What Donald Trump teaches us about the stability of electoral democracies

Intra-elite checks and balances within America’s Republican Party are in shambles. It is increasingly clear that Donald Trump might be the exception that proves the rule that The Party Decides. Over the last 8 years the Republican Party has spawned and ceded power to all manner of groups and organizations aimed at delegitimizing and obstructing the Obama Administration. But by empowering fringe groups and ideas, the Republican party also ceded its power as a gatekeeper to key institutions like the U.S. Congress, state legislatures and governorships, and the U.S. presidency.

The result of this has been the Donald J. Trump presidential campaign. Trump is sort of self-financing (with loads of free publicity from an insatiable media), a fact that has left him untethered from the control of party elites who typically bankroll election campaigns in America. Electoral freedom from party elites has afforded Trump the luxury of dabbling in heterodox policy positions that are at variance with the positions of party elders. He is a populist who is promising a neglected segment of the Republican base a lot of goodies whose logical implication is an even bigger government — something the anti-tax establishment wing of the party doesn’t like. Trump also has a knack for plainly saying out loud what mainstream Republicans only ever communicate through dog whistles. This all makes for excellent political theater. It’ll be interesting to see if the party actually manages to stop the Trump juggernaut from getting the nomination.

The Trump phenomenon offers important lessons on political development in general and democratic consolidation in particular.

A key source of democratic stability in America has been the existence of robust intra-elite checks and balances within the leading parties. For much of American history the choice set presented to voters has been, for better or worse, significantly regulated by elites. This system has served to protect America from delegative democracy — whereby elected officials do whatever they want in-between elections. In other words, intra-elite checks — in an attempt to protect party brand names or sectional interests — have served to limit the variance between what politicians promise and what they do while in office. It has also protected the American political system from wildcards like Donald Trump.

The danger of posed by politicians like Trump is that because they are independent from fellow elites they are hard to keep in check in-between elections. This is a crucial point. Most voters do not have the time or interest to follow the everyday actions of their preferred politicians. Only a few activist citizens do. So the bulk of the monitoring of elected officials in-between elections tends to be carried out by other elected officials (like Members of Congress) or civilian elites (like lobbyists). A candidate that is untethered from these kinds of checks poses a real danger to political stability. Because they derive their power from opposing institutions, they are very likely to destroy the same institutions once elected. Trump has so far proven that he can win electoral contests without any support (and implied constraints) from America’s rightwing political and economic elites. Reasonable Americans have good reason to be very afraid.

Now imagine that Trump wins the nomination and the November 2016 election. What stops him from cobbling together a coalition that would win him reelection? All he has to do is give everyone what they want — crazy nativist talk for some, a nice dose of social services for others, and side payments to specific segments of the middle class to keep them comfortable. In this scenario the only thing that would stop Trump is America’s consolidated constitutional term limits. And even then the damage will already have been done.

Everyday politics in most young democracies have a lot of similarities to Trumpism. In these contexts the richest person in the country (or the one with the most power to determine who becomes rich) also tends to be the leading politician. Such politicians typically have the power to raise all the money they need to win elections. And because of their superior access to resources they also tend to have the power to determine who gets elected to legislatures and other important elective positions. The lack of independently wealthy elites that can finance rival factions, and because all elected officials typically depend on the one who controls the money spigot, means that very little intra-elite balancing happens in-between elections. In addition, political parties typically operate as personal enterprises of the president.

Notice that in these contexts, elections alone do not provide the panacea to the lack of intra-elite checks and balances. Anti-institutionalists can and do win free and fair elections.

Also notice that the failure of elections to correct the behavior of elites in-between elections is not because voters in these contexts are particularly dumb. It is just that most voters do not consider the institutional consequences of their personal electoral choices. It is elites who operate within institutions. And it is elites who care about institutional strength. When structural conditions dis-incentivize elite investments in institutional strength, personalist politics under a delegative democracy obtains.

In America, pro-Trump voters are probably not thinking about what a Trump victory will mean for democratic stability. They are simply responding to the bundle of solutions to their specific problems that Trump is selling them. And there are elites like Chris Christie who might join the Trump bandwagon, again for personal reasons or a resignation to the fact that Trump has voters on his side and the only way to stay relevant is to join Trump.

American institutions are old and strong enough to withstand the Trump candidacy (I think). They are also buttressed by strong informal (extra-institutional) intra-elite checks on presidential power. Chances are high that American democracy will survive Donald J. Trump.

But imagine this happening in a young democracy with a non-existent upper class and therefore almost zero informal checks on presidential power in-between elections. Such democracies almost always fail on their first contact with some variant of Trumpism. Trumpists violate term limits. Trumpists are erratic with policy. Trumpists know how to run populist campaigns and win elections. Trumpists undercut fellow elites and destroy institutional checks on presidential power.

The biggest lesson from the American 2016 election cycle is that elections, on their own, cannot protect political institutions in young democracies from characters like Donald J. Trump.

3 thoughts on “What Donald Trump teaches us about the stability of electoral democracies

  1. I’ve been reading your blog for 3 years or so, and this is arguably the best post you’ve written in that time. Not because of what it says about Trump so much as how clearly it explains a lot of what I read to be your own research on intra-elite bargains, institutional development, and so on.


  2. Pingback: Tuesday Super Tuesday- Three to Read | Simon Radford

  3. “…the failure of elections to correct the behavior of elites in-between elections is not because voters in these contexts are particularly dumb. It is just that most voters do not consider the institutional consequences of their personal electoral choices.” Doesn’t that make them dumb?


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