A Trojan Elephant: The Election of Trump Demonstrates the Dangers of Allowing the Far-Right to Take Over a Mainstream Party

The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States has shocked Americans and people around the world. Many question how a candidate who was so far beyond was thought to be acceptable in American politics could end up winning an election. Two things are important to remember when reflecting on Trump’s victory. The first is that he is not unique. Far-right parties are present in almost every European democracy and they take substantial numbers of votes. Second, is that partisan loyalty can be a powerful force, it is often the case that when voters find out they disagree with their party that they change their views instead of changing the party that they support. The election of Trump offers an important lesson to Brits and to Canadians about the dangers of allowing a mainstream conservative party to be co-opted by far-right leadership.

During the American primary I wrote about how Trump’s candidacy was not particularly original. The extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric and the cult of personality are all things that are strikingly common amongst Europe’s far-right parties. The opposition to globalization (for the European parties this comes in the form of opposition to European Union integration, while for Trump this ends up being opposition to trade agreements such as NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership) nor the anti-elitism set Trump apart either. While there are certainly some differences between Trump and the European far-right, Trump is more socially conservative than a number of European far-right parties, his campaign looked very much like an Americanized version of a European far-right one.

Trump’s primary win also fits with success of far-right parties across Europe. Trump won about 45% of the vote in a Republican party which between 40% and 45% of Americans identity with. That’s the equivalent of winning somewhere between 18% and 20% of the vote, not a stretch at all for a European far-right party. Indeed, when I wrote my earlier post on Trump’s likeness to the European far-right I noted that his poll numbers were right where one expect them to be, given the rise of other European far-right parties over the last 20 years. Up until the end of the American primaries there was little that was unique about Trump. He was running the same kind anti-immigrant, anti-elite, anti-globalization campaign that is common in Europe and was winning about the same percentage of the vote with that campaign.

The crucial difference between Trump and the European far-right, however, is that Trump was not leading his own party, he was running as a candidate for leadership in an already established party. This gave Trump two major advantages over most far-right candidates. The first is that he could use the resources of the Republican party when running in the general election. Even though he did not have the support of the entire Republican establishment he could count on many of established Republican campaigners to help him to run his campaign. This gave him a level of election expertise that most far-right parties simply do not have. As my colleague, Adam Coombs, points out in his piece on voter turnout, Trump was able to benefit both from the Republican party’s get out the vote efforts and from voter suppression laws that Republican governors put in place to provide an advantage to Republican candidates. Unlike most far-right parties, Trump was able to take advantage of all of the work that mainstream conservatives had done to try to give their party an advantage in elections.

Second, and more importantly, Trump was able to use the Republican brand. There is an extensive literature in American political science that shows that Americans have a high level of partisan loyalty. There is also a great deal of work, summarized in Achen and Bartels’ recent book, Democracy for Realists*, that shows that when voters find out they disagree with their candidate on an issue, they change their views on the issue not on the candidate that they are supporting. The confluence of American partisan loyalty and voters’ tendency to adopt the views of their candidate meant that as soon as Trump became the Republican nominee he had access to voters that no European far-right party does. Because voters tend to fall in line with their candidates, many of the Republicans who remained loyal to their party were likely to adopt the kinds of far-right anti-immigrant and anti-globalization views that Trump campaigned on. The fact that Trump ran as a Republican and not as third party candidate meant that he could reach loyal Republican voters who are willing to accept the views and arguments of a Republican candidate, but who may be reluctant to consider those same views and arguments when offered by someone running under a different party banner. No European far-right party has been able to take advantage of mainstream conservative party loyalties in the same way.

This is not to suggest that Trump did not win the support of some Democrats and independents, or that some Republicans did not vote against Trump. Far-right parties in Europe have demonstrated an ability to win the support of traditionally left leaning working class voters who oppose immigration and are fearful of globalization. There were also certainly some Republicans who voted against Trump, not all voters are blindly loyal to their parties. Trump was able, however, to build a coalition of far-right anti-immigrant anti-globalization voters (Republican or otherwise) and loyal Republicans unwilling to desert their party. Most European parties cannot build the same coalition because they are only able to win the first group voters- those who hold anti-immigrant or anti-globalization views strong enough to lead them to desert one of the mainstream parties. To get the support that Trump needed to win the American election he needed both strongly anti-immigrant and anti-globalization voters and loyal Republicans.

