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Ideological Blindspots (part IV): The Dimensionality of Trumpism

April 14, 2017

Did the Trump candidacy, and now Presidency, thwart the conventional left-right (liberal-conservative) framing of our politics? In earlier posts, I have employed the left-right heuristic, and so it is fair to ask if that framing reflects its own blindspot owing to conventional thinking about politics that is now challenged by what I, and others, refer to as "Trumpism" (see http://tinyurl.com/mjb3j6v). 

 

Political scientists have offered three general approaches to modeling political landscapes: (1) voters aligned along a left-right axis, thus implicating a single dimension (think of a horizontal line) (see http://tinyurl.com/ny6eu4y); (2) voters stochastically distributed in ways that implicate numerous dimensions correlated to the number of salient issues that divide them (see, for example, http://tinyurl.com/klbpvpa and http://tinyurl.com/ked23j8); and (3) voters generally aligned along a left-right axis, but one that bends like a horseshoe, uniting voters who, although generally juxtaposed, coalesce around an important subset of issues (see, for example, http://tinyurl.com/lt4fagg). Sorting out this general framing helps to explain important features of our political system and how it is affected by Trumpism. 

 

Most of the time, our politics is best characterized along a single dimensional left-right axis (option 1). During certain transitional periods, of which Trumpism is an example, it is potentially characterized by the horseshoe (option 3). When this occurs, the effect is necessarily temporary. The system eventually reverts to a single dimension with one or both endpoints affected by the transformation. We might imagine, for example, the right endpoint "pulled downward" and the left endpoint tipping upward or even slightly to the right, reflecting changed positions in the dominant ideological baskets. A new line eventually forms between these new endpoints. As for option 2, the number of salient political dimensions does not correlate to the number of divisive political issues. A single dimension can accommodate coalitions implicating a large number of contentious issues. The dimensionality of our politics is instead determined by the manner through which we select the President. For this reason, Trumpism will affect the directionality, not the dimensionality, of our politics. 

 

Our electoral system, which relies upon the voters--filtered through the Electoral College--to select the President, generally forces binary coalitions. Each is characterized by a basket of ideologies that loosely coalesce to form opposing sides along a single dimension. This is reflected in what is known as the median voter theorem. (see http://tinyurl.com/mxvo8vr). We typically capture this intuition when we speak of liberals on the left and conservatives on the right, but the directional designation is arbitrary. We could just as easily cast this as in-out, up-down, or any diagonal. Absent external points of reference, a line in space has no natural direction.

 

The single dimension does not imply that the electoral voters are neatly aligned, and thus option 2, with numerous issues implicating many dimensions, well captures how voters prefer to position themselves. (Political scientists refer to these optimal spatial locations as "ideal points.") Rather, the single dimension arises due to the manner of our presidential elections. Although many voters find themselves frustrated with the lack of electoral options and often wish that there were serious third party candidates whose positions were closer to their ideal points, in a direct election system, third parties are almost inevitably squeezed out. If a third party candidate seeks to occupy a middle ground (think John Anderson 1980), the major party candidates can knock that candidate out by moving inward, toward the median voter, along that single dimension. If instead, a third party candidate tries to occupy a more extreme position (think Ralph Nader to the left and Pat Buchanan to the right in Election 2000), the major candidate who is ideologically closer can knock the candidate out by pushing deeper toward the base; otherwise, the third party candidate becomes a spoiler, benefitting the more ideologically distant major party candidate. For example, commentators have blamed Ralph Nader for Al Gore's 2000 defeat. (see http://tinyurl.com/gpnfntw). (For those wishing to go full-nerd, the dynamics described here explain why the Nash equilibrium in direct electoral voting, unlike parliamentary list voting, tends to favor a two-party, rather than multi-party, system.) 

