Ian Shapiro has written widely and influentially on democracy, justice and the methods of social inquiry. A native of South Africa, he received his J.D. from the Yale Law School and his doctorate from the Yale Political Science Department. He is the author of 15 books, including “Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself” with Frances Rosenbluth (2018), and “The Wolf at the Door: The Menace of Economic Insecurity and How to Fight It” with Michael Graetz (2020). He is Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University.
I wanted to start with some historical perspective. Twenty years ago, we had a contested election, resolved by the Bush v. Gore decision in the Supreme Court. Though many viewed the decision as highly partisan, the transfer of power from Clinton to Bush went relatively smoothly. Why was that?
I think the best answer to that question has to do with the costs of giving up power. It was a great advantage at the beginning of the American republic that first Philadelphia and then Washington were such unappealing places to be. They really had to twist George Washington’s arm to run for a second term, and the same thing with Jefferson. There were plenty of other things they could do which were appealing. There were other ways to make a living, maybe even a better living. At the other end of the continuum, we talk about “oil-curse” countries, where one extractive industry is the only game in town. If someone’s in the government and they’re essentially the gatekeeper to that industry, giving up power means basically giving up access to a viable living. Here, on the other hand, the exit costs are relatively low. After all, what happened to Al Gore after the election? He went off and joined lots of corporate boards and he made documentaries about the environment. I saw that his net worth a couple years ago was $250 million. His personal survival was not tied to keeping the possibility of power. Confronting that, and what it would put the country through, and the probability of prevailing in the end anyway, the game wasn’t worth the candle.
In 2008, Barack Obama won the presidency on the hope of bridging the partisan divide. He famously said, “we have never been a collection of red states and blue states; we are, and always will be, the United States of America.” Like Bush, Obama left office with the country more divided than it was eight years prior. Why was he unable to overcome partisanship?
Obama couldn’t govern without cooperation from across the aisle after 2010, when the Republicans won back the House. So, for the last six years of his term, he was essentially required to find common ground with the Republicans. And the Republican Party was increasingly controlled by its far-right fringe. Why is that? Because of the interaction between safe seats and primaries. We’ve had primaries in Congress for well over a century, but what’s changed in the last few decades is that there’s been a steady increase in safe seats. The difficulty with safe seats is low turnout, often between 10 percent and 15 percent. And those who do turn out in safe seat primaries tend to be activists and voters on the extremes of the party. In the Republican case, the Tea Party had huge power in all of those safe seats, because they could threaten incumbents with primaries if they cooperated with the other side. It became impossible for Obama to govern because the Republican Party was pulled hard to the right. A similar thing is true in the Democratic Party, though not as pronounced. So, it’s a system in which very weak parties controlled by their fringes make bipartisan cooperation more or less impossible. That contributes to ungovernability, which contributes to voter frustration, which often reinforces polarization.
In 2016, in what was called “the strongest field in a generation,” well-funded, accomplished senators and governors all lost the Republican nomination to Donald Trump. How did a businessman with no political experience handily defeat the establishment politicians?
I think it was economic factors. The most significant change in the economy has got two dimensions to it. One is the stagnation, or in many cases, decline, of middle-class incomes. More important than that, but interacting with it, is long-term job insecurity. It used to be the case that somebody your age would finish their education, get a job working for one company for 30 years and then retire. People your age today are likely to change jobs in the U.S. economy between 12 and 15 times during their employment lifetimes. Furthermore, when you think of people who are on the wrong side of the information revolution, they tend to be bouncing down the occupational scale. Somebody who used to have a factory job with good benefits, a certain status and a path of gradual promotion through the company now gets laid off, and maybe rehired in the same job as an independent contractor with no benefits. If they get laid off again, then they might find a lower-paying job in the service sector, which is another decline in status. And those jobs are also increasingly going away to technology. The McDonald’s that five years ago used to have 20 people working now has six people working there. Five years from now, it’ll probably have one person working, watching a robot make burgers. So, chronic employment insecurity, unrelated to the business cycle, is driving down incomes and forcing people to take lower-status opportunities. It’s often humiliating for them and it breeds resentment. What was brilliant about Trump’s slogan in 2016 was “Make America Great Again,” which made it clear that he was saying “something’s been taken away from you and I’m going to get it back. I’m going to turn the clock back.” So, I think it was very much the politics of resentment, the politics of anxiety, and the politics of fear, among downwardly mobile white working-class voters. And increasingly it’s not just working-class voters, because the phenomenon I’ve been talking about is creeping up the occupational scale. For example, retail mortgages used to be an activity performed by a local manager in a small bank, who probably had a college degree and a good lifestyle. Today, you do it on the phone with someone at Quicken Loans who probably doesn’t have more than a high school education and is paid minimum wage. So, the hollowing out of the middle class is a big part of the anxiety.
