Listen: Political Scientist Carol Nackenoff on Rethinking the 2016 Presidential Election

Earlier this month, Richter Professor of Political Science Carol Nackenoff spoke on campus about the 2016 presidential election and how political scientists are rethinking what they thought they knew. She posits that the election has been quite unusual, challenging a number of expectations of scholars of American politics, and explores whether we are witnessing long-term shifts and the transformation of at least one political party. She also recently spoke virtually with alumni on polarization and partisan sorting.

Nackenoff has written extensively about the American dream from the 19th century to the present and teaches American politics, constitutional law, environmental politics, and political theory. She was a member of the faculties of Bard College and Rutgers University before coming to Swarthmore in 1992 and is co-editor and contributor to Jane Addams and the Practice of Democracy (2009).

Her talk is part of the Second Tuesday Cafe lecture series, which this fall focuses on the 2016 presidential election and its significance. Co-convened this year by Nackenoff and Visiting Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies Sa’ed Atshan '06, the talks will provide interdisciplinary perspectives on critical issues underlying the campaign and the likely consequences of the election on domestic and foreign affairs. Sponsored each year by the Aydelotte Foundation, these monthly talks are geared for individuals with no formal background in the subject being discussed. The only requirement is curiosity.

Audio Transcript

Carol Nackenoff:  Thanks everybody, and thanks Eric for that very nice introduction. I appreciate it. I'll let you in on a couple of little secrets. One, I'm not really good with PowerPoint. I know some of these slides are kind of fuzzy, so I hope you will bear with me, most of them I think are okay, but this is not something that I'm very polished at. The second thing is, although I talk, I speak all the time, I really don't enjoy public speaking so I don't do it very often. I think this is only the second time I've stood up in front of a faculty and staff group at the college to speak in 25 years. So we will see how we do here.

We're facing a very unusual year. One with important consequences. Were political scientists able to predict the kind of scenario that was unfolding this year? Are we scientists? Where have we been looking for the clues. Have we been confounded or shown wrong in at least some of our expectations? If political scientists aren't rethinking some of the things they thought they knew, they should be.

This year we are witnessing a great deal of anger and frustration with both political parties, their ability to deliver on promises. Especially jobs and economic performance. The election has been frequently termed "the most important in our lifetimes". Of course that phrase is overused, but we're hearing it a lot this year. One newspaper in making its endorsement this year said, "This is not a traditional race, and these are not traditional times." Some newspapers have endorsed a Democrat for the first time in a century or even in their history. Some of have raised apocalyptic scenarios involving the fate of liberal democracy. What are we witnessing? That's too big of a question for me to answer, but lets look at some things today.

American working people have experienced more than a generation of stagnant, declining, and/or unstable employment. I don't have it in the right order. Manufacturing jobs with high wages, old unionized jobs are gone and are unlikely to come back. People look for someone to blame and government is one target. Scapegoating is another common occurrence. Party regulars and elites do not see issues right now the way ordinary Americans do. Politics as usual is extremely unattractive to many voters this year. Economic inequality between the wealthiest Americans and all other Americans is growing. This pattern can be found in other advanced industrial economies, but it's particularly pronounced in the U.S.

One book that the economists know, better than I do, because they did a summer working group on this book, is by Thomas Piketty, "Capital of the 21st Century" published in 2013, translated in 2014. Some of his evidence, and I don't know how well you can see these things, shows from the trough of the Depression to almost 1980. The top 1%, I'm sorry the share of the top 10% in the national income was fairly stable. And then, inequality takes off.  These slides also look at the top 1% using several measures of income and compares income inequality in the U.S. to Canada, U.K., and Australia showing roughly that since 1980 this particular measure of income inequality is greater in the U.S. This is the U.S. slide.

Piketty argues that when the rate of return on capital is greater than the rate of economic growth over a long term, the result is concentration of wealth. And inequlaity causes social and economic instability. Inequality in the U.S. declined after the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Depression staying stable til at least the mid seventies and then rose again. During this time of relative stability and inequality, political scientist Suzanne Mettler has pointed out that the GI Bill, giving World War II veterans access to a college education, not only propelled families into the middle class and sharing in the American Dream, but made them feel like they had been recognized that they had a stake in the system.

