clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How to properly diagnose the chaos of American politics

Our political mess is the product of too little democratic responsiveness, not too much.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (L) speaks with Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (L) speaks with Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As the 2016 election unfolds as a surreal train wreck, the obvious question is this: How did one of the two major parties wind up with Donald J. Trump as its nominee?

Jonathan Rauch's provocative new Atlantic cover story, "How American Politics Went Insane," argues that Trump's nomination is "not a temporary spasm of chaos but a chaos syndrome." In Rauch's telling, the chaos resulted largely from naive reformers attempting to purify American politics by stripping away the transactional glue that once held it all together.

Following on Andrew Sullivan's widely read New York magazine essay arguing that Trump's rise was the result of too much democracy, we can now see the makings of an emerging case against the good-government, bottom-up democratic ethos that has been standard in polite society for decades.

Some healthy pushback is no doubt welcome, especially as a counter to a political reform conversation that has probably veered too far toward towards a hopelessly utopian vision of enlightened statesmen legislating purely in the public interest, hearing only from the People, and lacking bias or favor — a vision that no political system has ever even remotely approached, nor ever will. But, like Sullivan, Rauch pushes too far in the opposite direction.

This debate matters. There are different explanations of how we got to this current political moment. And different responses follow from different explanations. Sullivan's essay has already received considerable smart pushback. Rauch's essay is still in need of some.

In short, Rauch, Sullivan, and other fellow travelers see the current chaos as a response to too much and too open a democratic system. But there is little evidence for this.

The current chaos is instead the logical backlash to the inequalities that the existing power structures have created in order to maintain themselves. What we're seeing now is what happens when party elites and political leaders ignore the economic concerns of their voters for too long, and then stir up anger and resentment to distract from that fact. It's a product of too little democratic responsiveness, not too much.

Rauch's argument: We reformed our political system into chaos

Using a biological metaphor, Rauch argues that in an earlier golden era of machine politics, politics was "immunized" against the chaos by political intermediaries and "middlemen," especially party leaders, who worked out deals in backrooms and made the system work. As Rauch writes: "Such transactions may not have comported with the Platonic ideal of democracy, but in the real world they did much to stabilize the system and discourage selfish behavior."

In Rauch's telling, idealistic but naive political reformers, displeased by the nasty scent of corruption emanating from this type of politics, spent decades "demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties, which is like spending decades abusing and attacking your own immune system. Eventually, you will get sick."

But instead of getting the purist, disinterested, public interest politics they might have hoped for, they just got chaos by breaking down power structures.

Now, Rauch argues, "There are only individual actors, pursuing their own political interests and ideological missions willy-nilly, like excited gas molecules in an overheated balloon." Malodorous as transactional politics may be to our shining-city-on-a-hill ideals, the alternative is worse: Without them, the organization and structures necessary for governance fall apart. Ergo, Rauch argues, we should get over our idealism, an idea he explored in a provocatively titled earlier Atlantic essay, "The Case for Corruption."

The problem of false equivalence

Perhaps the most obvious general objection to Rauch's analysis is the fact that the chaos he describes has occurred almost exclusively in the Republican Party. If the chaos were due entirely to political reforms that equally applied to both parties, it seems strange that only one political party would be impacted. Jonathan Chait has ably made this argument, so there's no need for further elaboration on this point. There's much more to say.

Have parties really been weakened?

A second general objection is that Rauch's case that the parties have been weakened is actually quite weak.

Clearly, Republican elites failed to stop Trump (unless they somehow manage to thwart him at the convention). But Trump is not the product of Republican Party weakness. He is the inevitable backlash to a too-strong Republican Party leadership.

Though the widely discussed book The Party Decides failed to predict Trump, it impressively and accurately described how Republican and Democrat insiders controlled the presidential nomination process from the top down for the past several decades (and did again this year in the Democratic Party) by using endorsements and controlling money flows to select their preferred candidates. Under this system, elites and insiders made out splendidly well.

Through these mechanisms, Republican leaders in particular ignored the economic concerns of a growing majority of their actual voters, even as the economy worsened for many of those voters. Instead, they pandered to their rich donors to fund their increasingly expensive campaigns, and then used the money they raised to redirect their voters' anxieties into anti-government identity politics, particularly through vitriolic anti-Obama, anti-Democrat messaging.