America is now facing one of the most difficult years in living memory, with the coronavirus, economic damage, and a national reckoning on race. Yet, President Trump’s poll numbers have remained relatively stable through the year. What conclusions should we draw from this fact?
Well, I think his core supporters are the people I’ve been talking about. They feel extremely vulnerable. They feel, with considerable justification, that they have long been neglected by both parties. I think one of the biggest failures on the Democratic side was the failure to perceive, after 2008, that if you think that the solution to the problem is to shore up the banking sector and essentially bail out the people who created much of the problem, and then to continue to hire them all to design the solutions, you’re going to breed huge alienation among the people who experienced the fallout from all this. These are the 20-plus million people who lost their homes, who don’t have 401(k)s, and who don’t have money in the market. There were all of these people who felt that the bipartisan establishment had thrown them under the bus. And what they liked about Trump, and what they still like about him, is that he attacks the people they hate. It’s not really about policy, I don’t think. His policies don’t work. Despite what he’s said about saving coal mining, coal jobs have continued to disappear. All this stuff on immigration and protectionism isn’t bringing jobs back. The jobs are increasingly going to technology; they’re not going offshore so much. I think it’s basically that desperate people do desperate things. He’s constantly pointing fingers and saying, “these people are the villains and I’m against them.” They feel solidarity with that dimension of his politics and that’s why he keeps doing it. And when people ask why he doesn’t start to do things to broaden his appeal, I think his intuition is that if he did, his core supporters would accuse him of selling out.
The president has constantly questioned the legitimacy of this election. How much is the doubt in our democracy attributable to one man, Donald Trump, and how much should we attribute it to the forces which brought him to power? Did he accelerate it?
The forces are huge and we’re seeing them in many countries. Snake-oil remedies and anti-system rhetoric are being pushed by populist figures across Europe, in Latin America, and here. These forces basically shaped the Brexit vote in the UK. So, it’s obviously a much more general phenomenon. Trump got lucky; it was a very close election which could have gone the other way. I see him more as an accelerant, if you like, of the phenomenon, rather than a causer. Trump is a symptom and an accelerant of these bigger structural things that I’m talking about. And for sure, if and when the Trump period is over, if the parties don’t start to address the long-term employment insecurity of middle- and working-class voters, there will be another Trump and another Trump. Basically, what we’ve got is a system that isn’t working for huge swaths of the electorate, and so they’re easily mobilized. Unless we address the underlying insecurities so that the economy starts to deliver for more of these voters, the problem is not going to go away.
Angela Merkel has said that the coronavirus has shown the limits of “fact-denying populism.” But the global recession caused by the pandemic has produced some of the same economic conditions as did the Great Recession, which preceded a rise of populism in the West. Do you think the coronavirus will accelerate or decelerate populist movements in the West?
Predictions are very difficult in such a volatile set of circumstances, but my instinct is to think that Merkel is wrong. The reason being, implicit in what you said, that we are witnessing one of the worst “K-shaped recoveries” from a recession, maybe the worst, in living memory. For attorneys and bankers and tenured professors, for people in the top quintile of the population, this has been a major inconvenience, it’s been unpleasant, but it’s not been life-threatening. Almost all of them have great work-from-home arrangements and they have investments in equities that have come back. It’s not the end of their world by any stretch of the imagination. But if you consider the long-term job losses for people at the bottom, who have no savings and are not invested in the stock market, they are in a situation that’s very unlikely to improve in the short- or even medium-run. Even if we have a vaccine that is readily available in the next six months, the K-shaped recovery tells us that for the people in the bottom half of the economy, it will take much longer for their jobs to come back. Many of their jobs won’t come back at all. Among other things, the trend of jobs going to technology has been accelerated by the pandemic because of the imperative for social distancing and the concomitant advantages of doing things with less labor. So, the population that can be mobilized for populist causes, I think, is bigger and more vulnerable, and likely to remain more vulnerable for a long time.
