Dan Drezner is a political scientist who studies international relations, and he has a surprisingly plausible culprit to blame for the rise of Donald Trump: his fellow political scientists. Especially the ones who specialize in American politics. And especially the group of political scientists who study American political parties and came to the constellation of views associated on the internet with the book The Party Decides.
Many people who've looked at how close Trump seems to be to capturing the nomination have concluded that the book, which argued that party elites play an incredibly important role in determining presidential nominations, is simply mistaken.
But Drezner's hypothesis is that something more insidious happened — the book undermined itself. As he puts it, elite actors in Republican Party politics became so convinced by this line of analysis that they "concluded that they did not need to do anything to stop Trump." And that led to the theory's prediction — that elite actors would in fact stop Trump — being proven false.
Social science studies humans, who can read social science
Here's how I would think about it: One advantage people working in physical sciences like chemistry have is that the molecules chemists study don't read cutting-edge chemistry research and change their behavior accordingly.
Social scientists, by contrast, have to study human beings who are capable of learning from social science research and behaving in new ways in response to old research. Even worse, human beings are capable of learning from secondhand, somewhat oversimplified popularizations of social science research and behaving in new ways in response to subtle misunderstandings of that research.
Nobody ever said that the lack of establishment enthusiasm for Trump would cause him to vaporize for no reason. What the research said was that based on previous nomination battles, party leaders would settle on a broadly acceptable candidate and then equip him with the resources necessary to win. But for this to work, party leaders have to actually do things to make it happen, not just blithely assume that it will happen.
The party keeps not deciding
After months of dithering, the party really does seem to have mostly consolidated around Marco Rubio. But what Rubio really needs at this point is for Ted Cruz and John Kasich to drop out of the race as soon as possible, rather than sticking around through mid-March, by which time it may be too late to stop Trump. Obviously nobody has the power to literally force out Cruz and Kasich. But individuals with wealth and political power should, in theory, be able to use a combination of threats and inducements to get them to go.
Party leaders should, in other words, be able to actually do something useful to help their chosen champion. But so far they're not. Just as they didn't do anything to stop Chris Christie from humiliating Rubio, or stop Jeb Bush's Super PAC from dumping tens of millions of dollars in negative ads on his establishment rivals.
Nobody can say for sure why there's been so much complacency about the need to make a decision in time to make a difference. But it's certainly plausible that the widespread influence in elite circles of a secondhand version of the "party decides" theory played a role.
Indeed, by assuring people that whoever the party decided on was destined to win, the party decides theory seems to have encouraged establishment-friendly candidates to be unusually obstinate about staying in the race and focusing their energy on knifing one another.
In a sense, of course, this is a misreading of the book. What it says is that party leaders won't focus all their energy on knifing one another because if they did, they would lose control over the nominating process with disastrous consequences, which would be crazy.
But widely discussed academic books are rarely actually read in detail. At a high level, it's clear that the main impact of the party decides theory has been to prevent people from panicking about Trump, when a little Trump panic is exactly what would have been needed to bring about the theory's predictions.