Trump’s ability to co-opt the Republican party should worry moderate conservatives and progressive in Britain and Canada. In both countries, like in the United States, a first past the post electoral system makes it difficult for the kind of far-right party that is common in Europe to succeed. It is notable that while the UK Independence Party now holds a single seat in British parliament, it took them over 10% of the vote nationally to win it. It is not the emergence of far-right party that these countries have most to worry about, it is the co-opting of one of the mainstream parties by far-right movements. In the UK there are a growing number of Conservative MPs that hold views of immigration and globalization strikingly similar to UKIP. In Canada the Conservative party has two leadership candidates, Kellie Leitch and Steven Blaney, who hold anti-multicultural views that are similar to the ones found in far-right parties in Europe. Leitch, in particular, has made efforts to associate herself with Trump’s success.  There is a serious danger that the far-right may become significant to British and Canadian politics not through the emergence of a far-right party, but rather through the take over of a mainstream conservative party.

The election of Donald Trump in the United States shows that far-right candidates can be particularly powerful if they can co-opt a mainstream party. Like in most of Europe, there is a constituency in Britain, Canada, and the United States that will support candidates opposed to immigration and globalization. British and Canadian conservatives should take careful notice of what happened in the United States. There is a real danger that their parties can be turned into vehicles to put prejudiced and once thought unacceptable candidates in power.

*Achen, Christopher H. and Larry M. Bartels. (2016). Democracy for Realists: Why American Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Partisan Paradoxes: More Open Leadership Contests Do Not Necessarily Make For Better General Elections

The politics of leadership selection are becoming increasingly important in American and British politics. In Britain the Labour party will see a leadership contest after Angela Eagle and Owen Smith submitted challenges to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. These challenges took place after Corbyn lost a confidence vote amongst Labour MPs 172-40. In the United States, Donald Trump has won the Presidential nomination by attacking much of the Republican establishment. It is tempting to see the success of populist movements, especially the one that elected Jeremy Corbyn, as indications the strength of democratic values within political parties. This misses the extent to which party leadership contests are decided by a small and unrepresentative electorate. Paradoxically, placing constraints on the influence of leadership contest electorates (through the use of super-delegates or by requiring a certain number of MPs approve of leadership candidates) can lead to the selection of leaders that are more representative of the views of the general electorate.

The extent to which leadership contests reflect the views of the broader public is often over-stated. Leadership contests are usually low turnout affairs, and as a result, even large victories in leadership contests can be won with small proportions of the population. Corbyn’s victory in the 2015 Labour leadership contest was won with just 251 417 votes. This was 60% of the voters who voted in the contest, but nowhere near the more than 9 million votes that left Labour as the official opposition in the 2015 election. Even in the United States, where primaries lead to high levels of participation in leadership contests, Trump won just 14 million votes. This pales in comparison to the nearly 61 million votes that Mitt Romney needed to get just 47% of the vote in the 2012 Presidential election. What looks like a large populist movement in a leadership contest can often be a quite small when it is compared with size of the electorate for general elections. It is a mistake to assume that a leadership candidate who rides a wave of populist support to a leadership convention victory necessarily has large amounts of support amongst the broader population.

One could argue that leadership contest provide parties with an indication of which leader is most popular with the broader electorate. The problem with this argument is that voters in a leadership contest are not representative of the broader electorate. Voters in leadership contests are more partisan, and closer to the extremes of political spectrum than most other voters. Individuals who are unsure about which party they will support in general elections, or who hold moderate political views that lead them to switch their vote between parties, tend not to vote in leadership contests. Additionally, voters who do not hold strong views about politics, and are thus not likely to have strong ideological positions, tend not to participate in leadership contests. To the extent that outsider candidates such as Corbyn or Trump draw new voters to their parties, they tend to be smaller groups of voters from the political extremes. The new Labour members that have joined the party to support Corbyn tend to be voters who are to the left of Labour. The voters that Trump has added to the Republican party tend to have positions on immigration that are more extreme than the Republican’s past positions. These groups of voters look like they represent larger movements than they do, because the number of people voting in leadership contests is much smaller than the number of people that vote in general elections. A populist movement that wins a leadership contest is not necessarily representative of the general electorate.

