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Political science and the rise of Trump
How political science helps explain the rise of Trump

By John Sides and Michael Tesler March 2

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said "the loser of the night was Marco Rubio" during his celebratory speech on Super Tuesday. "At least you can say that Ted has won something," the frontrunner said. (Video: Reuters/Photo: Jabin Botsford)
Donald Trump’s success in the Republican presidential primaries — especially after last night’s Super Tuesday contests — has flummoxed many political observers, including many (though not all) political scientists. This has led to glee and schadenfreude among some commentators:

The notion that “political scientists are dumbfounded” mainly relies on the fact that Trump’s rise appears to contradict a single work of political science, a book called “The Party Decides.” That book argued that during the period from 1980-2004, elites within the broader party network influence presidential nominations by working to coordinate on a candidate. Clearly, as one of the authors of this book, Hans Noel, wrote yesterday, a Trump nomination is not consistent with this argument.

But in fact, there is a great deal of other political science research that helps us understand Trump’s success. So even though Trump’s success was hard to predict in advance, it can certainly be understood better in light of decades of scholarship. This is the first of three non-smug posts on the subject.

The argument in four words: Most voters aren’t ideologues.

Trump’s success seems puzzling on its face because so many of his positions seem out of step with Republican Party orthodoxy. The economist Tyler Cowen suggested that Trump’s success should lead us to conclude that “Republican voters are less conservative, less ‘Tea Party,’ and less libertarian than many people had thought.”

In political science, the idea that ordinary Americans may not actually be orthodox ideologues is well-established. It arguably dates back to one of the field’s most influential essays—written by Philip Converse over 50 years ago.

Converse wrote about “belief systems,” or how people organize (or don’t organize) their political beliefs. Ideologies like liberalism and conservatism provide one way of doing this by telling voters what goes with what. For example, liberalism means opposing the death penalty and supporting abortion rights. Conservatism means the opposite.

However, after analyzing survey data from the 1950s, Converse found that the public was largely “innocent of ideology.” When asked their likes and dislikes about the political parties and presidential candidates, relatively few used ideological concepts or terminology. The majority could not define terms like “liberal” and “conservative” or could define them in only in vague terms.

Moreover, people’s views on various political issues didn’t “go together” the way that liberalism or conservatism would predict. Knowing people’s view on one issue didn’t really help predict their view on another issue. This was particularly true among voters with less formal education — exactly the group that has been most attracted to Trump.

Since Converse’s essay, this basic finding has not really changed. In a reevaluation of Converse’s work based on 2000 data, a team of political scientists found that although a larger group used ideological concepts when describing the parties and candidates, this was still a small minority of voters (20 percent, compared to 12 percent in the 1950s data).

Similarly, recent work by James Stimson and Christopher Ellis (discussed here) as well as Sunshine Hillygus and Todd Shields has found that it is common for voters to have political views out of step with the mainstream of their party.

In particular, Ellis and Stimson show that it is self-identified conservatives who are particularly prone to this because so many of them take liberal positions on key questions like the size of government. They find that this group — “symbolically conservative” but “operationally” liberal — actually comprises a larger share of the electorate (nearly 25 percent) as of 2008 than it did in 1974.

One of us (Sides) demonstrated this in 2012, showing that even likely Republican primary voters tended to favor maintaining or increasing spending on a range of government programs.

David Broockman has noted something similar: “Most Americans are simply not ideologically consistent enough that ideological labels such as “conservative,” “liberal” or “moderate” accurately describe them.” Again, this is particularly true among those voters with less formal education or less interest in politics.

In other words, there have always been voters, and especially Republican voters, whose views would make them susceptible to a heterodox candidate like Trump. What has changed isn’t voters, but the choices they’ve been given.

Heterodox candidates usually struggle to succeed because the broader party network won’t support them. But this year, with so many candidates and so little party coordination, and with Trump dominating news coverage and thereby transmitting his message widely, Republicans who haven’t quite adopted every plank of the party platform now have their own candidate.

It is not surprising, then, that Trump has risen to the top of the polls despite being unpopular with Republicans who have conventionally conservative views on economics. Douglas Ahler and Broockman as well as one of us (Tesler) have made this argument.

Here’s another piece of evidence. In a November YouGov/Economist poll, respondents were asked whether government spending on four areas (health, education, roads and infrastructure) should be increased, decreased or kept the same. We combined these questions into an overall measure of support for government to see how it is related to support for Trump:

[Image: tesler_econtrump1.png&w=1484]
Graph by Michael Tesler

There are two important takeaways. First, Trump does significantly better (15 points) among those who want spending increased rather than decreased.  Second, the numbers at the bottom show there are far more Republicans who want spending increased on these issues than decreased.

In other words, there are a lot of conflicted conservatives and Trump is winning them. Most voters aren’t ideologues, including most Republicans. Now these voters have someone to vote for.

Part 2 of this series will follow tomorrow.

