American Politics in the Time of Trump: An Interview with Doug McAdam

By Dan Clendenin

Doug McAdam is The Ray Lyman Wilbur Professor of Sociology at Stanford University and the former Director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. He is the author or co-author of 18 books and some 85 other publications in the area of political sociology, with a special emphasis on race in the U.S., American politics, and the study of social movements and “contentious politics.” His most recent book, co-authored with Karina Kloos, is Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America (Oxford, 2014). He was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003.

Dan Clendenin: Thanks for joining us at JwJ.

Doug McAdam: Happy to be here. We’ve had a lot of stimulating conversations over the years, so it’s fun to finally have one “on the record.”

Let’s start with your book Deeply Divided; Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America (Oxford, 2014). You note that many people hoped that the election of Obama signaled a post-racial era that would moderate political extremism and address economic inequalities. But it didn’t happen. In fact, the opposite has happened. You write, “the country is now more starkly divided in political terms than at any time since the end of Reconstruction and more unequal in material terms than roughly a century ago and greater, even, than on the eve of the Great Depression.”

Yes, and I wrote this description well before last fall’s election and the turbulent onset of the new administration. Needless to say, the social, political and especially racial divisions have increased dramatically since Trump’s election and ascension to office.

Your book asks how and why we got to this point.

That’s right, the story we tell in the book is essentially our answer to those questions. The full answer involves lots of intersecting change processes unfolding since the end of World War II. But key to that story is the fundamental transformation in what we call the “racial geography” of American politics.

Although the full shift took much longer, the transformation began in the early to mid-1960s, and even by the end of that decade, the racial and regional structure of American politics had been fundamentally changed. As of 1960, the Republicans were more liberal on matters of race and civil rights than the Democrats. As a result, the states of the former Confederacy constituted the “solid South;” that is, the reliable electoral foundation of the Democratic Party. And while African-Americans leaned Democratic, a significant percentage of black voters still favored the GOP. Eisenhower, for example, received about forty percent of the black vote in 1956.

But all this changed during the sixties. Under enormous pressure from the Civil Rights Movement, over the course of the decade the Democrats moved sharply left on matters of race, angering the white South, shattering the New Deal coalition, and creating the electoral basis for an increasingly racially conservative and ascendant Republican Party. Though this process of realignment would continue for many more years, by 1970 the GOP was well on its way to becoming the party we know today: disproportionately white and Southern.

Not too long ago, you observe, centrist politics were viewed as a problem and not a solution. You recall how in 1968 the third party candidate for president George Wallace complained that there was hardly any difference between Democrats and Republicans.

Given the gridlock and partisan nastiness that has characterized Washington since at least the mid-1990s, I’m guessing the great majority of us would welcome more ideological or substantive overlap between the two parties. Wallace’s complaint applies only to the period from roughly the end of World War II until the end of the 1960s. During this period both parties were dominated by moderate centrists, creating lots of opportunities for bi-partisan cooperation on a good many issues. As a result, Congress was a vibrant legislative engine during the period, averaging roughly 1,500 enactments per two-year session of Congress. In stark contrast, we’ve averaged just 275 or so enactments in the last two sessions of Congress. For all intents and purposes, we haven’t had a functioning legislative branch at the Federal level for nearly a decade. Believe me, I would LOVE to have the two parties resembling each other again.

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Doug McAdam.

Or, to take another example, it used to be standard wisdom for candidates to appeal to their more extreme bases in the primaries but then to seek the centrist vote for general elections. Beginnings in the 1980s election, this began to change, right?

Actually, prior to the creation of our current system of primaries and caucuses, it was never standard practice for parties to appeal to what might be thought of as their extreme movement “wings.” The “natural law” of American politics was that, to prevail in a winner-take-all system, parties needed to court the “median voter,” and do all they could to marginalize the extreme elements on the left or right.

