Ranking the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates: Round 1

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TL;DR: on the eve of the first round of Democratic 2020 presidential primary debates, I’m putting Harris, Booker, and Buttigieg in Tier 1, Klobuchar and Biden in Tier 2, Warren in Tier 3, and O’Rourke and Sanders in Tiers 4 and 5, respectively.

 

A few years back I wrote a blog post on the topic of “who would do a ‘good job’ as president.” Criteria included assessments of official constitutional duties as well as informal roles that the U.S. president has taken on over time. Here I’m updating this list for 2020 and taking it a step further and including some criteria that I personally believe to be important but I think that reasonable people can disagree on:

  1. Foreign policy expertise/experience: U.S. presidents face huge constraints in terms of enacting their domestic legislative agenda but have wide latitude to act when it comes to foreign policy. In my view, one of the highest priorities for a president at this moment in history is to prioritize strengthening the liberal international order, repairing our damaged international democratic alliances, defending democracy and human rights both at home and abroad. Or at the very least, actively embracing the radical idea that democratic allies = good, authoritarian dictators = bad.
  2. Cognitive complexity: being president is a really, really, really hard job. I personally think that the person doing this job should be able to skillfully and systematically analyze extremely complex issues while recognizing that the world is a complicated and nuanced place where the “right” thing to do is often subjective and elusive.
  3. Populism: personally speaking, I am extremely wary of populism as a political style, both on the right as well as the left. Populists gain support and popularity by identifying a sub-group of the population as the “enemy” (often an intellectual, political, or economic elite) that threatens the well-being of the “real people” who are noble and virtuous. They tend to sprinkle their rhetoric with words like “corrupt,” “rigged,” “enemy,” etc. It is possible for populists to embrace and respect liberal democratic norms and institutions, but very often they do not. I am wary of populism.
  4. Background/experience: all other things being equal, I think it’s an advantage for the U.S. president to have some previous experience as an elected official, preferably at the federal level, so that they have a realistic appreciation of the constraints that they will be working with. I also see it as an advantage if this person’s background and life experience provided some basis for appreciating the experiences and perspectives of people from disadvantaged or marginalized groups.
  5. Realistic plan of action: presidential candidates promise the moon, knowing full well that they ultimately can’t single-handedly impose their policy agenda like an autocrat. I think it’s important for presidential candidates to give a realistic explanation of how they plan to implement their policy priorities, especially through Congress. When pressed, very few presidential candidates have a feasible plan for passing their agenda if, for example, they face a Congress from the opposing party who doesn’t want them score legislative victories.

Taking that all into account, here is my first round of rankings of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, to be updated periodically throughout the primary election season. Right now I’m limiting my rankings to those who are consistently polling above 1%, other candidates have many admirable points in their favor but are having a hard time breaking out of the 0% zone.

 

TIER 1: HARRIS, BOOKER, BUTTIGIEG

KAMALA HARRIS:

  • PRO: Of the various criteria I outlined above, she is strong on all of them except foreign policy expertise. I’m a fan of her LIFT Act proposal to tackle poverty head-on. I appreciate that she is methodical and deliberate in her decision-making style. She could be a formidable “consensus” candidate between various factions of the Democratic Party.
  • CON: Little foriegn policy experience/expertise, but her time on the Senate Homeland Security and Intelligence Committees could compensate somewhat for that.

CORY BOOKER:

  • PRO: The thing that stands out for me is Booker’s rhetorical style that emphasizes unity, inclusivity, and a politics of “radical love,” which could be a good change coming from a president (the chief political representative of our culture and values). His Baby Bonds anti-poverty proposal is a great idea. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s a huge Star Trek geek.
  • CON: He has little foreign policy experience/expertise, although his time on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee might give him a leg up.

PETE BUTTIGIEG:

  • PRO: Impressive resume for someone who is only one year older than me. I’m particularly impressed by his academic training in foreign affairs, his military service, and his previous work experience with “big data” science and the ways of thinking about the social world that comes with it. He is one of the few candidates who is actively proposing creative ideas to reform our electoral institutions in a way that will help reduce polarization and paralysis.  
  • CON: Zero electoral experience at the national level and South Bend local politics are very, very different from those of the U.S. federal government.