Both my dissertation and my first major publication, "The Fictional Republic", I looked at how changes in the American economy impacted opportunities and also belief in the American Dream. One project was more contemporary looking at survey research and one was more historical, the book was more hysterical. This is one reason I still focus attention on public opinion and American political culture.

Even without the Pikkety study, we can document that in recent decades, the top tenth of 1% has received most of the gains in income in the United States. Almost all the gains have been reaped by the top 1%. Let's see if I did this right, more or less right. Of course not all income in wage income.

The Economic Policy Institute graphs show the cumulative changes in real annual wages. Meaning that they are adjusted to a common scale, it's corrected for inflation. From 1979 to 2010 and also annual capital income during roughly the same time. And important share of these gains are not coming form job income but from dividends, bonuses, capital gains, and money made off of money. Another way of looking at this can be seen in this slide using Census Bureau data from 1965 to 2015, which shows how very flat household income, which is not just job income, has been for the bottom three Quintiles but pretty flat, relatively flat for the fourth quintile and much better for the last quintile, and then the top 5% doing much better yet. So household income not the same thing as individual income and we should be careful at what kind of figures we should be looking at. Because wealth is not income and family income is not individual income. So many households have maintained their position only by adding a second worker during this period. So actually looking at individual income would show you yet another kind of perspective here. For most of the folks in the lower Quintiles, their jobs plus transfer payments, are their cheap source of income. They're not reaping dividends, for example.

Perhaps Americans are particularly angry this election year because of the American Dream. The idea that individuals can rise though the ranks, achieve success by their own efforts, this self help mantra and mobility is available. That where you start off in life is not determinative of where you will end up. Americans are less optimistic then they were during the past half century that their children will have better lives. Or that ones own efforts predict outcomes. And yet, they see that some are doing spectacularly well. While very recent news has been upbeat about economic performance, people seem to be losing their optimism for real reasons.

This study, the evidence about opportunities for intergenerational mobility suggests in the words of Sawhill and Morton, "there was little available evidence that the United States has more relative mobility than other advanced industrial nations. If anything, the data seemed to suggest the opposite." Relative mobility measures a person's rank on the income, earnings, and wealth ladder compared to his or her parents rank at the same age. One of the biggest predictors of an American child's future economic success, the identity and characteristic of his or her parents is, according to the author, "predetermined and outside the child's control".

I'm sorry this is a very blurry one. This is a Pew Study pursuing the American Dream, and it indicates that 43, oops, wrong button, 43% of children born to parents in the bottom income quintile are likely to stay there. And that 40% of the children of those born in the top income quintile are likely to stay there.

Now, what doesn't this tell us. This doesn't tell us that mobility is less than what it used to be, but there is other kinds of evidence. For example, while the annual growth rate in real median family incomes from 1947 to 1973 was averaged out at 2.8%, from 1973 when we date the oil price shocks and the accompanying inflation. From 1973 to 1999, the growth rate was under 1% and it actually turned negative for awhile from 1999 to at least 2005. So these kinds of numbers also then mask disparities across the income spectrum because averages are averages.

One take away from the data on growing economic inequality. This is not about acts of God or of the marketplace. Public policies, some of the quite deliberate, including changes in tax rules contribute a great deal to these changes. Government policy makers make choices that exacerbate and accelerate these changes whether citizens see it or not.

Now last month at the Second Tuesday Café, we heard about globalization and free trade as they affected voters perceptions about jobs, and the economy, and immigration. We've now talked about one big factor in the 2016 election from a somewhat different perspective on incomes, jobs, and growth and economic inequality.

Let's look further at what's going on in 2016. In this election season, political party elites, I would contend, do not have as much control of the presidential nomination process as they would like to have, or that they are used to have having.

A major study published in 2008 was entitled, "The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform". And I'm not going to be 100% fair to this book so please allow me. According to the authors, the invisible primary, which is also sometimes the money primary, party elites behind the scenes machinations before the primary season play a heavy role in shaping nominations.

