Podcast Recommendation (Plus: More on US Democracy)

Ezra Klein discusses the dynamics of American conservatism in historical perspective. Plus, he helps illustrate a key problem that we have in thinking about American politics (IMHO).

Photo by SLT

Anyone (which I think includes most readers of this site) interested in trying to understand the development and behavior of the Republican Party (or, really, of broader American politics) should listen to Ezra Klein’s interview with Matthew Continetti. The discussion focuses on the evolution and behavior of the Republican Party as far back as the post-war era, but helps underscore the major coalition partners within the party which has been in a long-term struggle for dominance. The discussion shows how Trump is both not an aberration, but also not everything one needs to know about the party.

Beyond that, I was especially struck by this exchange towards the end of the discussion.

Klein is running down the ways in which Trump, as party leader, was not especially successful, and in so doing expressed some incredulity about why Republicans would continue to cleave to him and his approach.

OK, in 2016, Republicans run a very unpopular, populist, outsider candidate, very divisive in the party and outside of it.

He gets a smaller vote share than the previous Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, but he wins despite losing the popular vote, by squeaking through an electoral college victory. Then, he’s unpopular for functionally his whole presidency. Under him Republicans lose a huge amount of seats in 2018. They lose the House. Democrats make gains across the country. Then, in 2020, Trump becomes one of the rare incumbents to lose reelection.

Republicans, under him, lose the Senate as well, giving Democrats a governing trifecta. You wouldn’t say, obviously, that the way the Republican Party should understand this experience is this person is a political mastermind, and we all need to figure out what he has figured out, and anybody who wants to run needs to run exactly like him. And yet, that very much seems to me to be the dominant theory among not all, but most of the 2024 aspirants who seem like they have a shot, like Ron DeSantis.

It’s very much the media theory of the case. It’s very strange. He’s this clear political genius on one level, clear political loser on another, has done a lot to humiliate the Republican Party. What are the lessons you think Republicans should learn from him, and what are the cautionary lessons you think they should learn from him? And do they currently have that mix right?

I think the above run-down is an excellent illustration of how Americans, even smart, wonky, politically aware ones like Klein, don’t realize how much they buy the basic mythology of American politics: that this is really a contest between two sides having to convince voters to vote for them, and that it is ultimately a fair fight.

But, as I constantly note, it isn’t. And I know that Klein knows this, but like the fish in the ocean who is unaware of water, Klein is so steeped in this paradigm that he falls prey to it.

This is the kind of thing I was getting at in a post I wrote a couple of weeks ago:

When we allow the narrative to be that the Democrats lose because they fail to get their message across, then we validate the notion that the system isn’t the problem. Instead, we are saying that the flaws of American democracy are the Democrats’ fault for not competing better (and in so doing, downplay or ignore structural issues that will never get fixed if most people don’t see or understand them). Again, this is not to say that message is irrelevant, or that parties shouldn’t try to convince voters to vote for them, but the main reason we will get the outcomes we get this coming November will be a combination of the size of the House, the way we draw congressional districts, the two-year cycle to re-elect the House, the two-year cycle to reelect only one-third of the Senate, and the way Senate seats are allocated. All of that is more important than message.

I am constantly amazed (and frustrated) at journalistic discussions, even by smart analysts, who talk as if there is a fair and open competition for the US House of Representatives when we know that the actual number of competitive seats is in the double-digits (it is currently projected to be 41 in November).

Klein sees that Trump was a loser in 2018 and 2020 and, indeed, would have been a loser in any other system of presidential election in the world. So, wonders why the GOP is so vested in continuing to remain in his orbit.

I will readily note, yet again, that if our politics were really about making a case to the public as a whole, so as to convince a majority that a given party would pursue the preferences of that majority, there would be far less interest in trumpism.

But, again, you don’t have to construct a majority coalition to win power in the US.

First, power-seekers get on the ballot via primaries. Primaries tap into mathematical minorities of voters by definition. And often, it only requires a plurality of that slice of the electorate to win office. That is how we saw JD Vance advance to the general election, and likely to the US Senate, just recently. This was how Trump did it in 2016 (in a far more complex, multi-state process–but never forget he won a plurality of the overall vote on his way to a majority of delegates).

Second, most House seats are not competitive, so if one can win the plurality of the above-mentioned minority of voters, one wins office. No need to build a big coalition, all that is needed is to compete within that slice of voters who participate in primaries, which often means focusing on a slice of that slice, in this case, the trumpistas.

Third, the presidency can be won while still losing millions of votes.

Fourth, a Senate minority might very well be controlled by a party that by no means represents a majority of the population.

Points one and two are cross-party, but they do explain why a loser, empirically speaking, like Trump might nonetheless be able to motivate someone like McCarthy to behave as he is (McCarthy just needs to get re-nominated and not annoy his caucus, and he is likely Speaker–he has zero motivations to make broad appeals, and plenty of motivation to appeal to the trumpists).