This toxic mix of fomented anger and continued disregard for voters' worsening economic circumstances created a tremendous opening for a Trump-like candidate, particularly after the 2008-'09 recession. Trump not only had the anti-establishment anger thing going for him but also uniquely offered the populist economic policies Republican voters actually preferred.

Meanwhile, in Congress, there has been some chaos lately, but again, it's been almost entirely with the Republicans. And again, as with the presidential nominating process, too much power provoked an inevitable backlash. Former House Speaker John Boehner was cast aside because enough rank-and-file members were so frustrated by their own sense of powerlessness that they revolted.

"[Boehner] operated a top-down system," complained Rep. Justin Amash, one of the leaders of the House Freedom Caucus. "Which means that he figures out what outcome he wants, and he goes to the individual members and attempts to compel and coerce us to vote for that outcome."

The truth is that an incredible amount of power remains concentrated in congressional party leadership, because of formal rules that the party caucuses have all agreed on as well as continued leadership control over gigantic campaign funding streams. If party leaders are as weakened as Rauch claims, why have party unity voting scores remained at historic highs?

It's not just US politics that's gotten bizarre

A third general objection is that the chaos is not a uniquely American phenomenon. Brexit is just the latest worrying development from Europe, where a dangerous new strain of anti-intellectual, anti-establishment, anti-immigrant, nationalist populism has taken hold among a significant share of Europeans who feel deep anxieties about how things are going.

Like Trump voters, these nationalist-populist Europeans are most likely to be poorly educated and rural. They feel betrayed and condescended to by elites who do not share their economic and social anxieties amid rising immigration and social change, elites who probably mostly just wish these ignorant voters would go away and get an education. Politics has ignored their concerns for a while. No wonder they are angry. In this way, the US and Europe are similar. This shared pattern suggests a shared explanation.

This is problematic for Rauch's argument, since compared with American political parties, European political parties are much more formally top-down machines, just like Rauch would want. European politics is much less candidate-centric and much more party-centric than American politics, as Rauch would also want. Europeans also tend to be more comfortable with the concept of political power than Americans, again, as Rauch would want. Yet European democracies are suffering from the same problems.

Have reforms really backfired?

The core of Rauch's essay focuses on five areas where he believes reforms backfired, cutting out necessary transactional politics and middleman in favor of flawed direct democracy. Let's take a closer look at each area.

My general response is that all the reforms Rauch proposes would be either irrelevant or counterproductive. This is mostly because the factors he identifies either had no meaningful causal impact on today's chaos or were themselves caused by deeper transformations in American politics. Rauch's analysis is not evidence-based. It omits both the actual history of the earlier machine politics era and considerable relevant political science analysis.

Primary nominations

When a primary election process produces a Donald Trump, it's easy to wonder if maybe we weren't better off in an earlier period in which party bosses got together and picked their candidates without the voters. Party bosses would never have picked Donald Trump, right?

Rauch argues that "party hacks tend to shop for candidates who exert broad appeal in a general election and who will sustain and build a party's brand, so they generally lean towards relative moderates and team players."

First, on a historical point, it's worth noting that the modern presidential nominating system of binding primary elections went into effect in 1972. That's two cycles after 1964, when Republican Party delegates picked one of the most extremist candidates ever, Barry Goldwater, without binding primaries. Moreover, since 1972, presidential primaries have largely picked candidates in the mainstream of their party, probably because of the mechanisms identified in The Party Decides.

The earlier system of party nominations controlled by party regulars and machine bosses was also a system controlled by old white men, which meant that a lot of people were excluded from participation. Among the system's accomplishments is that it kept civil rights issues out of the political mainstream from the end of Reconstruction up until the 1960s — almost 90 years. Both African Americans and women were entirely marginalized.

As for Rauch's claim that primaries pull the parties to the extremes, the evidence here is thin. In an exhaustive study, political scientists Shigeo Hirano, James M. Snyder Jr., Stephen Ansolabehere, and John Mark Hansen found "little evidence that the introduction of primary elections, the level of primary election turnout, or the threat of primary competition are associated with partisan polarization in congressional roll call voting." In other words, primary elections are not driving polarization. So getting rid of them would be unlikely to reduce polarization, despite the common perception. There are deeper causes.

