Scenario planning in extraordinary times

August 24, 2016 Nicole Mellow
Jim Larkin /

We live in partisan times, and Kyle Kondik’s essay, Scenario planning, instructs us that the next president, be it Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, will face governing challenges as a result. Yet, as much as we live in partisan times, we also—it increasingly seems—live in abnormal times. This brings unpredictability, and the implications for governance are not fully clear. As speculative as the endeavor is, reading the tea leaves of the primary season that just ended suggests that “the future ain’t what it used to be,” to quote Yogi Berra. It’s necessary to take this into account when planning future scenarios.

Based on what we’ve seen so far, a Trump win in November would likely pose such a threat to the constitutional order that gaming out party alignments is irrelevant. Most analysts, however, are predicting a Clinton win (with Republicans holding on to at least the House). But if indeed Clinton wins, is it possible that Trump’s loss might, as Kondik and others have suggested, be a harbinger of future Republican success, analogous to that of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 loss?

No. The comparisons of Trump to Goldwater have received a lot of traction, but the comparisons are inapt. It is true that both challenge the Republican Party establishment, and both appeal to far-right elements within the party. Yet, as Jeff Tulis and I argue in our forthcoming book, Legacies of Loss, Goldwater was an established and respected senator who articulated a coherent, conservative philosophy. He inspired a potent, innovative, and well-organized movement because of his commitment to those conservative principles, and he conducted himself with a principled integrity uncharacteristic of most politicians. It was these features of his 1964 campaign that helped launch and secure the eventual success of modern Republican conservatism.

In contrast, there is no ideological core to the Trump phenomenon, no movement independent of his personal appeal, and no integrity that marks his conduct as a leader. A Trump loss is thus not likely to lead to a similar arc of future Republican success, at least not in terms of conservatism that are recognizable today.

Nonetheless, it would still be unwise to dismiss Trump, if he loses, as nothing more than an idiosyncratic peculiarity of our reality-television obsessed times and Republican establishment missteps. The other possibility is that Trump and Sanders, together, herald the beginning of a political realignment. 

Despite the rancor—and the real disagreements—between the parties in recent decades, both Democratic and Republican establishments have accepted a regime of neo-liberalism. They have structured a stable political order around neo-liberalism in which globalization is embraced, finance capital supported, and government management of the economy carefully calibrated (although more party disagreement exists over this last item). 

The 2008 economic crisis revealed the limitations of that order to many Americans. From different sides of the political spectrum, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements sprang up to challenge the stabilization efforts undertaken by the parties. They also voiced discontent with status quo politics. The popularity of both Trump and Sanders draws from the same wellsprings as those movements. 

Although Trump and Sanders are as different from each other as the two movements that preceded them, both articulated a rejection of the neo-liberal order. Trump has combined economic populist sentiments (especially a rejection of free trade) with a white nativist rejection of cosmopolitan values. Sanders has twined a more consistent and coherent economic populism (including a rejection of free trade) with an embrace of broader social justice aims. These messages have resonated with broad segments of the voting public who have experienced the dislocations of economic change and growing inequality.

If one sees the 2016 primaries as a further articulation of this discontent, then it is reasonable to assume that a Trump loss—and a Clinton win—will not spell the end of the political tempest of this past year. Instead, we are likely to see continued battles inside both parties. Newly inspired insurgents, taking their cues from Trump and Sanders, will push their parties toward the poles staked by the successes of these candidates while establishment politicians resist. Demographic change or contingency, or some combination thereof, may be what it takes to tip the balance to the new partisan order, defined along a new axis of differentiation.

In this scenario planning, understanding the deeper democratic currents that have surfaced in this election is as critical for the next president as understanding the short-term partisan alignments. She or he dismisses the losers of this year’s contests at their own peril. More importantly, the test for both parties in government in 2017 and beyond will be to lead the democratic change that is pressing in a responsible and responsive manner—the survival of the constitutional republic may be at stake. Only one candidate appears ready to embrace this task. 

Nicole Mellow is a professor of political science at Williams College. Her research interests focus on American political development, and she is the author of The State of Disunion: Regional Sources of Modern American Partisanship. She was a Miller Center fellow in 2002.