 

TIER 2: KLOBUCHAR, BIDEN

AMY KLOBUCHAR:

  • PRO: For me, the key selling point for her is that she is, above all, a pragmatist. She doesn’t make pie-in-the-sky promises about what she’ll do if elected. Instead, she focuses on incremental, but arguably more achievable, objectives that might stand a chance of passing through Congress.
  • CON: Very, very little foreign policy experience.

JOE BIDEN:

  • PRO: He has, by far, the most foreign policy expertise and experience of all the candidates running (including the current incumbent president). If elected, I hope he would prioritize repairing our relationships with democratic allies abroad and promoting human rights in authoritarian regimes, as that is where he would likely accomplish the most long-term and effective change. While Senate Republicans would still fight him tooth and nail on every policy proposal, his extensive background and personal relationships with them might result in an occasional compromise.
  • CON: I am not impressed with how he is dodging interview requests, town hall events, and generally not making himself as available to the media as the other candidates. Also, he is the wrong candidate for the #MeToo era.

 

TIER 3: ELIZABETH WARREN

  • PRO: She has the most extensive and well thought-out policy proposals of any of the current candidates. By far. Her academic background is a big plus.  
  • CON: Her rhetoric and stump speeches frequently invoke populist notes (as noted by no less than Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson), although not to the same degree as Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. She has also intimated that she will “fight dirty” against a Mitch McConnell Senate, returning in kind the not-technically-illegal-or-unconstitutional-but-norm-defying-and-democracy-damaging strategies that McConnell has employed the last several years.

 

TIER 4: BETO O’ROURKE

  • PRO: He is making electoral reform a high priority in his stump speeches.
  • CON: His personal interviews often give the impression that he can be an impulsive decision-maker and perhaps a bit of a lightweight when it comes to substance and style.

 

TIER 5: BERNIE SANDERS

  • PRO: He has improved his foreign policy chops (a little) since the 2016 primary.
  • CON: He is a populist through-and-through with little foreign policy experience and does a poor job of explaining the nuances between “socialism,” “democratic socialism,” “social democracy,” and “authoritarian socialism” to a public that is skeptical of the word “socialism.” When pressed, his plan for passing his agenda is “The Revolution” which I think means persuading the public to sweep like-minded democratic socialists into filibuster-proof majorities in Congress. Color me skeptical.

 

 

My reactions to President Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address

Here are a smattering of my reactions to the president’s 2019 State of the Union address, in no particular order:

I will admit being pleasantly surprised by the first half hour or so of the president’s address. He used traditional civic rhetoric that hearkened to lofty ideals about American values and identity. I appreciated his shout-outs to the D-Day veterans and Buzz Aldrin. His positive words toward criminal justice reform, slow-but-steady economic growth, and (later in the speech) childhood cancer, HIV, children, paid family leave, etc. all conform to what is traditionally expected from a U.S. head of state in a situation like this. This was the type of rhetoric that we’d expect from an otherwise “normal” president. Perhaps this is a preview of a new “softer, gentler Trump” approach that he’ll be trying out for the 2020 campaign? (My strong hunch, based on previous experience, is that he lacks the self-control to keep it up longer than a day or two, but I could be wrong!)

The president made good points about economic figures during his administration. He should be grateful for them. The current state of the economy is what’s keeping his approval rating in the low-40s. If an economic recession hits he’ll likely sink into the 30s or 20s.

At the half hour mark, the president took a strong turn in a nativist direction talking about immigration and border security, etc. I’ve talked about this issue at length previously so I won’t rehash it all here, but in a nutshell: I think reasonable people can disagree about the merits of border security and the most efficient and responsible way to handle immigration… but the rhetoric that the president to describe the immigration “onslaught” simply does not match even a generous interpretation of the facts on the ground about recent immigration rates and the link between immigration and crime rates. This does not surprise me, though, as this has been a central part of the president’s campaign and platform for the past three years. This is the issue that motivates the president’s core base and it makes sense that he would continue to beat the drum on this, despite its highly dubious foundations in objective reality. (Just a few examples of the disconnect between the president’s rhetoric and reality on immigration: here and here.)

“If I had not been elected president, we would right now be in a major war with North Korea.” I look forward to seeing how the historians discuss that line in their future biographies of the president.

The president’s rhetoric about denouncing anti-Semitism might carry more moral force if he hadn’t declined to reject endorsements from David Duke and the KKK, not to mention praising “some” members of the Charlottesville 2017 white supremacy gathering as “very fine people.”