The nomination of extreme candidates can hurt the quality of a country’s democracy. When parties nominate extreme candidates they significantly constrain the choices of general election voters. The choice of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee leaves moderate Republicans without a Presidential candidate that reflects their views. The same is true of moderate Labour voters, who may have difficulty supporting a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour party. The danger of allowing too much populism in leadership contests is that it creates general elections where moderate voters have to choose between candidates selected by much smaller and more ideological extreme factions within the major parties. When this is the case, large numbers of voters in the general electorate can be left without candidates that represent their views.

There are a number of ways that parties can guard against the nomination of candidates who would unpalatable in a general election. In the United States the Democratic party includes super-delegates in its convention, who can push back against Democratic primary voters that try to nominate a candidate that is unpopular with the broader electorate. In the British Conservative party only the leadership candidates who finish first and second in a vote of Conservative MPs are allowed to try to win the votes of the broader party membership. In the British Labour party MPs tried to reassert their influence over leadership by voting overwhelmingly to express no-confidence in Corbyn’s leadership. These mechanisms allow for party members to influence leadership selection, but balance that influence with MPs and other party members’ views.

These constraints on leadership elections are often derided as undemocratic, but they can help to ensure that leadership races produces leaders that reflect the interests of an electorate that extends beyond parties’ members. MPs, congress people, and other super-delegates almost always have a strong interest in their party being successful in general elections. MPs and congresspeople will often do better in general elections if their leader is popular and worse if she is not. Party elites have strong incentives to push for selection of leaders that have a broad appeal within the general electorate. These leaders, while they may not always be as representative of members of the party, are often more representative of the views of general electorate. The party elites that are pushing back against the populist movements that have led to the selection of Trump or Corbyn as party leaders are often doing so in the hope of replacing them with leaders that hold views that are more palatable to the general elected, even if they are not preferred by a majority of party members.

More democratic leadership selection processes do not necessarily lead to the selection of leaders that are more representative of the public. Because leadership contests have voters than tend to be more partisan and more ideologically extreme than the rest of the public, they can lead to the selection of leaders that large portions of the public find unpalatable. When parties elect extreme leaders, they can make it difficult for moderates in the electorate to find general election candidates that represent their views. Allowing parties to place some constraints on the ability of party members to elect leaders can be important to ensuring that parties’ leaders are capable of effectively representing a much broader general electorate.


Political Diversity in a Two Party System: Trump and Sanders Show What Happens When Political Diversity is Crammed Into a Two Party System

The American Presidential primaries have produced surprising results. Donald Trump’s victory in the Republican primary has shocked followers of American politics, many of whom expected the nomination process to lead to the nomination of a moderate candidate. Bernie Sanders, while not having the same success as Trump, has managed to turn what was supposed to be an easy contest for Hillary Clinton into a reasonably close race. Both Trump and Sanders are outsiders to their parties. Trump is very clearly not a traditional Republican while Sanders was not a member of the Democratic party until he made his Presidential bid. The success of both Trump and Sanders mirrors a widening of the political spectrum that is occurring across North American and Europe. The difference between the United States and most other developed democracies, is that American political institutions force new political movements into existing party structures while most other countries’ institutions allow for the formation of new parties. As a result, it is harder for candidates from new movements to make political break-throughs in American politics, but when they do, they can leverage the resources of traditionally strong parties in order to increase their likelihood of winning government.