(Let the bolded part sink in and it illustrates a fundamental flaw in our system, or so I would argue).

Points three and four are theoretically cross-party, but the reality is that they are profoundly pro-Republican now and will be for the foreseeable future (as are, really, even House elections, wherein the Dems need more than 51% of the national vote share to win a majority of seats).

All of this, which I know is not new from me, explains what Klein is perplexed by: Trump may be a loser in some ways, certainly in terms of having actual national support. But neither Trump nor his party needs national support to control the nation’s politics. We have got to stop talking like this is a level playing field wherein the party that makes the best case wins the day. The incentives are quite clearly structured to facilitate Trump’s behavior and, therefore, his party’s.

JD Vance did not have to build a majority coalition to win his nomination. And he now has millions of Ohio Republicans poised to vote for him because he is the Republican who will be on the ballot in November. Could he turn off enough of them that he could lose? Sure, but it would take a lot (see, e.g., Moore, Roy).

And, given things like the pending overturning of Roe v. Wade, exactly how much of a loser do people really think Trump appears to be in the eyes of a lot of Republicans? (And they don’t care that it was achieved through a number of minority-empowering features of the system, because they are that minority–indeed, as I wrote the other day, they are likely to start celebrating the anti-democratic aspects of the system).

Back to my main point: anyone who wishes to engage in the analysis of American politics needs to step outside of the notion that this is all about level competition and acknowledge the deeply minoritarian nature of our institutions–a feature that helps explain why someone as broadly unpopular as Trump can still wield as much influence as he does. In short: it isn’t about building majorities and broad support. And any narrative that suggests that it is is doing a disservice to public understanding.

(BTW, I know that Klein knows all of this, but again, the mythology of the “greatest democracy in the world” and such is hard to fully purge from one’s brain).

And I cannot stress enough the impact that a strict binary choice has on our politics. Gasoline is currently over four dollars a gallon. Whether we like it or not (and whether it is fair or not), a lot of voters will blame the party of the sitting president for that fact and the only way most Americans have to directly register their displeasure will be to vote for the opposite party. It is, in fact, largely that simple. I can vote A or I can vote B and I am mad at A and blame it for whatever thing I am unhappy about, so I will vote B. Sure, some folks will just stay home, or maybe vote C, but since they know that the main way to stick to A is to vote B, then B it will be! (And a lot of people will already vote B no matter what).

Throw in all the rest I noted above, and it because pretty clear why a Republican victory is likely in November (and maybe in 2024 as well).

FILED UNDER: Democracy, The Presidency, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Barry says:

    ‘Likely to start’? They were there for decades.

  2. Scott says:

    To contrast just two recent primary elections, Nebraska and Ohio, both primaries were framed as referendums on Trump. Therefore, Trump won Ohio and lost Nebraska. However, another way of looking at the numbers was that the Trump supported nominee each won about 1/3 of the Republican votes. In Ohio, that was enough for Vance to win the primary and in Nebraska, it wasn’t. So why is either being portrayed as being supporting or not supporting Trump. Two-thirds of Republican primary voters rejected him. So it is really a greater minority than just the binary choice.

  3. Jay L Gischer says:

    I don’t think you’re wrong. And yet, it seems incomplete.

    Ronald Reagan was famous for “Reagan Democrats”. He basically switched the allegiance of a bloc of voters from D to R. Is that myth? Did it really happen? Why couldn’t it happen again?

    The US had just switched, in the 70’s to a nomination system of primaries. Did this favor him somehow?

  4. Michael Cain says:

    And the Trump-endorsed candidate came quite close in Nebraska, despite being a newcomer to politics, several women accusing him of groping them, and nearly every establishment Republican in the state endorsing one of his opponents.

  5. Michael Cain says:

    I was thinking about the gasoline thing this morning. What $4/gal prices have done to me is confirm my decision to — once the current premium on car prices moderates somewhat — replace our two old Hondas with an electric. One car with a 200-mile range on a full charge meets our needs. Assume the new electric gets three miles per kWh, which is conservative. Assume I charge at night. We just got our summer rate schedule, and night time electricity is 7 cents/kWh. The Honda Fit gets 33 mpg consistently. In the hypothetical electric, 33 miles would be 11 kWh, or 77 cents per gallon-equivalent. If things work out as the local electric power authority plans, our electricity will be carbon-free by 2030.

    Give me a President from a party that’s helping me get to $7 fill-ups and no carbon, please.

  6. Scott says:

    @Michael Cain: I think the purchase of electric cars is going to accelerate faster than predicted. The question I have is whether the power industry is going to be prepared. Here in San Antonio, it is just the middle of May and already we are hitting 100 degrees and the state power authority is urging power conservation. Market freedom is clearly not working here in Texas.