“Democratic socialism” is NOT the same thing as “Soviet/authoritarian socialism.” To conflate the two is understandable for those who don’t study the nuances of political ideologies, but is (in my view) a strawman argument and lazy thinking. The “socialism” that the president is referring to is “democratic socialism” which is basically just “hyper-liberalism” and is not the same thing as authoritarianism. (See more here.) Democratic socialism is certainly an ideology worth debating, of course, but everyone would do better to know what they’re talking about before denouncing it. That all said, I think there’s an obligation for self-described Democratic Socialists to do more to explain to the public how they are different than other types of socialists, because it’s not obvious or intuitive.

Good for the president for praising women in the workforce and in Congress. I hope that his rhetoric will begin to reflect more respect for women, both in wider society and personally. His rhetoric throughout his life, during the campaign, and early in his presidency has not conveyed the same respect for women that was communicated in his address.

In sum: this speech suggests to me that Donald Trump is certainly capable of bipartisanship and keeping his rhetoric within the boundaries of normal political traditions and expectations. Given his past behavior, however, I will be surprised to see this style of rhetoric survive past the end of the speech. That said, I could be wrong.

Finally, here’s a good summary of the political science research on the effect of State of the Union addresses: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/3-reasons-that-state-of-the-union-speeches-dont-matter/

 

Sabbatical reading summaries: political science and sociology books

As part of my Fall 2019 research sabbatical, I was able to get caught up on some of the more popular and influential political science and sociology academic books published in the last two years. Here are some highlights from several of them:

Uncivil Agreement by Liliana Mason: a basic overview on how partisans are sorted and the social psychology behind it (social identity theory, affective partisanship, etc.) as well as some ideas on how to fix it. Good for undergrads at intro level.

The Great Alignment by Alan Abramowitz: an update of his 2012 book Polarized Public, but the argument is mostly the same. Partisans are sorted and polarized and this drives elite polarization. It’s about ideology, race, religion, and geography. Includes a chapter on transformation of New Deal coalition to now and another on the 2016 election and the role of racial resentment.

Neither Liberal nor Conservative by Donald Kinder and Nathan Kalmoe: basically, Converse is still right and most Americans don’t think in ideological terms. They don’t well know the difference between the two. A quarter ID as nothing and half say they’re moderate. Ideology has little effect on voting or other attitudes after PID is controlled for. Instead, Americans think in terms of groups and attachment to groups.

Do Facts Matter? by Jennifer Hochschild and Einstein: an examination of the normative importance of knowing right information and acting on it for democratic citizenship. Relies on about ten different case studies of both Democrats and Republicans getting wrong information and not caring or doing anything about it. Better for graduate students or advanced undergraduates.

The Increasingly United States by Daniel Hopkins: people used to behave differently at the local than national level. Over the last several decades local and state parties have increasingly come to mirror the national parties and also voters tend to vote much more consistently along party lines. So now there are few split ticket voters. Why? Nationalization of media, decline of local news coverage, etc. Also has worrying implications for democratic responsiveness at the local level. Great text for a class on federalism or local politics.

Democracy in America by Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens: their key argument is that government is responsive to wealthy and interest groups but not average Americans due to the influence of money and time and making it hard for people to come into the system. First part: covers realities and contexts of economic inequality. Then they make several policy recommendations; then argue for a mass movement to achieve it. Good for presenting an economic explanation of inequality and American gridlock and polarization. Good to consider for those skeptical of inequality.

Democracy for Realists by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels: basically, a big test of how democracy is “supposed” to work according to romantic visions, then an account of how it actually works.
1. Most Americans don’t think ideologically (Converse)
2. Most Americans are uninformed
3. More opportunities for democratic participation won’t be taken advantage of: most people just don’t want to participate
4. Retrospective voting
5. Voters don’t assign blame very well, making it hard to be accountable
6. Voters do economic voting, but only in the few months before an election
7. More assault on retrospective voting theory
8. Better model: group attachment. Group loyalties drive politics
9. Survey of group behavior 1960s-present
10. Our view of reality is shaped by these partisan lenses
11. View for the future
This is a great book for a voter behavior upper-level course. There is a LOT of classic texts and concepts that would otherwise be in a standard textbook, except it’s better written.

