age politics would continue large-scale immigration with a fast-track to voting citizenship, enact the free trade agreements unpopular with workers but embraced by elites in both parties, and perhaps supply an increment of welfare, funded by higher taxes on the very rich to insure quiescence among downwardly-mobile workers while waiting for demographic trends to diminish their numbers. In the growing cities carried by Clinton, the advantage of large-scale immigration to an expanded Democratic electorate would be supplemented by a low-cost domestic work force for professional couples (house and yard work and child care), and appreciated by city and state officials worried about loss of population and political representation.

But those are not the only imaginable possibilities for the coming realignment Skowronek predicts after 4 years of a “disjunctive” Trump administration. In Congress, Senators Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown, and Elizabeth Warren appear committed to a re-Populization of the Democratic Party, a movement toward revived class politics.

It is unfortunate that current semantic confusion and neglect of our own history have made “populism” a term of condemnation. In the years after the UK decision to leave the EU, growing European opposition to large-scale migration from the Middle East and North Africa, the emergence of anti-immigrant parties of fascist heritage, and the rise of Donald Trump, scholars and media commentators with little knowledge of actual 19th century American politics attempted to link these international events with American Populism in one conceptual phenomenon. It has been a messy and unenlightening exercise, its practitioners unable to construct a definition applying to all these phenomena and supported with empirical evidence.

The semantic confusion has obscured the major historical reform role of American Populism and its value as a model for a future democratic reform coalition. To quote a leading contemporary scholar on the substance and legacy of actual American Populism,

“The 1890s Populists drew from multiple reform impulses, from women’s suffragists to urban supporters of Henry George’s Single Tax. But at its core it represented interest-based and class-based farmer-labor politics. In comparative transatlantic terms, the Populist vision of a “cooperative commonwealth” to be realized by way of majoritarian electoral democracy, shared ideological terrain with other labor and evolutionary socialist movements. By the turn of the century, as the People’s Party collapsed, ex-Populists forged a key constituency of the Socialist Party. Other ex-Populists helped to consolidate factions that pursued labor, farmer, and other reform agendas within both the Democratic and Republican Parties. These farmer-labor and social–democratic traditions played a critical role in early twentieth-century state building and in the development of the New Deal, and they continued to be felt in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and beyond.” [64]

But the term “populism” today is, in Postel’s words, “applied promiscuously by journalists and a section of scholarly analysts who have the tag at the ready for political phenomena that either escape easy labels or whose easy labels somehow have less cachet than populism seems to have.” [65]

One of the more ludicrous recent examples of this phenomenon, for any historian of Populism, might be the New York Times application of the term to 2017 Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. [66] One is hard-pressed to find any commonality between the original Populists and Moore, or, for that matter, Donald Trump. Populism in its day stood for a bi-racial alliance of struggling farmers and workers (including supporters of women’s suffrage and assorted socialists) united in support for equal citizenship rights, government regulation of corporations, government-created money, antitrust policy, anti-corruption, anti-militarism, and anti-elitism generally. An early social democratic reform movement, Populism “placed on the national political agenda redistributive policies by way of an aggressive expansion of federal power…[envisioning] a rationalized mixed economy with a larger role played by both state-owned and cooperative industries than was the case in the American corporate model.” [67]

And yet, the term as used today in the liberal US and European media most often refers to dangerous reactionary anti-immigrant buffoonery. Even contemporary political scientists and other scholars with little knowledge of historic American Populism seem persuaded by the 1950s–1960s arguments of Richard Hofstadter and other pluralists who compared Populism to fascism and McCarthyism. [68] This disparagement calls to mind the fear with which late-19th century elites confronted the original Populism and the 1896 Democratic and Populist champion, William Jennings Bryan. [69] It suggests a broad fear of any democratic movement.[70]

Nevertheless, given the events of 2016, and the continuing growth of inequality, one might still imagine the emergence of a new movement on the left that would subsume identity issues like race and gender as they were encompassed in the early Populism: behind a broader banner of democratic and class-based reform, one that would be an alternative to the two Gilded Age models as well as the identity-focused protests of Democrats today.

As James Galbraith summarizes the current Democratic dilemma, The Democratic Party “retains a strong position on the two coasts and the weaknesses are evident in the fact that it doesn’t have a strong position practically anywhere else.…[which] works very much to the disadvantage of the Democratic Party because the US constitutional system gives extra weight to small states, to rural areas.… The Democratic Party has failed to maintain a national base of political organization and has become a party that is largely responsive to a reasonably afflutent, socially progressive professional class, and that is not a winning constituency in US national elections.” [71]

A renewed class politics might include policies like support for a less convoluted legal path to union organization (or experimenting with inclusive German style Works Councils), resistance to antidemocratic, worker-unfriendly trade agreements; an immigration compromise that might include citizenship for immigrants brought to the US as children, with legal but not citizenship status for their parents, while reducing illegal immigration via border controls and/or employer sanctions; free technical and university education to increase upward mobility; rural revival policies like aid to organic farmers, internet access, tourism, and new forms of industrialization; and a universal health care system.

A Constitutional amendment to repeal Citizens United, and party agreements to return to public funding of presidential campaigns would be consonant with the new Populism, and might be attractive to both parties (as was the last major campaign finance reform, the McCain-Feingold Act), given the experiences of 2016. Party rules and state laws that restrict and encumber voting participation have no place in a renewed populist politics. Nor do a huge military apparatus and 800 bases around the world, or a trillion dollar nuclear weapons modernization. Much money could also be saved for alternative purposes, and much human suffering could be avoided if US presidents would forego illegal military intervention and seek cuts to military spending like those embraced in the mid-1970s and early 1990s.

We live in interesting times. It will take attention to larger questions and methods other than survey data to understand them. Political scientists need to focus on how party and formal governmental institutions work, and explore the political economy and social contracts that underlie democratic politics. They will have to consider how robotization – not just for manufacturing but also affecting White collar workers, expanding into the professional classes and putting hundreds of millions out of work in the process [72] – is going to affect the reconfiguration of parties. Certainly there will still be the Duvergerian haves and have-nots, and far more of the latter. Who will speak for the disadvantaged in this brave new world?

Published Online: 2018-3-5

©2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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