The United States is not the only country that has seen a large shift in its politics over the last decade, indeed the emergence of Trump and Sanders as strong non-traditional candidates for office has happened relatively late compared to other developed democracies. As I noted in a previous post, the far-right has been making substantial gains across Europe that go back to the early 2000s. In 2002 French far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen made it into a run-off for the top two candidates vying for the French presidency and far-right parties from the UK, to the Netherlands, to Poland have been making steady gains over the past two decades. Even Germany is likely to see a far-right party in the form the Alternative for Germany enter their parliament in the next election. The rise of these parties looks very similar to the rise of Trump in the United States, and suggests that politicians outside of the United States capitalize on xenophobia at least as much as Trump has.

The increasing diversity in European democracies is not unique to the far-right though. In Germany the Left party (previously knows as the Party of Democratic Socialists) went from around 5% of the vote in the 1990s to 8%-11% of the vote over much of the 2000s and 2010s. In the Netherlands the Christian Democrats have been replaced by the Liberal VVD as the leading right of centre party, in France the communist presidential candidate took 11% of the vote in the 2012 election, in Spain a brand new party called Podemos emerged in 2015 to take 21% of the vote, and the UK has seen first the Liberal Democrats and then the Scottish Nationalist Party take significant seat shares in their most recent elections. Most party systems in developed democracies now feature a diverse array of parties that represent a broad range of political opinions. Countries that did not see much of an increase in the diversity of their parties often already had diversity amongst their political parties by the early to mid 1990s. This was the case in countries such as Belgium, Italy, and Sweden. Given that partisan diversity is now normal across most developed countries, it should not be a surprise to see insurgent campaigns in both the Democratic and Republican primaries.

The American political system, however, treats insurgencies very differently than most other democratic institutions do. In most countries third and fourth parties can be quite viable electorally. In the United States two factors combine to force new political movements into the two existing parties. The first is the electoral system used to select the President. The preeminent national political contest in the United States, the Presidential race, is a winner-take all contest in which only the party with the most votes get anything. This places strong pressure on voters to back one of the two major parties because it is unlikely that a vote for a third party will have an impact on the election result. Absent a serious Presidential candidate, third party and independent candidates often face a significant disadvantage in Congressional races. This makes it difficult for new parties to enter the American political system.

In contrast, parliamentary systems usually ensure that third parties get some representation and therefore give voters a reason to back these parties. In proportional systems parties are almost guaranteed representation in parliament provide they can marshal a modicum of support. Even in first past the post systems though, third and fourth parties can win significant parliamentary representation if they are regionally concentrated (e.g. the Bloc Quebecois, the Reform party, and the Scottish National Party) or can win enough of the vote nationally to become competitive in a significant number of ridings (e.g. the Liberal Democrats and the NDP). Finally in Presidential systems that use an Alternative Vote or Run-off electoral system (which the United States does not) third and fourth parties can be reasonably competitive because their voters are secure in the knowledge that if their first choice does not end up being viable they can express a second choice preference for a party more likely to win office.  They can vote for a third party candidate for President without losing their chance to vote against a strongly disliked candidate in a future round of voting.

The second factor that pushes new political movements into the existing American parties is the openness of both parties to a wide range of views. This results from the incredibly lax (compared to most other countries) party discipline in Congress and the openness of the nomination processes for both parties. It is easy for well organized political movements to win Congressional primary races and to compete in Presidential races. Unlike in most countries, voters in the United States do not have to be paid members of a political party in order to vote on who the party nominates for different political offices and there is very little pressure on elected members of a party to conform to leadership’s interests in order to advance their political careers. If a Canadian Member of Parliament tried to exercise the kind of independence that American congress people often do they would never be promoted to cabinet, risk having the party leader refuse to allow them to run for the party in future elections, and could face expulsion from the party. Unlike Canada and much of Europe, new political movements in the United States do not need to form their own parties in order to gain representation in government. This creates space in both the Democratic and Republican parties for new movements to express themselves and to influence policy.