But once the new system was in place — in 1972 for the Democrats and 1976 for the Republicans — the logic of the presidential nomination process changed. Primaries and especially caucuses are “low turnout” elections, and what we’ve learned over the years is that those who turn out tend NOT to be moderate, “median voters,” but are rather drawn from the non-representative ideological wing of the parties, greatly amplifying the “voice” of right and left wing movements and muting the voice of the moderate, middle of the American electorate.

The unique contribution of your book is that it moves beyond the analyses of political parties and institutions to the importance of social movements, both left and right, as a driver of American politics.

That’s right, I’ve already talked about various ways in which movements have powerfully impacted politics in the US over the past fifty years. The first was the force of the civil rights movement (and later the anti-war movement) in pushing the Democrats sharply left. And, if anything, we’ve seen this same dynamic even more so on the right with respect to the GOP. That is, since the 1960s, a string of right wing movements have pushed the Republican Party ever further to the right. The Tea Party and Trump’s movement are only the two most recent examples of this. And as I said earlier, our current nominating system of primaries and caucuses is ideally suited to amplifying the voice of left and right wing movements.

These social movements — like the civil rights movement, or the subsequent white backlash, exerted what you call a “centrifugal pressure” on American politics.

Yes, they have had the effect — on both the right and the left — of pushing the two parties off center. The last time we really saw the two parties occupying the moderate middle was during the immediate postwar period, when there was very little social movement activity in the country, so the parties were spared the “centrifugal” force of grass roots activism.

I just saw an article in the New York Times to this effect — how some Democrats now want to “win it all,” whereas others in their party would be happy to make a centrist appeal and just win anything.

Yeah, the tug of war between these two positions worries me. To me, our goal should be to rebuild a civil political middle capable of the kind of bipartisan cooperation required to address the long list of serious problems we confront. But far too many Democrats — and even more Republicans — think in terms of sticking it to the other party when they are in power. Until we move beyond this tit for tat impulse, and think instead of common ground and compromise, we will continue to be a flawed, dysfunctional democracy.

Permit me a personal memory. My grandmother took me to Washington, DC in 1968 when I was thirteen years old. I still remember the sea of tents on the National Mall called “Resurrection City,” a sort of shantytown of 3,000 people that lasted six weeks. A social movement impacting our politics?

Yes, although by then King had been assassinated and the movement really struggled to find its way forward in his absence and Nixon’s ascension to the White House. In the end, Resurrection City and the larger Poor People’s Movement of which it was a part achieved little and came to a dispiriting end early in 1969.

Weren’t those fifteen years, say, from 1960 to 1975, much more tumultuous and violent than what we have today? Even scarier?

Hmm, interesting question. In terms of actual violence, I think you’re probably right, especially if you include the urban riots of the mid to late 1960s in the equation. But if we’re talking about the health and well being of American democracy, I would argue that what we’re experiencing today is far scarier and more threatening than anything we experienced in the sixties and seventies. For all the turbulence of the era, the period saw far more bipartisan cooperation and civil discourse than what we’re seeing today.

Your book then introduces a rather discouraging paradox — that whereas this movement toward political partisanship does indeed characterize our political parties, activists, and elites, it does not characterize the general public.

This certainly has been true in the past, though I think the last election went a long way toward polarizing the country as a whole. So it isn’t just party activists and the larger “political class” who are rabidly partisan these days. The level of anger and partisan animus at the other side has definitely increased and infected more people as a result of the last election. Through his own extreme rhetoric and behavior, Donald Trump has had a lot to do with this. In essence, he has encouraged his followers to get in touch with their “inner asshole,” resulting in a level of incivility and partisan animus the likes of which I’ve never seen. And more and more Democrats are responding in kind.

Your book analyzes the power of social movements to impact our politics, like the labor movement, the KKK, and the abolitionist movement. What social movements today are impacting our politics?