The Polarizers by Sam Rosenfeld: the narrative story of the emergence of American polarization from FDR through 2000. Focuses on people, parties, historical development, etc. Very little about time from 2000 onward. This would be good if a good historical narrative were called for.

From Politics to Pews by Michele Margolis: how politics is affecting religion in American society. Lifecycle effect: most kids drop out of religious participation in early adulthood or adolescence. If they get married and have kids, they usually drop back in, and their choice of congregation will be based on their political views, not vice versa. Moreso the case for better educated people; doesn’t happen as much with blacks; happened in 1960 election.

Uninformed by Skip Lupia: this is a how-to manual on how to increase teaching effectiveness when it comes to civics. Highlights include: 1) attach information to core concerns and perceived needs of students for desired skills, 2) you’re more efficient if they perceive your goals as similar to theirs. Show them how your interest in the material aligns with their interests. Try to emphasize shared in-group status. 3) frame the information in a way that aligns with student’s core values – it’ll be more likely to succeed, 4) cues and shortcuts are efficient and okay! 5) offer information that is helpful to increase a knowledge that the student views as valued and that they view as helpful to attain a goal. 6) focus on skills of citizenship over factual recall. 7) information is valuable to the extent to which it can be used. So… what information is valuable to produce usable knowledge in the skills we hope to promote with our students? What do we want them to be able to do?

Unequal and Unrepresented by Kay Schlozman, Henry Brady, and Sidney Verba: an overview of how political voice is distributed in the U.S. There is a persistent class bias both in participation and responsiveness. Interest groups don’t correct for that. And current inequality sometimes makes things worse but sometimes not. And most ways to fix it usually don’t work, so the class bias seems to be a core feature for now.

Anti-Pluralism by William Galston: written by a non-polemic conservative, an overview of what liberal democracy is and why it’s important, what the major threats are today, and an assessment of the U.S. and Trump. Focuses on both cultural and economic factors. And spends time at the end on “great man” leadership and character (something conservatives are generally responsive to).

Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg: first 2/3 is his version of Sapiens by Yuval Harari, the grand meta narrative of evolution and civilization and politics through the modern age. Last third is his critique of modern politics — welfare state liberals, identity politics liberals, populist Trump conservatives, etc.

The People vs Democracy by Yascha Mounk: really good overview of the rise of populism and the threat to liberal democracy. Defines liberal democracy really well and also focuses on illiberal democracy as well as undemocratic liberalism (European technocracy) and how they’re both problematic. Gives a fair shake to immigration, free speech, identity politics, etc. No sympathy for Trumpism. More detailed than Galston book and written by a non-native American and so there’s a strong comparative element.

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt: they are comparativists who study democratic consolidation and deconsolidation. They give a comparative overview of illiberal democratic leaders and trace Trump’s similarities. Their BIG lesson is that democratic norms are key: 1) recognize legitimacy of opposition, 2) let them take a turn at governing when they win, and 3) don’t use all the tools at your disposal to handicap them/be willing to exercise restraint.

The Despot’s Accomplice by Brian Klaas: despite lofty American rhetoric, we’ve often enabled and supported authoritarian regimes around the world. We often do it for strategic interests (oil, stability, etc.). At the same time, the U.S. and the west have been a force for good and freedom and democracy. So here’s what works, what doesn’t, how to promote democracy effectively, and why it’s important. (Fairly harsh on both Democratic and Republican presidents)

The Despot’s Apprentice by Brian Klaas: Trump isn’t a despot, but he wants to be; the book details the various ways that Trump meets the authoritarian playbook. Focuses on democratic rules and structures, standard policies like taxes, etc. Conclusion: democracy is worth the fight. Let’s do it!

The Great Revolt by Salena Zito and Brad Todd: this is a series of qualitative interviews with Trump voters. It’s more journalistic than scholarly but helpful to learn trends. They say that the Trump coalition is basically those who feel that the coastal liberal educated elite disrespects them, thinks they’re stupid, and thinks they’re barbarian racists. This even former Democrats who felt like national Democrats were mocking people like them. They distrust institutions, including global institutions, and so want to keep things decided as local as possible.

The Left Behind by Robert Wuthnow: ethnographic qualitative overview of the values, priorities, and worldviews of people in small rural towns. More sober than the Zito and Todd book, but also less politically relevant and less detailed.