So not much would change even if party leaders took more control of the nominating processes. But to attempt to go back to the old backroom nominating approach cuts against other transformations in American politics. The world has changed considerably since the 1950s. We can't recreate an old system on a political foundation that is now totally different.

As Thomas E. Mann and E.J. Dionne Jr. explained in a Brookings paper responding the initial iteration of Rauch's argument:

The old notion of parties as pragmatic and moderating forces amid extreme and uncompromising interests does not fit well with how contemporary American politics works—and has worked for a very long time, independent of campaign finance or congressional reform measures. The changes in American politics were primarily sociological, not procedural. They were the product of broad changes in American life, including the decline of old urban ethnic neighborhoods, the political empowerment of previously excluded groups, notably African Americans, and the growing power of the very college-educated and professional class... Moreover, the party bosses were not displaced by reformers primarily. They were displaced by television—and, over time, by a large class of media consultants, political pollsters, negative research specialists, and, in recent years, technological whizzes.

Campaign finance reform

Rauch, like fellow campaign finance deregulators, argues that attempts to regulate campaign finance have only pushed more money to unaccountable, extremist "outside" groups, which demand purity over compromise, thus pulling politics apart. "Because they thrive on purism, protest, and parochialism, the outside groups are driving politics towards polarization, extremism, and short-term gain," writes Rauch.

By contrast, if we stopped trying to regulate the system and let the parties control all the money, the claim is that they would move to the compromise center because they want to win elections. As I've argued in some detail, this is a claim that relies on several faulty premises.

Empirically, this is also not the case

In a new paper called "Moderation in All things? Testing the Theory of Parties as Moderators of Polarization," political scientist Hans Hassell has looked at the record. In competitive elections, party leaders are not acting as moderating forces, as Rauch would expect. Or, as Hassell writes:

If parties had an incentive to moderate their preferences in primary elections in order to win seats in competitive general election races we should see a clear difference in the ideological positioning of party supported and non-party supported candidates in primaries that lead to general elections that are considered competitive. This is not the case. In fact, we find the opposite...there is no ideological difference between party supported and non-party supported candidates in primaries that lead to a competitive general election.

Relatedly, Robert Boatright, Michael Malbin, and Brendan Glavin have found that party committees are spending the vast majority of their money on general elections. If parties were truly forces of moderation, you'd expect to see them supporting moderate candidates in primaries, trying to move the party to the middle. Yet they aren't.

But perhaps the odder argument that Rauch makes involves the implication that proliferating outside group spending is a direct result of campaign finance reform backfiring. Actually, it's a direct result of the Citizens United decision, which paved the way for Super PACs and 501(c)(4)s to play a much larger role in elections.

Here, again, we encounter the false equivalency problem: Citizens United was decided by a 5-4 conservative majority and with strong support from Republican leaders, especially Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, a noted campaign finance deregulator. And in 2012, and again in 2014, McConnell successfully instructed his Republican Senate colleagues to filibuster the Disclose Act, a Democratic bill to blunt some of the effects of Citizens United. Republican senators dutifully got in line. The bill did not become law.

Meanwhile, a closer look at the outside groups (see below) would show that most are just party committees by other names, run by the same familiar operatives and putting money into the same competitive races as the party committees.

Lee Drutman/data:

Moreover, the biggest-spending "purist" outside group, Freedom Partners, is in the Koch brothers' network, which has tried to pull the Republican Party to the far libertarian right. There is no equivalent on the left.

But note that the Koch brothers have now soured on national politics, uncertain about what they got for their money. As an operative told National Review in a major story about the Kochs 'withdrawal from national politics, "The Kochs believed that the takeover hadn't changed a thing. No conservative policy revolution was happening in Congress. They couldn't even stop a reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, a symbol of Washington's "crony capitalism."

Note also that the next-biggest outsider spender, Tom Steyer's NextGen Climate Action, has had no observable impact on the climate debate in Congress.

Giving parties more control over funding would not do much, because they already largely control the funding. But allowing them to take in larger chunks of money would make party leaders even more dependent on their wealthiest donors, which would further pull them away from their actual voters and make them less responsive, thus courting an even nastier backlash.

Congressional reform

On the topic of congressional organization, Rauch longs for an earlier day when, as he writes, "seniority ruled on Capitol Hill. To exercise power, you had to wait for years, and chairs ran their committees like fiefs."