When party members line up definitively behind one candidate in the form of endorsements during the invisible primary, these authors complain that that candidate wins. The party decides, sees the parties as collections of intense policy demanders who know what they want from policies and politics. They are like investors. In fact they are investors.  And the authors argue that the parties remain a dominant force in the presidential nominating process, even following a number of reforms that were well touted in the 1970s. One of the authors of this book, this year notes that while the GOP in 2016 did not decisively pick one candidate, that is endorsements were spread across a lot of candidates, it clearly did not decide on Donald Trump, who received no major GOP endorsements until well after the first primaries. On the other side Bernie Sanders was far behind Hilary Clinton, in terms of number of endorsements, but he gave her a tougher fight than most had expected. After the Trump nomination, one of these authors reflected on how celebrity driven elections are becoming.  Well, I think there are other clues to the appeal of outside candidates besides celebrity.

The party decided flew in the face of some other very well received political science wisdom as well. Candidates in the television era who acquired through campaign finance reforms, opportunities to raise their own funds independent of the parties, establish their own candidate-centered organizations, and choose their own advisors. They acquired the ability to campaign without the parties intermediary. This led some scholars to argue that candidates pick the parties and not parties the candidates.

Bernie Sanders, a Democratic Socialist who caucuses with the Senate Democrats, decided he would run as a Democrat whether the party wanted him or not. Donald Trump decided he was going to run as a Republican, and largely self-financed his primary campaign, emphasizing his independence from big donors and their agendas. Voters who believe money buy elections found that claim of independence one of the things they liked about Trump. He paid very little attention to party leaders. If Trump took advice late in the game from RNC chair Priebus on the VP pick, he did not follow the party's advice on a lot of other issues. His difficult with relations with party leaders and funders led some important players, such as the Koch brothers, to ship their attention and resources to down ticket races this time. 

Then there's also the reforms implemented in the 1970s that gave voters a larger voice of candidate selection. This again is blurry and I'm sorry. Elected party officials and party elites were given fewer opportunities to select delegates and hypothetically candidates. Just to give you a flavor of the change, this has risen and fallen over time as you can see, but Democrats on the left, Republicans on the right. In 1960, the Democrats held primaries, and I mean caucuses also, in just 17 states and the District of Columbia. Three fewer than in 1956. In other states, party regulars selected the delegates to the National Conventions to their own state conventions. Just one state that year, Wisconsin, had an open primary. Where you didn't have to be affiliated with a political party in order to vote in the primary. Candidates skipped primaries all the time. If they didn't expect to win well or if their money was limited they would skip a primary and found route to the nomination by running in relatively few, because they could rely on these party conventions.

While campaign finance reforms that began in the 1970s had consequences that included money to flow to candidates and causes apart from national and state political parties and apart from the candidates themselves, making it harder to control candidates and messages. There were other changes that had a major import for the electoral process.

Now here's where I am actually a little bit firmer ground than some of the other areas here, cause I do pay a lot of attention to the court. Supreme Court decisions played an important role in how money could be raised and spent on campaigns. And these are the most important of those decisions, but there are a lot.

The court disallowed any legitimate government interest in using campaign finance. First of all, they distinguished themselves between contributions that were less expressive ideas and campaign expenditures which they considered more expressive ideas for First Amendment purposes. They also, I can't read what I did, they also said that you could only regulate, Congress could only regulate actual corruption and the appearance of corruption, but the concept ... I got to walk around here to see it, no I can see it right here ... the concept that government may restrict the speech of some element of our society in order to enhance the relative voice of others is wholly foreign to the First Amendment.  Rick Hassen, who was our Constitution Day speaker, talked a lot about what he thought was wrong with that.

Then we also increasingly find the court treating corporate spending like individual speech striking down major restrictions and also they struck down aggregate limits, restricting how much money a donor may contribute to candidates for federal office, political parties, and political action committees. Saying that these restrictions serious restrict participation in the Democratic process at the same time, as we're saying that Congress cannot do anything to equalize speech. Because that's foreign to the First Amendment.

As a result, especially since the 2010 Citizen's United decision, there's been a very important increase in nontransparent contributions, what is called "dark money", that is bundled and passed from one organization to another, making it impossible to know where it's coming from. Jane Meyer's book, "Dark Money", is actually quite good for those of you who are interested in reading more about this.

