Constancy and Change in the Trump Era

Richard Barke
Georgia Tech

Teaching and research are closely related, but politics and policy in the current era are raising challenges for each, and for the relationship between the two. We tend to teach based on the concepts, models, and frameworks that we learned in graduate school or find useful in our research, and sometimes our research is affected by the way our teaching exposes shortcomings in those basic perspectives. To those of us able to reflect on the 60’s (Vietnam, civil rights, assassinations), 70’s (Watergate), 80’s (Iran-Contra), 90’s (impeachment), and 00’s (9/11, Iraq), the Trump era seems familiar in some ways, but quite different in others. As with preceding national crises that went to the heart of our political and policy processes, policy scholars and teachers are challenged by the decisions and behavior of the Trump administration and the polarization that both caused it and resulted from it.

I’ve always emphasized Madison’s Federalist 10 in my classes as a key source of design principles for the American political system. Students can read about the awareness long ago that “men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.” They can wonder whether “unworthy candidates” are now more able “to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried” in an era of echo-chamber and hyperbolic media, or whether we can still hope in the Twitter era to pass the public’s views “through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations” in an era of unsurpassed legislative partisanship. And, finally, students can ponder whether we still have a system “that would go of itself” (Michael Kammen’s phrase), when basic political processes, norms, and values are under unique stresses.

Students don’t have the benefit of having experienced (or too often, sadly, studied) previous constitutional turmoils such as Reconstruction, the Great Depression, McCarthyism, and in the more recent decades mentioned above. The “we’ve found our way out of major system stresses before” observation doesn’t register well with them, and increasingly doesn’t seem very reassuring to many older people about our future equilibrium state. Any personal disquiet about the fundamentals of politics and policy in the current era deserves to be reflected in both our research agendas and our teaching, but many of the fundamental assumptions about policy design and operating principles that have persisted over years and decades are being shaken.

For example, in a regulatory policy course we might emphasize normal administrative procedures and concepts such as “notice and comment,” “reasonableness,” “judicial review,” “revolving doors,” and “social costs” and discounting. How those terms apply in the real world varies over time, of course, but usually in mostly incremental ways across administrations. Even the strong deregulatory rhetoric of the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations had little effect on the fundamentals of the regulatory process; agencies continued to regulate in largely the same ways as their predecessors, following the same understanding of the letter and spirit of the Administrative Procedure Act and organic statutes. If agencies wavered too much from precedents, the courts and Congress could be expected to steer them away from large procedural or substantive deviations.

For many decades, a scholar doing research on regulatory policy could begin with a rather stable platform of ideas and frameworks, accumulated over the careers of scholars and practitioners, and following a rather steady trajectory of gradual change. In a sense, research could follow a “most similar systems” approach (Przeworski and Teune), assuming basic constancy but examining deviations as clues to the basic operating rules and the resilience of the policy system. If today those basic processes are undergoing dramatic changes, and in nearly all aspects of the decisionmaking process, then it may become necessary to shift to a “most different systems” approach, looking to understand those elements of the system that are able to persist — or survive.

When I was an undergraduate I studied earthquakes. As small compensation for the harm they can cause, tremors provide evidence of deep phenomena that can’t be directly observed: faults, the structure of the earth, and the evolution of continents. Scholars of politics and policy seem to be watching current events unfolding with something of a seismologist’s perspective. The upheavals (EPA, NATO, SCOTUS, FBI, GOP, etc.) that are shaking that which seemed stable are providing unique data about the long-term resilience of our institutions and procedures. The Framers didn’t expect our leaders to be angels, or the public to always be wise, or our electoral processes to be perfect translators of the public’s values into policies. It’s safe to say, however, that they probably didn’t expect what is occurring today. Perhaps in a few years we’ll see how much our system has been fundamentally altered by the Trump earthquakes.