Michael Tesler is assistant professor of political science at UC Irvine, co-author of “Obama’s Race” and author of the forthcoming “Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era.”
John Sides is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. He specializes in public opinion, voting, and American elections.
While not a political scientist, this is an older, but still very interesting take nevertheless. Boxing versus wrestling..:

Quote:Donald Trump has political pundits stumped. They’ve been predicting his imminent downfall for months. Every “gaffe” that was supposed to destroy his support has only made him stronger. “DON VOYAGE: Trump Toast After Insult,” a headline in the New York Post blared nearly two months ago. The insult at issue, questioning John McCain’s military service, is so many insults ago that it isn’t even mentioned any more.

Meanwhile, Trump still dominates the polls, leading the GOP field by about14 points nationally. With the exception of one poll in John Kasich’s home state of Ohio, Trump has led every state and national poll since the beginning of August.

You won’t find Roland Barthes on the Sunday morning roundtables dissecting the presidential race. Barthes is a French philosopher who died in 1980. But his work may hold the key to understanding Trump’s popularity and his staying power.

Barthes is best known for his work in semiotics, the study of signs and symbols. But he wasn’t limited to lengthy, esoteric treatises. Rather, Barthes published much of his work in short, accessible pieces breaking down elements of popular culture. The New York Times described Barthes as the godfather of the TV recap.

His most famous essay, published in his 1957 book Mythologies, focuses on professional wrestling. Could an essay about professional wrestling hold the key to understanding Trump’s appeal? It’s worth noting that, before he was a presidential candidate, Trump was an active participant in the WWE. In 2013, Trump was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame..

In his essay, Barthes contrasts pro wrestling to boxing.
Quote:This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling, it would make no sense. A boxing- match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time… The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match always implies a science of the future. In other words, wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result.

In the current campaign, Trump is behaving like a professional wrestler while Trump’s opponents are conducting the race like a boxing match
. As the rest of the field measures up their next jab, Trump decks them over the head with a metal chair.

Others in the Republican field are concerned with the rules and constructing a strategy that, under those rules, will lead to the nomination. But Trump isn’t concerned with those things. Instead, Trump is focused on each moment and eliciting the maximum amount of passion in that moment. His supporters love it.

The key to generating passion, Barthes notes, is to position yourself to deliver justice against evil forces by whatever means necessary. “Wrestlers know very well how to play up to the capacity for indignation of the public by presenting the very limit of the concept of Justice,” Barthes writes.
Trump knows how to define his opponent — China, “illegals,” hedge fund managers — and pledges to go after them with unbridled aggression. If, in making his case, he crosses over a line or two, all the better.
This French Philosopher Is The Only One Who Can Explain The Donald Trump Phenomenon
Quote:A few months ago, I stopped by Larry Bartels’s office at Vanderbilt University. Bartels, alongside Christopher Achen, is the author of Democracy for Realists, which I’d become a bit obsessed with. The book argues that decades of social science evidence has shattered the idealistic case made for how voters in democracies act, and the reality is that “even the most informed voters typically make choices not on the basis of policy preferences or ideology, but on the basis of who they are—their social identities.”
The mystery of the 2016 election was its normalcy - Vox

Quote:Consider the curious case of New Jersey in 1916: That summer, there was a string of deadly shark attacks along the Jersey Shore. As a result, Woodrow Wilson lost his home state in the presidential election. Why, you ask? Because the beachfront towns (which rely on tourism) were negatively impacted by the attacks. Though Wilson wasn’t responsible for the hungry sharks, he was the incumbent, and people vote against incumbents when things are bad. This is a story political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels tell in Democracy for Realists, in service of a sobering thesis: Voters don’t have anything like coherent preferences. Most people pay little attention to politics; when they vote, if they vote at all, they do so irrationally and for contradictory reasons.
Two eminent political scientists: The problem with democracy is voters - Vox
Quote:The contest between conservatives and the radical right has a history that is worth remembering. Conservatives qualified the Enlightenment of the 18th century by characterizing traditions as the deepest kind of fact. Fascists, by contrast, renounced the Enlightenment and offered willful fictions as the basis for a new form of politics. The mendacity-industrial complex of the Trump administration makes conservatism impossible, and opens the floodgates to the sort of drastic change that conservatives opposed.

Thus the nostalgic moment for this White House is not the 1950s, usually recalled warmly by American conservatives, but the dreadful 1930s, when fascists of the new right defeated conservatives of the old right in Europe. Whatever one might think of conservative nostalgia for the 1950s, it is notable for what it includes: American participation in the second world war and the beginnings of the American welfare state. For conservatives, it all went wrong in the 1960s.

For the Trump administration, it all went wrong rather earlier: in the 1940s, with the fight against fascism and the New Deal. Stephen Bannon, who promises us new policies “as exciting as the 1930s”, seems to want to return to that decade in order to undo those legacies.
Trump is ushering in a dark new conservatism | Timothy Snyder | Opinion | The Guardian

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