Well, let’s start with Trump’s movement. You may object to calling it a movement, but it certainly wasn’t a traditional party-based electoral campaign. In its loose organization and populist rhetoric, it is far closer to a movement than anything else. And needless to say, its impact on our politics has been, to borrow a Trumpism, HUGE. And believe me, the Tea Party continues to powerfully impact our politics, especially at the state and local level.

In particular, your book pays special attention to race and region, and how they interact with social movements, to impact our politics.

That’s right. To oversimplify things a bit, a case can be made that the South, since at least 1932, has been the key to understanding the structure of federal power. As long as the “Solid South” was solidly Democratic — as it was from 1932–1968 — the Democrats dominated federal policymaking. But when the region voted Republican in 1968, to protest the Democrat’s civil rights policies, it set in motion the realignment I touched on earlier.

In effect, the South has for a long time, held the balance of power between the two major parties. Whichever party is favored by the region — or more accurately by white southerners — tends to dominate the White House and Congress. And, it should be noted, nothing has shaped the political sensibilities of white southerners more than race.

Your book pretty much ends with the Obama administration. Take us from there to now and our time of Trump. What do you think your book foresaw? And what surprised you with the election of Trump, what did you miss, if anything?

One of the interesting things about this most surreal of election seasons is the extent to which even the most savvy of political observers failed to anticipate the rise of Donald Trump’s candidacy for president. And while I would certainly count myself among those who underestimated Trump, the argument we make in Deeply Divided foreshadowed his victory. His candidacy reflected the two key forces — race and the dynamic interaction of, and tension between, social movements and parties as forms and logics of politics — that we highlight in the book. The imprint of these same two forces is all too clear in Trump’s ascension to the White House.

On the matter of race, his is only the most extreme expression of a form of racial politics that has characterized the GOP since the 1960s. With Richard Nixon’s breakthrough win in 1968, the GOP went from the more liberal party on matters of race to a coalition of white racial conservatives. Over time, this characterization has only grown more apt. Ninety percent of those who voted for Romney in 2012 were white, as compared to sixty percent for Obama. In characterizing Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” failing to repudiate David Duke’s endorsement, and proposing to bar Muslims from entering the country, Trump is only embracing a more extreme form of the racially polarized politics that have characterized the Republican Party for the past half century.

Trump’s campaign also reflected the second force touched on earlier: the increasingly powerful centrifugal force of social movements on the two parties and American politics more generally. The influence of movements is especially pronounced during primary season, when the low turnout nature of the elections amplifies the voice of the ideologically extreme wings of the two parties. And make no mistake about it, as I noted earlier, Trump’s candidacy was a movement, not a traditional party based electoral campaign. In this sense, Trump’s campaign is far more continuous with the past than it might at first appear.

Have we entered uncharted territory, never to return to whatever one might think were the good old days, or is this just a transitional period we will get through and some day return to whatever constitutes normalcy?

I certainly hope we return to some version of what used to pass for normalcy, but these are scary, uncertain times. To me they constitute the most significant “stress test” our democratic institutions have ever undergone. So far, most of them — our judicial system, our investigative agencies, the mainstream press, etc. — have acquitted themselves reasonably well. But there are forces at work intent on undermining these and other democratic institutions. We will need to be vigilant to ensure that that doesn’t happen.

One point that has helped me is that however disgruntled or discouraged I am at our deeply divided politics, I should not direct that anger toward the people who voted for Trump. I should never condescend to them, but instead take their issues and their vote very seriously.

Absolutely, given the trends in this country over the past 30–40 years, their anger and distrust of the system is entirely understandable.

What do you think an informed citizenry should know and be thinking about right now?

That just because we were born a democracy, doesn’t guarantee that we will always be one. That as discouraged and depressed by the state of American politics as many of us are — on the right as well as the left — and as understandable as the desire to turn away from politics is, that now more than ever, we have to stay engaged and fight to ensure that the United States remains the broadly inclusive, just society it has long aspired to be.

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