Populist nationalism is ascendant around the world, in Europe, in South America, and in the United States. What similarities do you see between the current moment and the rise of nationalism in the decades before the Second World War?
Well, there are a lot of similar structural forces at work. That was a period in which you saw a lot of fragmentation in the European multi-party systems, which we’re seeing again, and it has similar causes. The disappearance of unionized industrial jobs has produced fragmentation in those systems. Take Germany for example. The left-of-center party, the SPD, has become decreasingly able to protect its voting base and so it has hemorrhaged voters to Die Linke, the far-left Marxist Party, to the Greens, and also to the Alternative für Deutschland, which is the far-right party. The AfD went from a fringe group to being the third-biggest party in the Bundestag. And in country after country after country, the left-of-center party that used to represent people in the bottom half of the economic order, that used to come in first or second, now comes in fourth or fifth. Whether it’s in Austria or Israel, Germany or Holland, basic structural changes in the economy have made these systems vulnerable to the rise of populist parties. These parties are even expanding in countries like Sweden, which very few people would have ever thought plausible. So, it’s worrying in that sense.
We’ve talked a lot about economic insecurity and how it has affected our politics. You recently published a book on the subject with Michael Graetz, titled “The Wolf at the Door: The Menace of Economic Insecurity and How to Fight It.” What policies do you think the next president should push for to address economic insecurity?
Front and center we need policies that will confront and ameliorate long-term employment insecurity. One policy to address that is very aggressive job retraining programs. The world in which people finish their education before they enter the workforce is over. People are going to need retraining multiple times in their lifetimes. We argue for a system of Universal Adjustment Insurance to replace the very skimpy trade adjustment programs that we currently have. Essentially, it would replace the current system of unemployment insurance, which is a patchwork of 50 different state systems and federal add-ons, in times of crisis. UAA would support and retrain anyone who lost their job without fault. It would give more generous assistance for longer periods of time in order to facilitate that retraining. This would reduce the high and increasing numbers of employees — not counted in the unemployment statistics — who go on to Social Security Disability Insurance, which almost no one comes off of once they’re on. It’s expensive and completely unproductive to have somebody in their forties or fifties doing that. We argue for funds for people to relocate to new areas and funds to support the costs of housing and shelter, which are much cheaper in the medium-run than the alternatives. We argue that business should be getting behind that. A lot of our book is addressed toward business, because if business isn’t part of the solution, it’s going to be part of the problem. We also argue for much more aggressive use than is currently the case of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is a job subsidy for business, but is paid to the worker. That’s a much better way to subsidize job creation than by giving tax breaks to employers that might just as easily go to stock buybacks — as we saw following the 2017 tax cut. And we advocate a variety of related policies geared to creating employment and creating forms of support for the unemployed that make it more viable for people who lose jobs to keep reentering the workforce in productive ways. Among these is a realistic mechanism to backstop and also provide alternatives to employment-based health insurance, the fragility of which is another major and growing source of long-term insecurity among vulnerable Americans.
Trump and his closest allies might fear that a Biden administration could prosecute them once they lose power. How do you think this will impact Trump’s actions after the election?
That goes back to what we started with. Precisely because Trump feels so legally vulnerable, over his taxes and all these other things that might potentially happen to him, the costs of giving up the presidency for him are high. Many of the things for which he might be prosecuted have statutes of limitations that will have run by 2025, but not by 2021. So, from the point of view of democracy, it’s never good to have the costs of giving up power increasing in this way. I’m not a proponent of criminalizing political opponents. It’s a very costly move to start criminalizing opponents, because it means that if they’re in a position to resist giving up power, they have much stronger incentives to do so.
If November’s election is highly contested, and many Americans doubt the legitimacy of the next president, can our democracy recover?
I think “it’s the economy, stupid!” It will depend on whether Congress enacts policies that make the economy start to work for most Americans. What we’re seeing in our politics is not the cause of the problem; it’s the result of the problem. So, unless we address the problem, we should expect more of the same. Many people think Trump is the worst we can get. We can get worse than Trump.
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