 

The median voter theorem predicts that in a general election, the major party candidates tend to converge toward the median voter to capture more votes. This often leaves voters positioned closer to either party base frustrated, but also with nowhere else to turn since the alternative major party candidate's ideological position is more distant. This simple model misses a critical dynamic. Holding Trump aside, in recent presidential elections, the positions between the candidates have been notable, sometimes stark. Consider Barack Obama versus John McCain (2008) or Mitt Romney (2012), George W. Bush versus Al Gore (2000) or John Kerry (2004), and Bill Clinton versus George H.W. Bush (1992) or Bob Dole (1996). In each election, we observed considerable policy distance between the major party candidates. This is owing to our two-staged electoral process. During the primary/caucus cycle, the major party candidates commit sufficiently to policy positions supported by base voters that their ideological positioning begins to harden, limiting general election convergence. Although there generally is sufficient flexibility to entrench the major party duopoly, the plasticity of our politics hardens in the primaries, leaving voters with serious choices between platforms, or policy baskets, that remain far apart.

 

This very stability invites occasional populist candidates who seek to challenge the system itself. It was largely antipathy toward this status quo that motivated supporters of Donald Trump on the right and of Bernie Sanders on the left. Even so, candidates can affect policy dynamics, but not geometry. The shortest distance between two points remains a straight line. Despite their general antipathy toward each other, in Election 2016, some voters on the far left and far right seemed to coalesce on certain issues: throw the bums out, change how elections are funded, keep jobs at home, restrict trade, America first (whatever that means)! 

 

The horseshoe, and for that matter, the stochastic dispersion of voters over many dimensions, was always there. But so long as the simpler, single, line captured a sufficiently broad swarth of the electorate, it didn't matter. Only in those rare elections in which a sufficiently large chunk of the electorate seeks to displace settled exceptions does the theoretical horseshoe begin to reshape our politics. And even then, the effect is temporary. Ultimately Trumpism will pull downward the right end of what had been our conventional left-right political spectrum. The left-most point too is apt to move (perhaps upward, pulling in progressives, perhaps rightward, pulling in those conservatives who are disgusted by Trumpism). As compared with the line it supplants, the new line will appear diagonal, pointing downward to the right. But remember, a line is just a line.  

 

The eventual fate of all so-called outside challengers is either to fade away by losing, or as with Trumpism, to succeed for a time in redefining (at least) one of the dominant endpoints. But if history prove nothing else, it proves this: the fate of successful outsiders is to become status quo insiders. After the decks are reshuffled, the coalitions that comprise our two parties will be changed, but the two-party system itself will remain. It is upsetting to live in a period of disequilibrium, while dust is in the air, before things settle. There is much to be anxious about. The Republican party didn't start out embracing Trumpism; but, like it or not, Trumpism now is the Republican party. 

 

Trumpism might eventually prove itself a blip on the screen. Personally, that is my hope. I also recognize that this sounds Pollyannaish. Still, there is some basis: Steve Bannon has been functionally demoted from chief strategist to "a guy who works for me" (see http://tinyurl.com/lsz6zrp), NATO has gone from obsolete to central (see http://tinyurl.com/kgdaqqx), Putin has gone back to being a foe (see http://tinyurl.com/m2wcstz), and the list goes on. At the end of the day, no one really knows what Trumpism means. It's a frightening high stakes roll of the dice. On one reading, we might be witnessing a bounce back toward a more conventional set of Republican principles, restoring the once-horizontal line. Or we might again witness Trumpism reclaimed by a strong nationalist agenda, one that seeks an isolationist path, uses a thinly veiled regulatory gerrymander to ban Muslims, and presses hard on the ill-conceived southern border wall. But it is early. We are not even one-hundred days in. Whatever story our history books eventually tell, Trumpism will provide a new endpoint along a single dimensional axis. But Trumpism will not change the dimensionality, or the structure, of our politics. If there is a silver lining, it is that once the dust does settle, as it must, we will see more clearly how to displace Trumpism. 

 

As always, I welcome your comments.

 

 

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