He argues that congressional reforms of the 1970s and '90s that undermined the seniority system and put power in the leadership broke down the benefits of this system, in which "[s]eniority and committee spots rewarded teamwork and loyalty" and "ensured that people at the top were experienced." Now, without these functioning committees, "More than perhaps ever before, Congress today is a collection of individual entrepreneurs and pressure groups."

Things in Congress have been pretty leadership-driven for a while, so Rauch's description of Congress as "a collection of individual entrepreneurs and pressure groups" rings a bit hollow.

But lest we overly romanticize the old seniority-based committee, remember that that system rewarded members who were in super-safe seats and could accumulate seniority. In the 1950s and '60s that meant Southern Democrats deeply opposed to civil rights, who used their baronial power to bottle up civil rights legislation for decades. So a pure seniority system is not a great legacy.

It's also important to acknowledge that the power of committees and the power of party leaders are at odds. You can have strong party leaders or you can have strong committees, but you can't have both. If Rauch's concern is that party leaders have been disempowered, it seems odd that he would want to further disempower them by devolving power to the committees.

Congress probably functions best when committees have a certain degree of independence from leadership, which creates space for political entrepreneurship and creativity outside of pure partisan concerns. So here we agree on the outcome: a stronger committee process. So perhaps we can both reach similar conclusions by divergent reasoning.


Over the past several decades, more and more government processes that once took place in secret have become public. As Rauch argues, "smoke-filled rooms, whatever their disadvantages, are good for brokering complex compromises. ... In public, interest groups and grandstanding politics can tear apart a compromise before it is halfway settled."

This is fair enough. We've probably gone too far in the direction of transparency in a number of government deliberative processes. But backrooms do still exist. The reason lawmakers don't make compromises is not because of the lack of backrooms available in which to make them.They don't make compromises because they have few incentives to do so.

As Frances Lee has convincingly argued, we are in an unusual era of tight partisan competition for control of Congress, in which parties treat political bargaining as a zero-sum game. When your overriding political goals are to embarrass the other party, you can have all the backrooms you want and you still won't reach compromise.


Finally, Rauch laments the banning of earmarks in 2011, which took away a "handy way for leadership to buy votes and reward loyalists."

The case for banning earmarks was always weak, since earmarks account for so little federal spending anyway, and that money was going to be spent regardless of whether members of Congress or federal bureaucrats decided how to allocate it.

But if you think earmarks would restore order to Congress, do the following thought experiment: Imagine if Boehner came around to the House Freedom Caucus members, who refused to support his budget deal because they wanted more drastic cuts in federal spending, and promised to spend more federal money in their districts. They'd probably laugh in his face. As my colleague Mark Schmitt has written:

Put simply, rank-and-file members of Congress, especially Republicans, don't want earmarks, and they can't be bought off with something they don't want. Politics and the Republican Party have changed in ways that made earmarks — and the more transactional approach to politics they were part of — useless.

Moreover, it's not as if the proliferation of earmarks from the mid-'90s to the late 2000s facilitated a great era of congressional dealmaking. So, again, bring them back if you like. But don't expect much to happen.

And the future of American politics is...?

Like Rauch, I see the anti-politics tendencies in much traditional good-government reform as naively misguided. And like Rauch, I also have a set of preferred reforms, which I describe in my New America white paper "Political Dynamism."

But where Rauch sees reformers as having been too successful for their own good, the reality is that reformers have hardly touched the increasingly concentrated centralized power structures in American politics over the past several decades. And it is these forms of concentrated power that pose the greatest threats to American democracy.

The chaos we observe is not because we've done away with authority structures in American politics. Rather, the current chaos is the logical backlash to the inequalities that the existing power structures have created in order to maintain themselves.

In that sense, it's possible to see the current chaos as an optimistic sign that our political system is still capable of some self-correction and responsiveness, ugly as it may be. The obvious danger here is that the longer the self-correcting mechanisms get suppressed, the more aggressive and potentially destabilizing the overcorrection.

Perhaps, if we can manage it properly, the chaos will create a moment of political opportunity. Perhaps we can use this moment to reform the political system in a way that allows it to be a little bit more responsive, so that in the future the backlash won't be quite so nasty.