Scholar Larry Bartels: Trump has revealed that "truth and reason" don't matter to politics

Author of "Unequal Democracy" on the elite "folk theories" of politics — and how Trump has exposed them as false

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published October 25, 2020 12:05PM (EDT)

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office (Oliver Contreras-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office (Oliver Contreras-Pool/Getty Images)

Public opinion polls and other data show that Joe Biden has a substantial lead over Donald Trump, with just over a week to go until the election. Biden's campaign also has substantially more money. As judged by conventional standards, Biden won the two presidential debates. Nate Silver's much-cited FiveThirtyEight site gives Joe Biden an 87 percent chance of defeating Trump.

If Biden and the Democrats win by a landslide — an outcome that seems increasingly likely — one of the dominant narratives will be that a multiracial coalition of Americans rose up against Donald Trump and did so loudly and bravely in a time of plague, when gathering in public could quite literally be a death sentence. Trump's defeat will be heralded as true populism as compared to the authoritarian, white-supremacist faux-populism that won Trump his highly improbable Electoral College victory in 2016. Normalcy will have returned; the healing can begin. It will feel good, for a little while. Of course, matters in the real world are far more complicated.

What if that does not happen? What if Trump somehow manages to steal another implausible victory through both legal and illegal means, combining foreign interference, voter suppression and intimidation, and perhaps even a usurpation of the public's will by the Supreme Court? America will slide further into the abyss of full-on fascism and an authoritarian "managed democracy." A good many Americans, already afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder because of Donald Trump and his allies' collective assaults, will come to feel that resistance is futile. Both "people power" and the normal operation of electoral politics will appear impotent against the Age of Trump.

With either outcome, dangerous myths about American political culture will remain unchallenged, left as assumed truths and conventional wisdom created by throwing uncomfortable facts down the memory hole.

These myths are numerous, but perhaps begin and end with American exceptionalism, the delusional idea that the United States is fundamentally different from all other nations, and not subject to the laws and patterns of history. Beneath that overarching belief, we find these dogmas: America's democratic institutions, norms and values are strong and permanent; the free press serves as a resolute guardian of the country's democracy; the American people are fundamentally decent and American society is healthy; Americans will always reject authoritarianism and fascism; large-scale political violence and terrorism are not "American values"; white supremacy, nativism, misogyny and other antisocial values are largely things of the past; our multiracial democracy, whatever its flaws, is a settled fact.

It is these myths that helped to create the disaster of American fascism in the form of Donald Trump and his movement. Even if Trumpism in its present form is defeated, these uninterrogated myths almost guarantee that American fascism will spring forth again.

These myths are tied together by an assumption on the part of American political elites and other influentials that the American people are reasonable, rational, politically engaged and at least somewhat ideologically consistent. There is no basis in fact for any of those assumptions.

How does this folk theory of democracy lead to incorrect understandings and conclusions about American politics in general, and about the Age of Trump and its aftermath? What is the role of "ethnic antagonism" and authoritarianism in voting and other political behavior in American politics? What does the data actually reveal about the fabled voters of the "white working class" and their support of Trump and the Republican Party? Do American voters actually factor in disasters such as the coronavirus in how they assess presidents?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with political scientist Larry Bartels, who holds the May Werthan Shayne Chair of Public Policy and Social Science at Vanderbilt University. Bartels is the author of several books, including "Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age" and "Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government" (with Christopher Achen). His commentaries and other writing have appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times and other leading publications. Bartels is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

Toward the end of our conversation, Bartels shares his thoughts on the reliability of the various models offered by historians, political scientists and others who claim to be able to predict the outcome of presidential elections and the likely defeat of Donald Trump. (I will not spoil his remarks for you here.) As usual, this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some of the major assumptions about American democracy that Donald Trump's time in office has shattered?

Among people who think and write about politics for a living, there is a kind of assumption that truth and reason, especially in American democracy, are the driving forces of people's behavior. These years with Donald Trump have stripped away some of those assumptions.

In 2016, I predicted that Trump would win the election. I argued that the average American voter is not rational or sophisticated. There was an incredulous response to my conclusion. In these four years of Trump, it took a long time for prominent people to state plainly that he is an authoritarian if not a fascist. Even as the facts reveal that to be true, there remains a deep anger and a profound denial among many in the commentariat and among the American people. Why the anger? It almost seems like a type of narcissistic injury.

