Donald Trump was the first Republican to win Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin since 1988. Combined with Republican victories in Congress and a large majority of statehouses, it is tempting to see his victory as a transformation of the political order. Some political scientists, however, are skeptical. Julia Azari of Marquette University makes a compelling case in Vox that Trump is more likely to represent the last gasp of a dying regime, much as Jimmy Carter did before him. In Azari’s interpretation, Trump and Carter might be polar opposites as human beings, but their presidencies are in a similar place politically, defined by outsiders trying to keep a fraying political coalition together.
There is some truth to this analysis. I certainly don’t think Trump’s win means a new period of national dominance by the Republican Party. But a Trump loss in 2020 should not be seen as evidence of a new Democratic era either. Rather, what we may be seeing is a suspension of the kind of regime politics Azari is describing. Instead of one dominant party setting the terms and a minority party governing within its paradigm, we’re in the midst of a new period of competition between increasingly polarized parties.
Azari’s analysis applies the concept of “political time” from Stephen Skowronek’s masterful The Politics Presidents Make. Skowronek argues that while the powers and resources available to the president tend to evolve chronologically, the political challenges faced by presidents show recurring patterns. As Azari puts it, “The president’s relationship to the dominant party and the health of that party’s ideology and coalition influence the success and legacy of the administration.” Some presidents, like Andrew Jackson, FDR, and Ronald Reagan, are “reconstructive” presidents, establishing new political regimes. Some presidents attempt to articulate and extend the achievements of the new regime, like James Polk for Jackson, LBJ for FDR, and George W. Bush for Reagan. “Preemptive” presidents from the minority party, like Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, try to carve out their own political legacy but govern fundamentally within the constraints of the dominant regime.
A fourth category of president is the “disjunctive” president—the president that takes office as a political regime is beginning to crumble. Presidents like James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover and Carter are remembered as failures partly because of their individual failings. But another factor was the collapse of their political regimes, which produced tensions that were impossible to resolve.
Is Trump a disjunctive president? The comparison with Carter is a powerful one. Carter was able to eke out a victory in 1976 in the aftermath of Nixon’s resignation and Ford’s decision to pardon him, but he couldn’t survive the decline of the Great Society coalition and was beaten easily by Reagan. Trump’s win was an even bigger fluke. Going up against another candidate with negative approval ratings, he was beaten decisively in the popular vote but had a run of luck in three marginal states that allowed him to be selected by an undemocratic electoral system. And even the Electoral College wouldn’t have helped him had the director of the FBI not decided to baselessly imply that Hillary Clinton was a crook less than two weeks before the election, generating a wave of anti-Clinton coverage that almost certainly changed its outcome. This isn’t exactly a robust formula going forward.
Trump is remarkably unpopular for a president-elect, and unless he can turn that around he’s in danger of being a one-and-done president. And with an unpopular president and an unpopular Republican Congress in power, Democrats are very likely to start winning back some of the ground they’ve lost at the federal, state, and local levels. Trump could certainly be a Carter-like figure in this respect.
But there are two major limitations to the analogy. First, the Republican Congress is likely to accomplish a lot more under Trump than the Democrats did under Carter. Second, it obscures the fact that the Democratic Party emerged from Reagan’s shadow long ago.
The relationship between Carter and Congress was famously dysfunctional. Four years of unified Democratic control of the federal government yielded very little legislative accomplishment, certainly nothing comparable to the pillars of the Obama administration. Showing that presidents make politics but that politics also make presidents, arguably the most notable domestic legacy of the Carter administration was the beginning of the deregulation and defense build-up that would fully bloom under Reagan.
Unfortunately, the current Republican Congress is far more cohesive than the Democratic caucus of the late 1970s. Far from checking the corrupt president-elect, the Republican Congress has signaled that it will be happy to let Trump and his family loot the Treasury and staff the executive branch with almost comically unqualified plutocrats. The reason for this is simple: House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell see the opportunity to enact a radical policy agenda. There will definitely be huge upper-class tax cuts, fire sales of federal land, draconian cuts to discretionary spending, and other upward distributions of wealth.
This is not to say that it will be all smooth sailing. Having a buffoon in the Oval Office without any expertise or long-standing policy commitments will make it harder to prevail in the most important battle of the next year, over the future of the Affordable Care Act. There will be times when Republicans overreach and fail. But unlike the Democratic Congress under Carter, they know what they want to do and will do a lot of it. A lot more of an ideological agenda will be accomplished by this Congress than under a typical disjunctive presidency, which tends to entail broadly popular compromises or stasis.
Another flaw in slotting Trump as a disjunctive president is that it implies that we’re still in the Reagan regime and that Barack Obama was a preemptive president. Azari doesn’t directly address the issue at much length. But the political scientist Corey Robin, in his intriguing piece in n+1 making the Carter-Trump connection, argues that “we are now reaching the end of the fourth decade of the Reagan regime,” asserting that Obama is a preemptive president, like Bill Clinton.
The problem here is that the “preemptive” label just doesn’t fit the facts. Obama’s signature domestic achievements—increasing taxes on the wealthy to pay for benefits for the poor and middle class, substantially expanding both regulation and public expenditure through the Affordable Care Act, enacting wide-ranging stimulus through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and tightening regulation of the financial industry through the Dodd-Frank Act—are all ambitious statutes, squarely within the New Deal/Great Society tradition.
There are strong arguments that all of these laws were compromised by the need to win support of unsavory vested interests and/or Republican senators, and didn’t go far enough. But, of course, the same was true of the New Deal. Particularly when you also consider Obama’s aggressive use of the regulatory state on issues such as the environment, labor rights, and immigration, his governing posture was very different from Clinton’s embrace of the dictum that the “era of big government is over.”
Typically, the minority party facing a dominant regime moves towards this regime. But if this is still Reagan’s regime, the opposite has been happening with the Democratic Party. Obama campaigned to the left of Hillary Clinton in 2008. Clinton campaigned to the left of Obama in 2016 (and far to the left of her husband’s actually preemptive 1992 and 1996 campaigns). While 20 years ago Democrats would have reacted to electoral defeat by moving to the right, most signs indicate that the party will continue to move left.
Obama was neither a preemptive president nor a reconstructive one. Instead, we are in a political space in which there is no dominant regime. Two ideologically coherent parties—one increasingly committed to expanding the New Deal and the Great Society, one to inflict the crushing blows to it Reagan and Bush couldn’t—are becoming increasingly polarized. The same factors that are almost certain to cause the Supreme Court to lurch dramatically to the left or right when the median vote changes hands will also mean that narrowly decided elections will carry increasingly large consequences if there is unified government and hopeless gridlock when there isn’t.
And it’s likely that this post-regime politics will persist for a while. The Democrats, having won the popular vote in six of the last seven elections, have a viable electoral coalition. Despite nominating an unpopular candidate facing unique headwinds, the party won three million more votes for its most progressive program in decades. Meanwhile, while it’s a minority coalition nationally, Republicans will remain competitive because of the federal system and skewed apportionment in both houses of Congress. The Democratic Party may well be able to defeat Trump after one term and even stop important parts of the Ryan-McConnell agenda—but even if they do, their opponents aren’t going anywhere. The 21st century figures to be characterized by intense polarization, not by the rise and fall of dominant regimes.