The New Minority by Justin Gest: an academic empirical book that combines qualitative and quantitative research, half looking at Britons and half at the U.S. Focused on east London and Youngstown, OH. Same basic findings: white working class see themselves as in a bad spot economically with the decline of factory and other work. They think the government did it to them and hasn’t looked out for them since. And they resent when they see poor people on government assistance or minorities get what they interpret to be an unearned advantage over them despite not working hard enough.

 

If I were to pick one book to recommend to friends to explain contemporary American politics that was as comprehensive and sophisticated as possible, I would recommend Democracy for Realists by Achen and Bartels.

For introductory-level political science courses on the topic of contemporary American polarization and political behavior, I would recommend Uncivil Agreement by Mason.

For the best overview of the current populist moment around the globe and its threat to liberal democracy both at home and abroad, I can easily recommend The People vs. Democracy by Mounk.

For the best discussion of economic inequality and its effect on democracy, I would recommend Unequal and Unrepresented by Schlozman, Brady, and Verba.

For the best book to understand the Trump phenomenon in the last five years in the U.S., I actually would recommend The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker by Katherine Cramer as I think it does a better job of any of those I read this fall listed above.

For anyone interested in state/local politics, I can easily recommend The Increasingly United States by Hopkins.

 

 

Thoughts on the January 2019 Border Wall Shutdown

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There are no shortage of opinions on this issue. Here are mine:

  1. In a democratic political system, elected officials ought to try to accomplish the things that they campaigned on. This is an important part of democratic responsiveness and accountability: candidates have platforms and when elected, they should try to enact their platform as best they can so as to be responsive to the voters who elected them which (most of the time) are a majority of the electorate. Thus, from a democratic theory perspective, it is not completely unreasonable for President Trump to try to get his Border Wall using the mechanisms that he has available to him, as it was a central part of his campaign.
  2. Important caveats include: 1) President Trump was not elected by a majority (or even a plurality) of voters, and thus from a democratic theory perspective, to enact his platform would be to some degree unresponsive to the electorate. That is not the president’s fault, though, but a feature of the Electoral College system that distorts the link between public preferences and government policy/representation, and 2) An important part of President Trump’s presidential campaign was promising that Mexico would pay for the Border Wall, not the U.S. taxpayer. Despite his dubious assertions about the NAFTA renegotiation effectively paying for the Wall, to turn around and require that American taxpayers pay for the Border Wall would also not be in harmony with democratic responsiveness.
  3. Back to Point 1, the Democratic House majority was also arguably elected in part as a negative referendum on President Trump’s administration and policies. Thus, it is also not unreasonable for the Democratic House to try to oppose the president’s Border Wall through the mechanisms that they have available to them, especially given that the president explicitly promised multiple times during the campaign that funding the Wall would not be the responsibility of American taxpayers. In essence, House Democrats are helping keep the president accountable to the specifics of his campaign promises when it comes to Border Wall funding.
  4. Generally speaking, governing by shutdown is not a healthy way for democracies to go about their business. In my view, funding basic government services should take place separately from other issues such as this. If President Trump wants the U.S. taxpayers to pay for the Border Wall, he should ask Congress to introduce and pass a bill separate from bills required to fund basic government services. During the first two years of the Trump administration, the GOP Congress regularly declined to pass a bill to fund the president’s Border Wall. Very few of them, including Congressional Republicans, wanted to move on it. Of course, it is common for presidents to look for creative ways to circumvent the legislative process when they are not able to accomplish their goals (Obama did this on immigration, Bush did it with a variety of executive orders and signing statements, etc.). President Trump is currently choosing a route that ties the fate of his Border Wall to the livelihoods of nearly a million federal workers. I simply disagree that the federal workforce should be the victim of the president’s efforts to achieve his Border Wall proposal.
  5. President Trump recently offered a compromise of Border Wall funding paired with a DACA extension. I agree with those who say that this is a pittance compromise gesture instead of a sincere compromise attempt. Nonetheless, I’d recommend to House Democrats that instead of ignoring it, they respond with a counter-offer, perhaps agreeing to the DACA question and saying “we’ll give you 5% of what you’re asking for the Border Wall,” and then continuing to negotiate from there. How much would Trump be willing to give up for even a portion of funding his Border Wall goal?
  6. There is a massive amount of evidence that most undocumented immigration to the United States currently comes from visa overstays from people coming from Asia by plane, not border crossings by people coming from Latin America. From a purely pragmatic perspective, the Border Wall is a solution in search of a “problem” that is arguably a very small piece of the national security picture.
  7. Reasonable people can disagree over the motives of those who support Trump’s Border Wall. I do not believe the evidence persuasive that support for the Wall is exclusively the result of racial/ethnic animus toward our neighbors to the south. That said, I think it also disingenuous to argue that support for the Wall is not motivated by racial prejudice and cultural anxieties for many, if not most, Wall supporters. That has to be factored in to the picture.
  8. Symbols and optics aren’t everything, of course, but they matter and are important. What does the Wall symbolize? Nothing that I believe to be in harmony with American values and ideals (as imperfect as America is at embodying its own ideals throughout its history).
  9. From a personal perspective, I have spent a good portion of my life working and associating with Spanish-speaking immigrants. I did mission work with Latino immigrants in the U.S. during college. My family and I lived in Mexico for a year and have many good friends there whom we love dearly. Much of my professional research has focused on the contours of immigration policy attitudes in the United States. Policy and politics aside, my heart aches that one of the top priorities of the chief representative of my country’s values is to pursue a political symbol of antipathy and hostility toward my dear friends.