Also we see the rise in politicized 501-C3 and 501-C4 organizations that are supposed to be educations, charitable, or social welfare organizations and therefore tax exempt. They are supposed to have real limits on the portion of their funds that can be spent on election oriented activities, but these limits are rarely enforced by the IRS. And when the IRS did actually try to go after some of these 501-C4s they were selectively enforcing. Which led them to say that the Democrats were going after the Republications, so they backed off.

Now these kinds of organizations have become very important tools for advancing candidates and political agendas in the post Citizen's United world. What this has meant is an explosion of big money being spent on political campaigns and election season activities by those with clear political agendas. The remaining restrictions on campaign finance have become more or less meaningless as you can circumvent them by donating to other kinds of organizations.

In the 2012 presidential campaign the two candidates averaged about 1.1 billion a piece on the race. The estimate for this race is that it could cost 5 billion total, more than doubling the 2012 figure. And this does not include other federal races. The big donors also have the most impact on down ticket races that people aren't paying attention to, so we should be looking their as well. The rate of outside spending is going up dramatically and a lot of this money is ideological. For example the Koch brothers network is hostile to government regulation in general, but also of the kinds of industries that they're involved in, coal, oil, natural gas, these kinds of extractive industries.

Where is the voice of the non contributor? Or the small contribute? Despite Bernie's claim that the average contributor in his campaign was $27.00. What's going on when these huge sums of money are being thrown around? How much time are candidates for president, senate, and house having spend on fundraising? And campaigns, the amount of attention some perspectives are getting, far outweighs their proportion, it is far out of proportion the support for these perspectives.

Furthermore, even if political scientists believe, as opposed to the general public, that candidates are simply bought, big money does help elect candidates who are ideologically sympathetic or are in sync with those who helped put them there.

Here I want to show you some work that's being done in political science fairly recently. Researchers such as Larry Bartels who wrote a book called, "Unequal Democracy", and recently Martin Gillins and Benjamin Paige, I actually was a research assistant for Ben Paige back in Graduate School, have found that members of Congress pay very little attention to the preferences of the average person. Bartels, "on a section of key votes examined, Senators are much more likely to pay attention to those in the upper third of the income distribution than those in the bottom third." Gillens and Paige, using a multi-varied analysis of 1,179 policy issues, they found that economic elites and organized business groups have substantial influence on policy, on average citizens, and independent mass-based interest groups have zero. Is there any wonder that Americans think politicians pay little attention like them?

What we certainly saw as well during 2012 and 2016 Republican primary campaign, and I'm focusing on the Republican one because Obama ran unopposed in 2012 and 2016 pretty quickly became a two person race for the nomination, is the candidate supported by a very few wealthy backers can not only launch their campaigns but they can stay in the game a relatively long time making it harder for partisans and party elites to coalesce around a candidate. This is why you saw so many candidates, especially on the Republican side, where there were 17. There were 6 on the Democratic side. And there have been other years where we've seen that many. Candidates who do not resinate with voters can nonetheless hang in there a long time.

Conventional political science wisdom says that a long, bruising primary battle is not good for the chances of that party's candidate in the general election. I can think of exceptions including 2008 where Obama did have a long challenge from Hillary, but nonetheless there is at least a serious question about whether we're hurting candidates with these long battles.

What else does 2016 have to tell us about the parties and whether the party decides? Party leaders in the Democratic side clawed back some power to decide following a couple of things they thought were disastrous, the 1972 McGovern campaign and then Ted Kennedy's challenge to a sitting president in 1980. The party amended its rules to permit a substantial number of party leaders and elected officials as delegates, selected without requiring a prior declaration of preference, unbound delegates. This was designed to return a measure of decision making power and discretion to the organized party and increase the incentives for elected officials to feel involved. The unpledged super delegates on the Democratic side are 15% of all delegates, most of them white and male. This year, they pledged themselves early to Hillary and, these are the super delegates of course. Bernie Sanders claimed that the party was trying to keep him from the nomination. And while Hillary ultimately had enough delegates to win without the super delegates, Bernie wasn't completely wrong. The super delegates were instituted to give the party regulars a stronger role in making a party insider the nominee of choice.