  7. gVOR08 says:


    Market freedom is clearly not working here in Texas.

    Fifteen minutes old and already a classic.

  8. Sleeping Dog says:


    In the last couple of days, I’ve read a couple of news articles regarding TX power issues. One about how the price of electricity has spike, due to demand and the fact that a number of generating units are off line for maintenance. Shades of CA in the Enron days. The other is a massive discrepancy in prices depending on source. The article used the Houston area as an example, Houston is paying, IIRC $850 per KW/Hr while in an area 5 miles to the east that has significant wind energy available, the cost is -$1800 per HW/Hr. But the TX grid is so f’ed that the low cost energy can’t be moved to the high cost area.

    But, yup, they’ll reelect Abbott, Paxton and company.

  9. MarkedMan says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    He basically switched the allegiance of a bloc of voters from D to R. Is that myth?

    I don’t think it was that simple. Reagan marked the transition wherein the Republican Party officially became the home of racists, and the Dixiecrats were over. So Reagan didn’t really change anyones allegiance. What he should be given “credit” for is dog whistling so perfectly.

  10. gVOR08 says:

    I took the time to read the transcript. Interesting. And yes, acceptance a median voter theory point of view does seem to underly much of it.

    I’d have to say that Klein comes off, again, as an excellent interviewer. He’s also very erudite, a perceptive observer, a deep thinker, and a clear writer. Continetti … not so much. He seems, after all the effort of writing this history of the Republican Party, not very clear in his own mind on what his party was or is. Perhaps because his salary for decades depended on believing what he himself was writing. Having said that, he does recognized that it’s now mostly performative opposition to liberals and perceived elites.

  11. gVOR08 says:

    I find I have an ongoing problem. Continetti is all about ‘populism” and populism taking over the Party from the elites. (Klein kept saying it was a dialectic that was always present.) Wiktionary offers fairly concise definitions of “populism”.

    1. (politics) populism, any dualistic ideology that contrasts a homogeneous people with an elite. [from late 20th c.]
    2. (literature) a French literary movement focusing on the common people. [from early 20th c.]
    3. (politics) populism, the American left-leaning ideology that supported trade unionism and sought monetary stimulus by means of free silver. [from late 19th c.]

    My rather casual understanding of Bryant and Prairie Populism (disclosure -, my parents were Farmers Union) is that it was a generally bottom up effort to actually help the populus. But most of the “populist” movements I see in history, including Trumpism (whatever the hell that means), were top down efforts by the elites to con the populus into supporting them. Does Poli Sci usage make any distinction? Seems to me important.

  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Jay L Gischer: Reagan Democrats were, among other things, a defection of organized labor–in this particular case, Teamsters. I no longer remember the details, but the Reagan administration agreed to support a particular issue that was important to the Teamsters and the union threw its support behind Reagan. That support became part of the majority that propelled him into office. In the aftermath of that election, fair numbers of guys I worked with as a warehouseman under a Teamster contract (coincidentally making the highest warehousing wage on the West Coast outside of longshoring) stayed for the tax cuts (we were a high-wage cohort) and the bigotry (our industry in Seattle, if you count dagoes and Asians as “white,” was as white as vanilla ice cream and under constant pressure to integrate, still in the 80s). At least that’s how the fog of my memory remembers those days.

    As to whether the Democrats can create a similar movement? Sure. I suspect there’s plenty of bigots and low taxers to peel off the GQP rosters with the right sets of incentives.

  13. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: You and @Marked Man had similar comments. Which maps to how I’ve always understood this.

    And, Steven is saying, I think, that partisan identity is usually stronger than that. A policy shift (“tax less”) does not overcome an identity shift (“My daddy was a Democrat, and his Daddy before him”). In fact, in the South, many of them still held a grudge against Republicans since the Civil War.

    And the racism thing was even less about policy than lower taxes, if it is accurate. I mean, yeah, Reagan ran against “welfare queens” but did he actually do anything about them? It was just another motivation for “lower taxes”.

    What I personally think Reagan managed to do was to glue together everybody with a pet grievance against the federal government with the slogan of “government is the problem”. That’s not a policy, though, it’s a slogan. It’s a message.

    Anyway, I observe that people sometimes – its rare though – do change their allegiance, and I’d like to know more about that process. I think it’s a social, cultural process (“come join our club”) than an intellectual one (“we have the correct logic”). But that’s just my guess.

  14. gVOR08 says:

    This all revolves around Continetti and his history of a “populist” ideology taking over the Party, culminating in Trumpism. I just happened on something from Jonathan Chait, via LGM that seems apt.