I believe that we all have, in some way or another, an attachment to what my co-author Christopher Achen and I describe as the "folk theory of democracy." That framework and narrative is a reassuring and comforting way of thinking about politics in this country. If we study the relationship between the political views that people espouse and then who they should vote for, there was this assumption that political views are causing political behavior, when in fact our research shows that it is probably more the reverse. Other variables are also involved in political decision-making as well, which are outside of many traditional rationalizations and explanations.

I was surprised by Donald Trump's election, not because I expect voters to be ideological, but because I viewed the identities that he was appealing to as being too narrowly focused. I was also surprised by the extent of loyalty among everyday Republicans, for whom white identity may be an inclination to their behavior and decision-making but is not a part of their identity on a day-to-day basis. Sheer partisanship motivated many people to vote for Trump who otherwise might have been put off by him and what he stands for.

Why does Donald Trump have such a stable and deep level of unwavering support among Republicans? It endures to this late date, no matter what he does.

Partisanship is an identity in and of itself, one that has become increasingly important in the last 10 or 20 years in American politics. One reason that partisanship has become more important is that is it more strongly correlated with many other identities, of which race is an important one, but certainly not the only one.

In some new research, I examined attachment to democratic values. I included prompts such as "The president should take the law into their own hands," "The results of elections can't be trusted," "Patriots may have to resort to force to save the American way of life" and other such items. We were surprised by how much agreement with those items there was among Republicans.

In trying to understand the data, I applied an index for "ethnic antagonism." This consists of questions about immigrants having too much access to government resources, the political influence of black people, "discrimination" against whites and questions of a similar theme. Ethnic antagonism was by far the most powerful predictor of these anti-democratic attitudes.

The cutting edge of the strong emotions and enthusiasm in the Republican Party for Trump, although not all Republicans exhibit high levels of "ethnic antagonism," is basically grounded in a kind of ethnic panic that some people have about the possibility that "their way of life" or "their America" may be swamped by demographic changes.

"White working-class" voters are still being obsessed over by the mainstream news media and too many Democratic political strategists. What do we know empirically about the white working class and its political behavior?

I think the first thing to figure out is what people mean by white working class. "Working class" is usually understood to be "people without college degrees," which is the majority of white voters. They did disproportionately switch to Trump in 2016, but those numbers were pretty small. It is easy to exaggerate the numbers and to imagine that these people who made an important difference at the margins are representative of Trump's supporters more generally. That is not the case. Donald Trump's supporters were generally more upscale, for example, than Hillary Clinton's supporters.

The typical Republican is someone who did not go to college but did pretty well in life despite that fact. He or she attributes that success to hard work and expects other people to be able to do the same thing. I believe that most such voters were already Republicans before 2016. But the people who switched to Trump in 2016 were disproportionately that person. Education has a role in Trump's rise in another way as well. Donald Trump's behavior is unappealing to those people who went to college and internalized a particular set of norms and values about American political culture.

The New York Times kept running these long pieces where they would explain to the readers how Donald Trump was violating some cultural and political norm, with the assumption that if readers understood that fact then the public would turn against Trump. For many people in the United States, those norms are not very salient. Their allegiance to what we understand to be "democratic norms" is pretty shallow. People who respected Donald Trump for "saying it like it is" and not being restrained by "political correctness" are disproportionately people who were less educated, although not less affluent.

What are some of your largest frustrations in terms of how supposed "political experts" in the news media analyze the country's politics?

Many professional political observers in the news media and elsewhere want to interpret politics in terms of ideology. They also want to interpret politics in the country by focusing on the most intense people on each side, as though they are representative of the public as a whole. One of the main arguments about Trump's voters and racism is that he appealed to a fragment of the American public that had been underserved by racism and related values, even as compared to Republican politicians, before he came along. There is evidence in support of that conclusion.

Prior to Trump there was a concerted effort among Republican elites to try to appeal to racism, but not in overt terms. They tried to appeal to anti-immigration sentiment, but not in a way that would cut off their chances to build support among immigrant communities.