In sum, while I strongly disagree with the Border Wall from both a policy and moral perspective, the president’s persistent attempt to enact one of his central campaign platforms is not entirely illegitimate from a democratic theory perspective, but neither are the efforts of House Democrats to oppose it. Regardless of the legitimacy of the attempt, I disagree with the president’s chosen method to pursue his campaign platform as governance by shutdown (especially when federal workers are bearing the brunt of the cost) is not a healthy way to pursue public policy goals in a democratic political system.

 

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The Weekly Standard is closing: that’s a shame

The Weekly Standard is closing.

I have often pointed my students to the Weekly Standard as an example of robust conservative political thinking that resisted the slide toward illiberal populist Trumpism. The writers and thinkers of the Weekly Standard were good models to these students on how they can best promote the conservative ideals they believe in and how they might help influence their party away from its current endorsement of Trump and Trumpism.

I have also included the Weekly Standard in my own social media feeds the last several years to help me get exposed to a diversity of perspectives as well as a way to help me check my own biases.

As someone who thinks that a strong two-party system, with each party committed to the ideals of liberal democracy while disagreeing over how to best realize those ideals, is a *good* and healthy thing for our political system, I am sad to see this happen.

My thoughts on the 2018 congressional election results

UPDATE 11/19/2018:

Today’s projection from FiveThirtyEight is that Republicans will pick up 2 Senate seats and Democrats will pick up 39 House seats. Democrats are also still projected to win the House popular vote by about 7%. This means that the political science forecasting models (which, when averaged, predicted a 2 seat Senate pickup for the GOP and a 36 seat pickup for Democrats in the House) were almost exactly spot on. In terms of interpretation, Democrats will likely exceed historical out-party midterm gains by 15 seats (higher than it was looking on election night). The historical average is about a 24 seat loss for the president’s party in midterm elections, and even less so when the economy is relatively strong as it currently is. Thus, Democrats won somewhere between 20-25 more seats than they usually do when the economy is strong. I thus revise my earlier interpretation of the election results of a “slight-to-moderate” negative referendum on President Trump to a “moderate-to-strong” negative referendum on his performance, especially combined with the much higher than normal turnout for a midterm election. If President Trump had a higher approval rating (or if the GOP had nominated someone like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush in 2016), it’s entirely likely that the GOP would have minimized their losses and kept control of the House, thereby enabling them to continue pushing their legislative agenda and perhaps minimizing whatever Congressional oversight may eventually occur as a result of the eventual final report of the Mueller investigation.

ORIGINAL POST, ELECTION NIGHT:

How did the polls do?

House Democrats were predicted to win the popular vote by about 9% nationwide. As of about 1 AM  EST, Democrats are projected to win the popular vote by about 7%. Based on these polls, Democrats were predicted to pick up about 39 House seats, not far off from the 30-35 final projected pickups, as of the time of writing). The polls predicted that Senate Republicans would pick up about 1 seat, pretty close to the final projected result of about 2-3 seats (as of the time of this writing). Not a terrible showing when taking a broad view.

How did the political science forecasts do?

