One of the key analytical frameworks of my book Next Generation Netroots is derived from the work of Yale political scientist Steven Skowronek, who views presidential administrations in terms of their relationship to prevailing political coalitions rather than as isolated entities. Skowronek contends that the options available to presidents and the results they achieve are determined to a large degree by their position in what he calls political time—whether they come to office in support of or in opposition to an era’s dominant political regime, and whether that regime is strong or vulnerable during the president’s administration. Political regimes are the electoral coalitions that dominate politics for long stretches of time before they succumb to infighting among coalition partners and lose the ability to govern. So the New Deal coalition, which dominated politics from 1932 through the 1960s, began to weaken as southern whites abandoned it in the wake of the civil rights reforms of the Johnson era. The Reagan coalition that followed is now running on fumes, its once strong alliance of fiscal, social and foreign policy conservatives burdened by divisions so great that a large number of party regulars wouldn’t endorse or utter the name of their standard bearer.
Presidents who serve at the start of a regime are the ones you remember. Skowronek calls them “reconstructive” presidents because they initiate a new regime on the strength of an electoral mandate they interpret as a rejection of the old. These presidents have the political space to get things done. Think Reagan, FDR, Lincoln, Jackson, Jefferson. Bill Clinton, who served at a less propitious regime stage, once said that if he could switch places in history with Franklin Roosevelt he would be remembered as a great president. No kidding.
“Disjunctive” presidents fall at the other end of the spectrum. These are the unhappy souls who serve at the end of a regime cycle. Try as they might, they are unable to hold together a spent coalition and find themselves reviled by their contemporaries and consigned to the worst-ever list with Herbert Hoover and James Buchanan. Jimmy Carter was the disjunctive president of the New Deal coalition, the president who could not bring together members of his own party and in his failings exposed the bankruptcy of a once proud and dominant regime.
The similarities between Carter and Trump are striking. Carter was an outsider who hailed from the conservative wing of a liberal party. He successfully waged a contest for the nomination and prevailed over a string of better known and more mainstream Democrats but barely succeeded in the general, which he won on the strength of personal appeals (“I will never lie to you!”) rather than party affiliation. He was elected—and given control of both houses of congress— by reassembling the New Deal coalition of northern liberals and southern conservatives one last time, after Republicans had disrupted that coalition by winning the two previous elections. But even though the New Deal coalition elected him he was not a New Deal liberal. All this happened while the Democratic Party, reeling from two consecutive losses, was at war with itself and struggling for a way to return to power. Carter got a boost from unique circumstances—the fallout from Watergate—which would have benefitted any Democrat in 1976 and were never replicated. He was an end cycle president. He never had a chance.
Donald Trump was elected as an outsider who hailed from the reactionary wing of a conservative party. He successfully waged a contest for the nomination and prevailed over a string of better known and more mainstream Republicans but barely succeeded in the general, which he won on the strength of personal appeals (“only I can make America great!”) rather than party affiliation. He was elected—and given control of both houses of congress—by reassembling the Reagan coalition of rural and working class whites one last time, after Democrats had disrupted that coalition by winning the two previous elections. But even though the Reagan coalition elected him he was not a Reagan conservative. All this happened while the Republican Party, reeling from two consecutive losses, was at war with itself and struggling for a way to return to power. Trump got a boost from unique circumstances—fallout from the election of the first black president—which would have benefited any Republican in 2016 and will never be replicated. He has all the markings of an end cycle president.
Carter had little latitude for action, and as his administration sagged under the weight of high inflation, stagnant wages and the Iranian Hostage Crisis, Democrats either could not or would not bail him out. He was challenged in his bid for re-election by liberal icon Ted Kennedy as core Democratic constituencies abandoned him. His brief, unhappy term revealed the rot at the center of what was left of his coalition, which collapsed when Ronald Reagan pushed against it in 1980, sweeping away a 48-year-old regime and claiming a mandate to move the country in a new direction. The possibility that a similar fate awaits the president-elect and what progressives need to do to bring it about is the subject of the final post in this series.