Meanwhile, the Republican party, which I think is a very interesting case for 2016, has its own set of delegate selection rules. The party tries to reward states that are loyal to the party by giving them more delegates. They use a formula that looks at the number group Republicans that state has in the House, the Senate, Governorships, Houses of the State Legislature, and how the state voted as a whole in the last presidential election. They have worked to set up the primaries to split Republican delegates proportionally among candidates in some of the early races but encourage more states to award all delegates on a "winner take all" as the primary season progresses to speed up the process and get a nominee faster.

Now, despite Trump's complaints about the system being rigged against him, the rules set up could not stop him. He came out of no where for the Republican party. No one thought he was a viable candidate 15 months ago at a time when other would-be candidates had exploratory committees, super packs, and some sort of organization. Most political scientists did not expect insurgent candidates to do so well or to capture one of the nominations this year.

Political scientists also treat the current two party system as its almost a given. No minor party has become a major party in the United States since the Whigs fell apart in the 1850s and the Republican party rose to ascendancy at that time, by 1860. But political scientists should be looking very carefully at the future of the Republican party. We've seen waves of attempts to take over the party. The moral majority of Christian conservatives came to dominate a lot of state and local Republican parties dislodging established Republicans in 1978, 1980, and the early 80s, pushing the Republican party to the right on a number of social issues. The Tea Party later showed it could dislodge incumbents who took the wrong positions on key issues. Sometimes getting Republicans unelected, but sometimes replacing Republican representatives with far more ideologically-driven ones who broach no compromise in the legislature or with the President.

Now Trump as mobilized enthusiastic supporters who hold views that were not considered mainstream by most party elites just a few years ago, even though some elites played to these views. On trade deals, on immigration, on many kids of issues. There's a backlash this year against the politically correct, against the push for diversity, acceptance of divergent lifestyles, and more. These elements of the party, these sentiments, whatever happens to Trump, they are not going away any time soon.

The question I would pose is whether the Republican party is likely to survive? I contend that party regulars and elites have lost control of the Republican party. I expect to see them attempt a set of reforms to establish more control over the nomination process. And I also predict that these attempts will fail. What then? If they no longer control the party and these leaders and elites themselves remain a rather diverse lot by the way, they may have to abandon the party and create their own vehicle. Leaving the insurgence with the remains of the old party. Should that occur, it is possible that more conservative Democrats would find a home in that party making it actually a very major political party. And it may then cause, if that happens, a realignment in the Democratic party as well. Do I think this is a far-fetched scenario? Not at all. Is this something political scientists have gotten their mind around? Not too much.

A final major consideration. What should we say about the deepening polarization in contemporary American politics and its impact on 2016? We know that Congress is polarized. I love this. It's too bad its not very clear. This graph, which was reprinted in the Washington Post, was done I think in 2015, the stunning visualization uses dots for each representative in the House and lines connecting pairs of representatives who voted together a given number of times. The dots for each representative are placed according to how frequently the representatives voted together. Similar voting between Democrats and Republicans was fairly common up through, I can't see this well enough to use the pointer, up through the 1980s. But you'll start to see the parties pulling apart from each other, like a single cell dividing in two. And so you've got really clear differentiation in the later years of this investigation.

Another way of seeing it, which is a lot easier to see, uses the boat view. Ideological scores across roll call voting for individual members of the House or Senate. And this shows that by 2011, 2012 there was virtually no overlap at all between Republicans and Democrats in either House or Senate. You've got the Senate on this side and the House on this side. So that means that the most liberal Republican in each body was to the right of the most conservative Democrat.

Is this a terrible thing? When political scientists claimed back in the 1950s that they wanted America to build a more responsible two-party system, more like a Parliamentary system where the opposition party both formulates its own programmatic ideas and sitting in the wings waiting until it becomes the government. We got that sort of polarization. Parties are supposed to work by organizing issues into a manageable narrative. A set of choices for voters. With polarization, voters today can usually tell the difference between Republicans and Democrats and what they believe in. Voters have sorted themselves accordingly.

Polarization has a variety of causes which I cannot go into here. My elections course will be looking at a variety of them. But it also means sharper divisions, not just in Congress but among the electorate. Parties have become vehemently adversarial. As it has become extremely difficult for majorities to act. Polarization contributes to the public sense that government is dysfunctional. Bipartisanship has become rare. Obstructionism has become a way of governing. Polarization has probably had some impact on the declining level of trust in government. This is an overall measure of trust. And in confidence in major institutions.