The ability of new political movements to advance their interests through existing parties has important implications for the likelihood of success of new movements in the United States. Outside of the United States new political movements often have to compete as new parties. They have to develop their own campaign resources and expertise and develop their own party loyalties. They have to do this while competing with more established parties that already have significant resources and have developed their own loyal bases of voters. In the United States candidates for new political movements can compete in the primaries of major parties. In primaries, no candidates has the full support of the party and therefore no candidate can rely on the parties’ resources to campaign. Additionally, since there are no parties in primary contests there are no long-held party loyalties that new candidates have to overcome in order to be successful. In any other country Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump would have had to form their own parties and compete with the Democrats and Republicans to try to win office. In contrast, the American political system allows candidates such as Sanders and Trump to compete to win control over the Democratic and Republican parties and, if they are successful, to use each parties’ resources and voter loyalties to further their own campaigns. This makes it more difficult for new candidates to establish themselves in American politics because they have to convince members of one of the two major parties to support them. At the same time, once a new candidate establishes themselves as competitive they can grow in support quite quickly because they can co-opt the resources of one of the major parties in a way that third and fourth parties in other democracies cannot.

If the United States had Canadian or European political institutions the five longest lasting primary candidates, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump, would have all had their own political parties. Rather than competing in primary races, they would have had to compete against each other in a general election. Rather than seeking to co-opt the resources of a well-established major political party, Sanders and Trump would have to run against both of the major parties. This would likely ensure that each is represented in political institutions, third and fourth parties are often well represented in Canadian and European politics and most European candidates have seen Trump-like parties emerge over the past decade. At the same time though, these institutions make it difficult for candidates like Sanders and Trump to win power once they gain a foothold in the political system. American politics would likely be much better off if Trump had to face a Republican candidate in the upcoming general election instead of being able to use Republican resources and capitalize of Republican party loyalties in order to try to win the Presidency.


Trump is Not an Original: Donald Trump’s Success Looks a Lot Like the Rise of the Far-Right in Europe

Perhaps the biggest story of the American Presidential primaries has been the rise of Donald Trump. The billionaire candidate has made headlines by leading the Republican polls while espousing a number of xenophobic and racist policies that have many concerned for the Republican Party and for American politics. Trump is being cast as a new type of candidate who the more conventional Republican candidates cannot figure out how to deal with. Candidates like Trump are not new to liberal developed democracies though. Trump’s mix of nationalist xenophobia and populist distrust for mainstream politicians mirrors the politics of the far-right parties that have been gaining popularity in Europe over the past two decades. Trump’s policies and rhetoric look very similar to those of the French Front National, the UK Independence Party, The Dutch Party for Freedom, and the Sweden Democrats. Like those parties he can build a substantial base of support by relying on xenophobic voters alienated by mainstream candidates and parties, but also like those parties, Trump’s likelihood of being able to grow his support to the extent needed to win a national election is limited.

To a large degree Trump is the beneficiary of multi-dimensional politics. In a Washington Post article Doug Ahler note and David Brookman note the difficulty of trying to place Trump on the left-right political spectrum. On immigration and foreign policy Trump is a candidate of the far-right, but on issues such as taxation and social spending Trump is actually quite moderate (especially when compared to the rest of the Republican Party). This mix of policies is strikingly similar to those of far-right parties such as the Sweden Democrats or Dutch Party for Freedom that wrongly argue that voters face a choice between well funded social programs and accepting immigrants. Trump’s policies underline the extent to which politics can be more complicated than the left-right spectrum that candidates are often placed on makes it out to be. There are several different dimensions (or political spectrums) on which candidates can be organized, and being an extreme candidate on one political dimension does not necessarily mean being an extreme candidate on another. It is not clear that candidates or voters that are supportive of high levels of government spending, for example, will always be supportive of liberal immigration policies and multiculturalism. Conversely, it is not clear that supporting low taxes and limited government intervention should mean that a candidate or voter should favour restrictive immigration policies. On immigration issues the views of welfare chauvinists’ (who support a strong welfare state but want to limit immigrants’ access to it) and social conservatives’ views are likely to align. On the other side of the immigration spectrum, the views of economically left-wing social liberals and economically right-wing neo-liberals (to the extent that many neo-liberals support open immigration policies in order to create a freer labour market) are likely to align.