    When Republicans gain control of government, they use their power to deliver victories for their economic constituents. This has held true for decades and has not changed. Even after Donald Trump’s supposedly populist takeover, the party’s priorities in 2017 and 2018 revolved around a tax cut for business owners and heirs to large estates, and an attempt to scale back health-care coverage for people with low incomes or preexisting conditions. The agenda was hardly any different than it would have been if Paul Ryan were president.

    It also touches on my concern @gVOR08: about real and faux populism. I would add that any Federalist concern about abortion is secondary, these Justices were appointed to gut corporate regulation. As Aragorn didn’t say – A day may come when the populists take control away from the GOP elites, but it is not this day.

  15. Kurtz says:

    Listening now. But I only read the headline and went straight to the app to begin. Only, I started listening to the wrong one. Klein’s most recent podcast has a guest who rails against defensive-crouch conservatism.
    May be an interesting experience to listen to them back-to-back.

  16. Michael Cain says:


    Market freedom is clearly not working here in Texas.

    Fortunately, not a lot of “market” here in Colorado. Four main power authorities: two municipal, one owned by a bunch of small coops, and one investor-owned. All of them own a bunch of their own generation, buy from outside generators (eg, wind farms). There’s an agreement among the four to coordinate and do some power sharing. The group are working to connect to some other renewable sources, but distance is a factor. It’s a few hundred miles to any other major demand centers. And very limited connections to anything east of the state because you reach the boundary between Eastern and Western Interconnects.

    At this particular moment in time, the power authority that provides the power for my city has generating capacity well in excess of demand. Efficiency seems to be balancing the rapid population growth. Some of the excess will go away as the coal-fired plants shut down — the last one is scheduled to retire in 2028. However, the authority has an RFP out for a big chunk of new solar, plus storage, and plans to grow other sources. Up the road from us a ways, the largest wind farm in North America is under construction (although the plan is that most of their output will be shipped to the lucrative Southern California market). Still, all indications are that we can meet demand for electric cars/trucks without a great deal of trouble.

    I have long said that the biggest risk to Colorado meeting a no-carbon power grid even with electric transportation is that FERC will insist that we abandon what’s working and conform to their one-size-fits-all — or not — market model.

  17. James Joyner says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Ronald Reagan was famous for “Reagan Democrats”. He basically switched the allegiance of a bloc of voters from D to R. Is that myth? Did it really happen? Why couldn’t it happen again?

    The US had just switched, in the 70’s to a nomination system of primaries. Did this favor him somehow?

    While 1980 was the first election that I paid serious attention to (I was 14) I barely remember the primaries. Looking at the Wikipedia entry, it was anticipated to be a rematch of the 1976 contest in which incumbent President Gerald Ford barely held off the former California governor. When Ford ultimately decided not to run for the 1980 nomination, Reagan basically led the polls wire to wire and won without much of a fight.

    To the larger point, as @Just nutha ignint cracker and @MarkedMan, Reagan helped begin the re-sorting of the electorate. Jimmy Carter barely won in 1976 and likely wouldn’t have had the Republicans nominated a candidate they wanted rather than the uncharismatic accidental President who pardoned Nixon. And Carter was the Evangelical conservative.

    Recall, too, that this was the period of the Republican “lock” on the Electoral College. Because California was then what we would now call a “Red” state, it was damned hard for Democrats to win. That held through the 1988 election and flipped starting in 1992.

  18. @Scott: It isn’t really, at least to me, about Trump as much as is it about the kind of general behaviors the system incentivizes.

  19. @Jay L Gischer:

    Ronald Reagan was famous for “Reagan Democrats”. He basically switched the allegiance of a bloc of voters from D to R. Is that myth? Did it really happen? Why couldn’t it happen again?

    A lot of that had to do with the fact that huge chunks of the Democrats were conservatives and not sorted at they later would from 1994 onward (I have written a good bit about this).

    Granted, that’s not everything to be said about this.

  20. @gVOR08:

    My rather casual understanding of Bryant and Prairie Populism (disclosure -, my parents were Farmers Union) is that it was a generally bottom up effort to actually help the populus. But most of the “populist” movements I see in history, including Trumpism (whatever the hell that means), were top down efforts by the elites to con the populus into supporting them. Does Poli Sci usage make any distinction? Seems to me important.

    It has always been my understanding, from a polisci POV, that populism is a tactic utilized by a counter-elite to rile a specific mass population as a vehicle for power. The quintessential example to me is Juan Peron in Argentina, who mobilized urban labor against the established agrarian elite.

    Populism can be rightward or leftward. In and of itself, it is not an ideology, per se.

    I think like a lot of terms, it is used rather loosely in the current discourse.

  21. @Kurtz:

    . Klein’s most recent podcast has a guest who rails against defensive-crouch conservatism.

    I listened to that one today, in fact. It is worth the time, but I will say that the guest drove me crazy. If I find the time, I may write about that one as well.