An average of political science forecast models of the election results predicted that Democrats would pick up about 36 seats in the House and thus also the majority. As of about 1 AM EST, Democrats were projected to pick up about 30-35 seats or so. These same models also predicted that Republicans would pick up 2 seats in the Senate which seems to be right in line with the likely outcome as of the time of this writing, give or take 1 seat.

These models are based on a few key variables: whether it’s a midterm election, presidential approval/disapproval, and prevailing economic conditions. Right now the economy is generally in pretty good shape and, all other things being equal, the president’s party tends to lose about 25 seats. The 30-35 seat loss for the president’s party is consistent with an unpopular president with a reasonably strong economy.

What do these results mean?

A key question for me is what the results imply about how “normalized” President Trump and his brand of illiberal populism has become in the American electorate. Roughly two-thirds of voters said that their vote was to either express approval or disapproval for President Trump. If the House vote was more or less in line with historical averages (about a 25 seat loss), I’d interpret that as a net neutral outcome as far as a presidential referendum goes and a normalization of Trumpism for voters.

A 30-35 Republican seat loss is somewhat higher than what we would expect given other key variables that tend to correlate highly with midterm election outcomes. In other words, if Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio had won the Republican nomination and maintained a 47-48%-ish approval rating with the same economy, we’d likely see more like a 25 Republican seat loss.

Thus, I interpret the additional 5-10 GOP seat loss as a slight-to-moderate “Trump penalty,” or negative referendum on Trump and Trumpism. The slight GOP gain in the Senate moderates that slightly. Also, Trump has a historically low approval rating considering the state of the economy and Democrats just won the national Congressional popular vote by about 7%.

To me, this suggests that Trump and Trumpism has become somewhat, but not entirely normalized among American voters. At the same time, it has not entirely shifted the boundaries of what is considered normal and legitimate in our political system.

What does this mean going forward?

Given that the House will be controlled by the Democrats and Senate by the Republicans, it is unlikely that much substantive legislation will be passed during the next two years.

On the Senate side, the most important implication of continued GOP control is that President Trump will continue to be able to successfully appoint conservative justices to the bench.

On the House side, the most important implication of Democratic control is the beginning of aggressive oversight of the Trump administration: investigations, hearings, etc. For the past two years the Republican House has largely declined to exercise any meaningful oversight over one of the most controversial presidents in modern history. The Democrats are ready to hit the ground running.

What are the normative implications of the results?

I tend to distinguish political actions, policies, and priorities between those that are normal in a liberal democratic political system (e.g. disagreement over taxes, budgets, abortion access, etc.) and those that are abnormal and harmful to a strong democratic system (e.g. using totalitarian rhetoric like “enemy of the people” to refer to free media institutions, referring to Nazis as “very fine people,” alienating democratic alliances in Europe while praising authoritarian dictators around the world, etc.).

President Trump is the legitimately and duly elected president based on our Constitutional Electoral College system. While his judicial appointments are certainly strong conservatives and strict constructionists, these are not outside the boundaries of traditional presidential judicial appointments. For the GOP to maintain control of the Senate means that the president’s judicial appointments will continue to be regularly confirmed. This is, in my view, entirely consistent with proper and legitimate liberal democratic outcomes.

On the other hand, President Trump has also engaged in numerous actions which by any standard are characteristic of illiberal democracies and authoritarian political systems (see here, here, and here, e.g.). That the American electorate produced only a moderate negative referendum on Trump and Trumpism is, in my view, disappointing. It suggests that Trumpism has become somewhat normalized in the public mind. Today’s election results showed that many segments of the American public are willing to tolerate a good deal of illiberal populist Trumpism and, for the most part, do not view the erosion of our democratic institutions and norms as a pressing concern.

In my perspective, the most important national priority right now is to counter illiberal populist Trumpism as strongly as possible, helping steer American conservatism back to its honorable history of support for small government and traditional values while adhering to liberal democratic principles.

At the Congressional level, though, I am more optimistic. Over the last two years the House of Representatives has largely declined to provide any meaningful “check and balance” against any of the illiberal excesses on the part of President Trump. As I have written, I believe that actions that weaken our democratic norms and institutions are a great deal more important than the regular disagreements over policy that are part of a normal and healthy democracy.