Traditionally parties and candidates in the United States and in Europe have competed on left-right issues. They may have positions on immigration issues, but they often are less prominent in their platforms and in their rhetoric than their positions on taxes, social programs, or foreign policy. This is important to traditional parties because they often have voters who favour more liberal immigration policies and voters who oppose such policies. Moving too far to one side of the immigration spectrum risks costing the party supporters on their side of the left-right spectrum. This is something that far-right candidates like Donald Trump are able to take advantage of. The need for mainstream candidates to take moderate positions leaves many voters on both the left and right at odds with their parties’ immigration positions. By taking extreme positions on immigration and moderate positions on other issues candidates like Trump or parties like the Sweden Democrats and Dutch Party for Freedom are able to win the support of xenophobic voters on both the left and the right of political spectrum. This gives them a substantial base of support from which they can compete in elections.

The same extreme positioning of immigration that allows far-right candidates and parties to win a substantial portion of the vote also limits their growth potential. Extreme positions may appeal to significant numbers of anti-immigrant voters on both the left and the right, but they also alienate significant numbers of voters who are have moderate views with respect to immigration. A large number of voters on both the left and the right of the political spectrum are willing to vote for pretty much anyone other than a far-right party or candidate because of the party or candidate’s extreme positions on immigration. This was most apparent in the 2002 French Presidential and 2015 French regional elections. In 2002 far-right Front National Presidential candidate Jean Marie Le Pen finished second in France’s first round of elections just 3 percentage points behind centre-right candidate Jacques Chirac (Le Pen won 16.9% of the vote to Chirac’s 19.9%). In the second round of elections Le Pen increased in vote share to just 17.8% while Chirac’s share of the vote jumped to 82.2%. The same thing happened in regional elections this month in France. In the first round of elections (in which all candidates run) the Front National finished first, ahead of both the centre-right Republicans and centre-left Socialists. In the second round of elections (in which only regional President candidates winning at least 10% of votes in the first round are allowed to run) the Front National fell to third. The Front National gained only 800 000 votes from the candidates that dropped out between the first and second round of elections, going from 6 million votes to 6.8 million votes. By contrast the Socialists went from 5 million votes to 7.2 million votes, which was good enough for a second place finish in the second round of elections. The Republican almost doubled their number of votes, going from 5.7 million to 10.1 million and a first place finish. When faced with a strong far-right challenger in a Presidential race, non-far-right voters will tend to consolidate their support amongst whichever party looks most likely to defeat the far-right. Far-right parties in the Europe can win concerning numbers of votes, but they have yet to demonstrate enough growth potential to challenge mainstream left and right parties for government.

The same is likely to be the case for Donald Trump. There is good reason to believe that his ability expand his vote share beyond his current numbers is quite limited. Trump lacks the endorsements which are often strong predictors of primary success, his net favourability numbers are at best middling, and he has less support in the polls than candidates from past elections that have been able to gain the same amount of media coverage as he has had in this election. As with far-right parties across Europe there is a ceiling on the support that Trump can win, and he is likely getting close to it (or has even reached it). Trump’s ability to win the Republican primary is likely contingent on other candidates splitting the non-Trump Republican vote (it is worth noting that vote splitting played a major role in Jean Marie Le Pen’s second place finish in 2002) and he certainly is going to have difficulty expanding his appeal enough to gain the close to 50% of the national vote needed to win a Presidential election. Trump is far more likely to be the United States’ version of Jean Marie Le Pen than he is to be President.

The success of Trump in the early stages of the Republican primary has been a surprise, but it should not have been. Trump’s success looks much like the rise of the far-right in Europe. It is likely that if the United States had a multi-party system or Presidential primaries that were less permissive to candidates with a broad range of opinions that Trump would be running as part of his own American version of the Front National, Party for Freedom, or UK Independence Party. These parties have had an important (and concerning) impact on politics in their respective countries, but they have yet to demonstrate the ability to win the kind of support needed to lead a government. Like the European far-right, Trump is unlikely to be able to build the kind of support needed to win a Presidential election.