The top line is the military. I was going to say why is anything going up on that thing.

 It's interesting that the Supreme Court retains more confidence than the other two institutions but Congress approval rating is way into the toilet. And has dipped below 10%. So these polls have been taken since, actually back in the 1960s, and you just see this decline, decline, decline.

Many voters are angry and frustrated. They feel as if little changes in terms of their economic fortunes or their preferred policy outcomes regardless of which party wins. The public may have an inaccurate sense however, that there is no difference in the parties in terms of jobs, incomes, and economic well being.

Suzanne Metler in a book called, "The Submerged State", argues that many policies and benefits are now distributed in such a way that they are invisible to the recipients. And the government that is responsible for these benefits is generally unseen. Many beneficiaries of programs such as Social Security to Pell Grants to Earned Income Tax credits, or other tax credits, say they use no government benefits at all. This is, she argues, "in part because government programs often come about now in a way that politicians of the opposing party don't want to get blamed for. Blame avoiding policies also undercut clear credit claiming opportunities. And policies are shrouded in complexity, people can't deliberate about the pros and cons of policies they can't see.

The public also may be wrong in thinking that neither party delivers income growth. Families at every income level have fared better under Republican presidents during a presidential election year. Republican presidents have been either particularly skillful or particularly lucky in successfully targeting income growth to coincide with presidential elections. This is called the political business cycle. Voters have rather short memories and we know, and economists tend to know this to that, people remember what's done to them rather than what's done for them. So they'll remember negative things a lot longer than they'll remember that few extra dollars in their pocket. But if you see it in election year, you probably remember it.

What are Democratic presidents doing? THey're given little credit for their strong record of promoting robust income growth in nonelection years. Especially pronounced in the second year of their term. Which is the first year they probably could actually be any result. This is the argument of Larry Bartels here in "Unequal Democracy."

There's this growing sense among the public that politics and the parties don't have the answer, at least politics as usual. The future doesn't look as bright as the sometimes imagined or idealized past. Trump is capitalizing on a sentiment that America isn't so great anymore. That wars that aren't turning out the ways their initiators expected it, multiple tours of duty and war zones for members of the volunteer Army. Crumbling infrastructure with inadequate investment to pay for repair. A sense that for the nation that used to be the super power, the American Century is over.  This sense of decay or decline extends to psychological and physical health. Drug addiction and abuse can no longer be perceived as simply urban, black problems, even if they never were just that. Rural and working class and white Americans are affected. Life expectancy is in decline for some segments of white America. Marriage is increasingly owned by upper middle-class well-educated Americans.

My own expectation is that regardless of who wins in 2016 many voters will remain unhappy and dissatisfied. This is partly because as presidential scholars do understand, candidates promise far more than they can deliver and speak as if there aren't three branches of government, much less federalism. I will editorialize for a second, I don't think Donald Trump understands there is Federalism. So the President is not all powerful, especially in the domestic policy arena. Even if some manufacturing jobs are created or are returned, they will either be high-tech jobs or they're likely to pay low real wages compared to half a century ago.

Some of the suggestions Trump has endorsed, like we might not pay some of our commitments, have the potential to be stabilized by financial markets. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton is not a particularity credible change agent and probably doesn't have the stomach to propose ambitious policies that would displease long-term donors or investors in the changes that would make serious inroads on economic inequality. Should Clinton win, and not carry the Senate, I think it is quite possible we will see the continuation of an eight member Supreme Court, divided four four between liberals and conservatives. As I said on Marty Moss Coane's show when Eric Berrone was nominated. Most political scientists and legal scholars disagree, cause they just think it's going to get fixed. However, even if the Senate should turn Democratic and Hillary should win, there is nothing that keeps Republicans from filibustering a Supreme Court nomination and therefore blocking it. The nuclear option applied to lower court judgeships not to the Supreme Court nominees. So I'm not even saying a Hillary victory would get us a Supreme Court nominee that tips that balance.

If Trump wins, its not at all clear that he will or can work with Congress. Either way we can have another four years of government by executive order and administrative rule making which is not the healthiest situation for American democracy. Either way, my field has a lot of thinking to do and I think we should all be thinking about it. Thank you.