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The Long Disjunction

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As part of a very good article about how to place Obama and Trump in “political time,” Thomas Edsall has a generous discussion of the paper Julia Azari and I recently presented:

Here is how Azari, in an unpublished paper written with Scott Lemieux, a political scientist at the University of Washington, pursues the idea that Trump may not fit into Skowronek’s scheme:

It is far from obvious the Reagan coalition has become electorally unviable. While it is true that Republicans have lost the popular vote in 6 of the last 7 presidential elections, they have also been the dominant congressional party since 1994, and the fact that the House, Senate and therefore the Electoral College all overrepresent predominantly white rural areas gives the Republican Party as currently constituted a very high electoral floor that will make its consignment to the political wilderness unlikely.

Instead of setting the stage for a transformative reconstruction of American politics, the country may have entered what Azari and Lemieux call “the long disjunction,” a “new era in American politics where there is not a clear majority party, but there is strong, ideologically-driven partisan contestation.”

If this is the case, Azari and Lemieux write, the “politics of the long disjunction are unlikely to be pretty.” Instead, they write:

The combination of the Republicans currently benefiting from the malapportionment of the Senate and the erasure of norms surrounding judicial confirmations makes it more likely that serious clashes between the elected branches and the judiciary will lead to lengthy Supreme Court vacancies and attempts to restrict the power of the courts through formally legal but nonnormative measures like court-packing and jurisdiction-stripping. Government shutdowns in periods of divided government may become more common. Congress is likely to abuse its oversight powers under opposition presidents and let them lay mostly dormant when partisan allies are in the White House. A long disjunction is, above all, a period in which neither party can effectively legitimatize its power, but power will continue to be exercised. This is not a formula for political stability.

There are certainly disjunctive elements in Trump’s presidency, and indeed in an institutional structure in which national majorities were consistently rewarded with control of the national government we would probably be looking at a major political realignment. But we don’t have that institutional structure. So my objections to the strongest versions of the Trump-as-disjunctive-president argument remain as they were at the outset: 1)there’s no reason to believe the Republican coalition is about to fracture or become electorally noncompetitive, and 2)at least in policy terms Obama governed much more as an articulator of the New Deal/Great Society than as a “preemptive” president like Clinton. Or to put it another way, Skowronek’s model works least well in periods of political stalemate like the Gilded Age, and this is a period of stalemate with a big difference from the late 19th century: strong ideological polarization. The dominant regime necessary for typical patterns of presidential leadership just isn’t there.

I think Theda Skocpol’s warning in the Edsall piece is worth quoting:

Theda Skocpol, professor of government and sociology at Harvard, sharply criticized the Skowronek-Balkin theory because it masks what she contends is a fundamentally different and dangerous moment in American politics:

We are in a very extreme period in U.S. political history because of the radicalization of the GOP and the apparent willingness of virtually all of its officeholders, candidates, and big donors to go along with authoritarian and anti-democratic measures of many kinds, not just presidential power grabs but legislative and judicial steps to curtail voting and organizational rights of opponents, in essence rigging future electoral contests in a very minority rule direction.

Skocpol warned of “mechanistic over-optimism,” writing that “things will look very different if Trump is re-elected, as he may very well be.” The current state of politics “is no ordinary cyclical turn,” she notes. “I would rank this period as one of the most conflictual since the late 1960s and early 1930s and the one with the greatest potential for actual regime change since the Civil War.”


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