If you’ve ever been at a dinner party, you’ll understand the following dynamic: It’s late. The conversation is deadly dull. Dessert still hasn’t been served. You’re bored and exhausted and want nothing more than to go home and go to bed. But you don’t want to be the first person to leave.
Eventually, somebody decides it’s grown late enough. She makes an excuse to leave. Now there’s safety in numbers. You can leave because other people are leaving. And the dinner party ends. Suddenly.
Why does this happen so often? Here’s one way to think about it: All dinner party guests have both private preferences and public preferences. Their private preferences might be something like, “I’ve had enough. I want to go home.” But being the first to leave is uncomfortable. It imposes a social cost. So, until somebody else leaves first and the hour has grown reasonably late, everyone’s public preference is, “Of course I’m having a great time. Why do you ask?” As a result, everybody stays around way longer than anybody individually wanted to.
The logic behind political cascades
The insight here borrows from political scientist Timur Kuran’s classic work Private Truth, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification. The logic is straightforward: In social and political situations, people often have private preferences that are costly to express. So they keep quiet to maintain social status or sometimes personal safety. They say and do what they think they are supposed to say and do to get along. Hence, the “Public Lies” part of the title.
But sometimes the calculus changes. Sometimes a critical mass expresses a dangerous opinion. This empowers others to speak up. Then even more folks feel empowered. And then even more. And then there is a social revolution.
Consider a protest against a repressive authoritarian regime. Let’s say there are 50 citizens in a repressive regime who feel so strongly about the cause that they’ll protest no matter what. They don’t mind being arrested, jailed, even tortured.
Now the protest depends on the 51st citizen. Is the 51st citizen comfortable protesting when the crowd reaches 50? And if the 51st citizen protests, is there then a 52nd citizen who feels comfortable protesting when the crowd is at 51? And so on and so forth…
Without the 51st citizen who feels comfortable when the crowd hits 50, and the 52nd citizen who follows, the 50 people in the public square are easily rounded up and jailed. There is no cascade. The regime stays in power.
At least until more people are willing to protest. Maybe next time, things have gotten even worse. Maybe now there are now 100 people willing to protest no matter what, and another 100 ready to jump in at 100 people, and another 1,000 ready to jump in at 200, and so on. And the regime is toppled.
Now back to the dinner party. Maybe one person leaves early. But he always leaves early because he has small kids. So nobody else follows. Now everyone has to wait even longer, until the hour gets later and the conversation gets even more intolerable, and another person stands up and grabs her coat.
But a dinner party like that could go on for a long time if the costs to leaving were high. If say, it were a dinner party at the boss’s house. Or if there were the promise of some amazing dessert, still unserved.
The Trump dinner party is getting more unpleasant, and there’s still no dessert
To bring the metaphor back to current politics, one way to understand congressional Republicans’ dilemma is that they are trapped at the world’s worst dinner party where almost everybody is still too scared to leave and/or they’re still waiting around for some of that amazing dessert.
Privately, almost all congressional Republicans dislike Trump, and would rather have him gone and Mike Pence as president.
But publicly, they fear the consequences of speaking out too much against Trump. Nobody wants to risk being the first to stick their neck out. Consequences could include Trump’s aggressive ire and potential ridicule by Trump-aligned media, which could then possibly bring on a primary challenge (look what happened to Paul Ryan’s popularity when he spoke out against Trump in 2016). Republican voters, after all, still express considerable support for Trump.
If you’re the only one turning against Trump, you’re an easy target. But if you’re one of 20 elected officials turning on Trump, there’s now safety in numbers. Moreover, it sends a clear signal that could shift public opinion.
For a while, the Trump administration dinner party looked like it might be a decent get-together. Maybe there’d be an Obamacare repeal. Maybe there’d be tax reform. Maybe Trump would learn on the job.
But now the party is getting more uncomfortable. Trump’s approval rating continues to sink, and the story about Donald Trump Jr.’s eagerness to accept information from Russian officials that would “incriminate” Hillary Clinton looks increasingly serious. Moreover, Trump is not learning on the job. Instead, he’s growing increasingly deranged.
Worse for congressional Republicans, it looks like there’s no dessert forthcoming. With the collapse of the Better Care Reconciliation Act, there will almost certainly be no Obamacare repeal. Tax reform looks increasingly unlikely. Trump himself has almost certainly been a net negative in building GOP consensus around a health care bill. His unpredictability and inability to keep on message suggest he’ll be more harm than help in any future GOP legislative efforts too.
But so far, no Republicans, except for a few predictable dissenters, are speaking out publicly against Trump.
But maybe the failure of the BCRA is the sign that indeed there will no dessert to wait around for. That could change the calculus. Perhaps evidence that Trump collaborated with Russia will emerge, making it clearer that this whole “Trump and Russia” thing is not going away.
Maybe it will take just one unlikely congressional Republican to decide enough is enough. Though most likely, a few will coordinate to act together (again, safety in numbers). Then, sensing that it is now “safe” to act, others will also reveal their private preference. Then more. At that point, impeachment, which has always been a political decision, will become inevitable.
It’s hard to know what will happen because we have no way of knowing what Republicans’ private preferences and private thresholds are, and how they might change based on events. There is a complicated political cost-benefit analysis to whether Republicans gain or lose from impeaching Trump. And the two-party system makes it especially perilous for congressional Republicans to turn on Trump.
Still, even if the calculus has now changed to the point where most Republicans privately think the benefits of impeaching Trump do outweigh the costs, they still might not speak out for the reasons I’ve discussed.
Yes, they could try to make pacts to speak out behind closed doors. But in today’s Washington, it’s not easy to keep secrets, at least beyond a few conspirators. And even if a few speak out, will that be enough?
One thing we do know is that everybody is likely watching everybody else. Group dynamics can shift rapidly, even after long periods of stasis.
But this also means groups can make suboptimal decisions that go on way too long, because everybody is waiting for somebody else to act first.
Maybe there will never be a cascade. Maybe five Republicans speak out against Trump. But that won’t be enough, because everyone else is only comfortable when at least 10 Republicans are speaking out. If so, the world’s worst dinner party could go on for a lot longer.