One of the other common narratives is that Trump's election is a function of some huge upswing in racism. But if you track these measures of racial resentment over time, the big shift in the last decade has been that the public as a whole has become less racist and racially resentful. But this is largely because Democrats have increasingly learned what they are supposed to say in response to questions from pollsters and other researchers about race and racial inequality. Republicans have not.

There are more major shifts in American politics in terms of media coverage than there are in reality. Every time there is some major announcement about shifts in attitudes, one should be skeptical. However, public attitudes and values do sometimes change fairly rapidly. In terms of race and politics, my intuition would be that what has changed in the Age of Trump is mostly a verbal attachment to one position or another, rather than people's deep-seated feelings about race.

How ideological is the average American? And how does ideology relate to the folk theory of democracy?

The folk theory of democracy is a belief that America is a representative democracy, and that we the voters decide on who the political leaders are and basically giving them a mandate to pursue some set of policies. If these elected officials do not live up to expectations, then they are voted out and replaced by someone else.

There are some elements of that story which are true. But most Americans do not have a very well-developed or sophisticated political ideology. Their views about politics are shallower, more contingent on circumstances and more subject to self-contradiction than people who spend their careers thinking about politics would likely be able to to imagine.

Now, this does not mean that the average American is without meaningful attitudes about politics and related topics. They are not a blank slate. But the average American thinks about American politics sporadically, when they are forced to or when there is something happening in terms of political life that they cannot easily ignore. In all, journalists and scholars of politics think about politics much more than the average person.

What do we know about how the average American factors in calamities and disasters such as the coronavirus pandemic in terms of their voting behavior?

There are many debates about that question among political scientists and others who study politics. One view, which our book "Democracy for Realists" adopts, is that people are not very critical about assessing the responsibility of elected officials for certain kinds of calamities. In "Democracy for Realists", Achen and I wrote about shark attacks in New Jersey and also how the public reacts to droughts and floods.

There is some existing and still in-progress research on the American people's reaction to the Spanish flu pandemic [of 1918]. We examined that work and it was surprising, because one would imagine a large backlash. But we did not see that in the data. [President] Woodrow Wilson was not punished. State governors were also not being punished by the public. One of the explanations is that no one of public prominence at the time was constructing the Spanish flu as a political issue or attaching blame to elected officials.

By comparison, when the coronavirus pandemic was taking hold and people were asking me about the political implications, I told them there that there is no way that it is not going to be politicized, and that once it becomes politicized, people are going to associate it with Donald Trump.

The alternative view is that voters attempt to assess the quality of elected officials' response, and that the backlash against Donald Trump is not simply a reaction to the pain of the pandemic and resulting economic collapse, but rather an assessment of Trump's performance. Therefore, if Donald Trump were performing better than average in terms of his response to the coronavirus pandemic, then he would have been rewarded rather than punished for the pandemic. We will need to do more research in the future, of course, but my sense is that someone has to be blamed and held responsible for the failures of the pandemic response — and for the public that is Trump.

There are various models from historians, political scientists, economists and others which purport to predict the outcome of presidential elections in this country. Is there a consensus on how accurate these models are?

There are a number of these predictive models. My first observation is that if there are seven factors, for example, then the criticism could be made that the model is being constructed to fit the data which the researcher already has.

But there are in fact models that have a pretty good track record in terms of accounting for election outcomes over time. In these predictions and models, the two most important factors are the state of the economy in the election year and how long the incumbent party has been in power. Those two things appear to work well in terms of predictive power. In 2016 they predicted an outcome which was not much different from what happened.

Many of the people responsible for these models said at the time, "This is what the models predict, but it certainly will not apply to Donald Trump because he is such an unusual candidate." Nevertheless, the models did turn out to apply to Donald Trump. I interpret that outcome to be a statement about the extent to which partisan behavior was shaped by the usual partisan factors, rather than by anything specific about Trump or the 2016 election. Those same models now predict that Donald Trump is going to lose substantially.

Here is a qualifier: There has been an increase in partisan polarization in this country. That probably means there are fewer people who are sufficiently undecided to be swayed by the state of the economy in the election year. Therefore, the magnitude of Donald Trump's loss, if he does in fact lose, will be less than one would predict based on the historical record.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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