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It’s Time For Some Regime Theory


American Political Development is hot, people:

Before I write my treatment for the HBO miniseries The Sad Disjunction of Jimmy Carter, it’s probably a good time to take stock of the question of what Trump means for the Reagan regime. Jack Balkin argues that the Trump administration will be a disjunctive administration:

A week after Donald Trump was elected in November 2016, I predicted—using Stephen Skowronek’s model of cycles of regime politics—that Trump would turn out to be a disjunctive president. He would preside over the end of the Reagan regime, just as Jimmy Carter had ushered in the end of the New Deal/Civil Rights Regime and Herbert Hoover had presided over the end of the long period of Republican dominance following the Civil War. That was not because Trump was anything like Hoover or Carter—both honest, intelligent, sober, and serious-minded men. It was rather because the Reagan regime is in a slow-motion collapse, a point I made in a speech at B.U. Law School in the fall of 2013 (and published the following year). The Republican Party, I argued, was in the midst of either a civil war or a nervous breakdown.

As a political regime grinds to its conclusion, the dominant party turns to heterodox outsiders who promise to restore past greatness, but instead find themselves overmatched by circumstance. They unravel the regime and create an opening for a new regime led by another political party.

Like Hoover and Carter, Trump is overmatched by forces beyond his ability to control. He has not ended the processes of decay; if anything, he has accelerated them.

The Trump Administration is now in its eighth month. My analysis remains largely unchanged, and recent events have only confirmed its basic outlines.

Balkin, as always, is very much worth reading, and he might be proven right. But I still don’t think the Trump regime will prove to be disjunctive, and I still think the comparison with the Obama administration represents a fundamental breakdown in regime theory. (For people unfamiliar with it, this is a good summary of Skowronek’s “political time” theory of the presidency.)

First, I think it’s premature to declare that Trump will not sign any major legislation. The failure of ACA reform is not, in itself, a sign of disjunction — indeed, it’s the closest the Reagan Republicans have ever come to ending a major federal entitlement that retained robust Democratic support. If the Republicans fail to pass a big tax cut bill, that’s another story — but I wouldn’t call that dead yet.

But let’s say arguendo that Ryan and McConnell can’t get any of their major priorities passed, confining Republicans to the administrative/judicial track. Certainly, the GOP Congress will be less productive than I predicted. That’s one data point that could point towards disjunction, but it’s not a dispositive one. Not every politically unsuccessful presidency is disjunctive — you can fail to do much to advance your party’s major legislative priorities and fail to win a second full term without being a disjunctive presidency (Truman and Bush I being examples of this.) As Balkin says, if you say that the Trump administration will be disjunctive this means you think that the Republican regime is on the verge of fundamental transformation.

And I still don’t see the evidence for this, and indeed Trump’s rapid assimilation into Republican orthodoxy is evidence that this isn’t happening. Partly due to the institutional factors that overrepresent its core constituencies (including not only distracting/gerrymandering, the Senate and Electoral College, and the Supreme Court’s gutting of campaign finance restrictions), this Republican coalition remains perfectly electorally competitive. I don’t think they need to change right now, and nor do I see any evidence that they are. Republican vote suppression and its focus on the judiciary might be a sign that Republicans would be in big trouble if the U.S. had a parliamentary government elected by P.R. — but it doesn’t. Given its advantages, it just doesn’t have to moderate to remain competitive at this point.

And the other problem with the calling the Trump regime disjunctive is that it assumes that Reaganism is the dominant governing paradigm. But while we don’t know about what will happen after Trump, we can say that the Obama regime was not preemptive. While Clinton’s legislative achievements were bipartisan compromises that often reflected longstanding Republican priorities rather than Democratic ones, Obama’s big achievements were all squarely in the New Deal/Great Society tradition. The logic of regime theory is that if Trump is disjunctive Obama must have been preemptive, but the Obama administration was an articulation of the New Deal/Great Society regime, not a preemptive coping with the Reagan regime. (It’s critical to remember that, in this context, the relevant baseline is “what the New Deal/Great Society tradition actually passed,” not “the policies I would have passed if I became Prime Minister of the United States in 2009.”)

So it seems to me that traditional regime theory just fails to accurately describe a political context in which two increasingly polarized parties fight closely fought national elections. I think we have two parties seeking to articulate different political traditions, not a single dominant regime that structures the political orientation of the presidency. And this will remain true even if Ryan and McConnell can’t get a tax cut passed.

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