Thus, regardless of policy differences between Democrats and Republicans, I view it as a very, very, very good thing that a Democratic majority in the House will begin to exercise meaningful oversight over President Trump for the first time in his presidency. This is perhaps the most important long-term implication of Tuesday’s election results.

My recommendations for the 2018 congressional midterm elections

TL;DR: except for the extraordinary circumstance where a Republican congressional candidate has explicitly taken a stance against President Trump’s actions and rhetoric that weaken our democratic institutions, values, alliances, and norms, I strongly recommend that all U.S. citizens vote and vote for Democratic candidates this election cycle.

Under normal circumstances, I encourage my fellow citizens to regularly vote in elections and choose the option that best matches their policy views. In recent years we have had many honorable candidates from various political parties who present differing choices on political issues while generally agreeing on the broad contours of democratic principles.

Under current circumstances, however, we have elected a president who, while espousing many normal policy positions, has also expressed skepticism and scorn for fundamental democratic values like: 1) accepting the legitimacy of election outcomes, 2) promoting the legitimacy of a free press, 3) promoting friendships and alliances with other democratic nations while not endorsing, legitimizing, or promoting authoritarian leaders of non-democratic countries, etc. etc. (More evidence and examples are available here).

Our political system anticipated that presidents like this would come along from time to time. They designed the Congressional branch to serve as a check on presidents who do not safeguard and protect basic democratic institutions and norms. The majority party of Congress, however, has declined to do so because: 1) they have decided that pursuing policy outcomes and judicial appointments a higher priority than defending basic democratic principles and institutions, and 2) they believe that’s what their constituents want them to do.

Recognizing the legitimate merits of the majority party’s policies and judicial nominations, I respectfully submit that these are less important priorities than safeguarding the basic democratic “rules of the road” which ensure a free democratic system in the United States. Our top priority should be protecting and defending our basic institutions and norms of a free democracy.

Therefore, under current circumstances I *strongly* recommend that my friends show up to vote on Election Day (if they haven’t already) and vote for candidates (especially for Congress) that will not continue to look the other way while the president continues to weaken our global reputation as promoters of free democracy and continues to weaken the institutions and norms of our free democracy at an alarming rate.

Although there are a handful of Republican candidates who have honorably taken stances against the president to promote free democratic values, most of the time this will mean voting for Democratic candidates.

My recommendation is not simply because I sympathize when Democratic party political priorities. Indeed, I have voted for Republicans and Independents as well as Democrats in my voting history. Had President Trump run as a Democrat and won both the primary and general election, however, and proceeded to label our free press “the enemy of the people,” a free democratic Europe as a “foe” and an autocratic Russian president a “strong leader,” and based his platform and megaphone on stoking prejudice against religious and racial minorities while a Democratic Congress looked the other way in pursuit of Supreme Court picks and passing Medicare-for-all, I would today be strongly recommending that my friends vote for Republicans to serve as a check on the president’s actions. This, however, did not happen, and for that reason I am today recommending voting for Democratic candidates in all but a few circumstances.

After all, we cannot continue to have our important and spirited democratic debates over taxes, education, jobs, judges, etc. if the framework and rules for conducing those debates in a fair democratic manner weakens.

As the Washington Post editorial board recently argued:

We believe voters should back any candidate who will stand up to Mr. Trump’s brand of reactionary populism. After Nov. 6, we will have a better idea whether 2016 was the beginning of an extended dark period in U.S. politics or an aberration that shocked the nation’s democrats, of whatever party affiliation, into effective action. Think about that, and vote accordingly.
As moderate conservative columnists have argued:

The rule of law is a threshold value in American politics, and a party that endangers this value disqualifies itself, period. In other words, under certain peculiar and deeply regrettable circumstances, sophisticated, independent-minded voters need to act as if they were dumb-ass partisans. …

the most-important tasks in U.S. politics right now are to change the Republicans’ trajectory and to deprive them of power in the meantime. In our two-party system, the surest way to accomplish these things is to support the other party, in every race from president to dogcatcher. The goal is to make the Republican Party answerable at every level, exacting a political price so stinging as to force the party back into the democratic fold. …

We understand, too, the many imperfections of the Democratic Party. Its left is extreme, its center is confused, and it has its share of bad apples. But the Democratic Party is not a threat to our democratic order. That is why we are rising above our independent predilections and behaving like dumb-ass partisans. It’s why we hope many smart people will do the same.