USC Price School of Public Policy

‘Parties & Partisanship in the Age of Trump’ symposium gathers scholars nationwide at USC Bedrosian Center

February 27, 2018

Photographs by Deirdre Flanagan

by Bedrosian Center Staff

For his second symposium as director of the USC Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Political Institutions & Political Economy (PIPE) Collaborative, Price School of Public Policy Professor Jeffery Jenkins brought together scholars nationwide  who are interested in the question of partisanship in governance.

In recent years, partisan polarization in Congress and the nation has steadily increased.  Democrats and Republicans in Congress have become two ideologically divided groups, with little in common and little ability to work together to solve the nation’s problems.  Congress, as a result, has struggled to govern.  Ordinary voters have grown accustomed to this hyper-partisanship, increasingly using “tribalism” as a rule to guide their voting decisions.

As polarization has grown, internal divisions within each party have also emerged.  These divisions have strong anti-establishment origins and contributed to Donald Trump’s nomination and eventual election to the presidency — despite many prominent Republicans opposing his candidacy. Even with Republican control of House and Senate, the GOP struggled to legislate during the first year of Trump’s presidency.

Jenkins noted that, “there are few issues more important today partisanship.  We live in a world today where partisan divisions run so deep that some of the most basic things we expect from government aren’t being done.  People inside and outside of Congress are more interested in skewering the other side rather than work together or find common ground.”

Jenkins went on to state, “This Symposium on Parties & Partisanship in the Age of Trump is an opportunity to explore some of these partisan elements and observe how — and to what extent — the election of a historically divisive president has affected what was already a deeply troubling partisan environment.”

Supporting innovative political scholarship

Sarah Binder of George Washington University and the Brookings Institution presented research on “rule breaking” in the Trump Congress — specifically, Republican efforts to evade supermajority requirements in the Senate.  She argues that “when intense majorities face declining costs of breaking the rules, they appear more likely to try to transgress them. That was the lesson of 2017, when Republicans discovered that unified party control was insufficient to deliver the off-center policies they had trumpeted for years to their partisan base.”

Frances Lee from the University of Maryland examined how effective legislatively the Republicans have been in the early Trump era.  She noted that Congressional Republicans, given their overall voting cohesiveness, “should be able to routinely muster chamber majorities with no additional votes from Democrats.” Yet Lee found that “the legislative record of the first session of the 115th Congress has been less impressive than the first sessions of other recent majority parties in control of unified government.”  She argued that the GOP’s “modest level of legislative achievement” mostly likely “reflects a party that is less internally unified than its roll-call voting cohesion would suggest.”

Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt University explored partisanship in the Trump era, by examining similarities and differences in the attitudes and values of each party’s rank-and-file supporters. He reported, among other things, that “Republicans are not particularly divided by cultural conservatism (as measured by survey items focusing on respect for the American flag, the English language, and negative feelings toward Muslims, immigrants, atheists, and gays and lesbians, among others); indeed, they tend to be united and energized by these values.” The same is not true of Democrats, however, as Bartels finds them “relatively divided on cultural issues, with more than one-fourth finding themselves closer to the average Republican position than to the average position of their own party.”

Finally, Boris Heersink of Fordham University tracked the relationship between incumbent presidents and their party’s national committee.  He showed that presidents have traditionally used their control over the national committee to “promote both themselves and their preferred policy positions.”  Based on this, Heersink argued that this gives Trump “the ability to use the Republican National Committee to promote the GOP as ‘his’ party – including during a potential primary challenge for his re-nomination in 2020.”

Symposium takeaways

The symposium ended with a roundtable that considered issues “Beyond Parties” in the Age of Trump.  R. Michael Alvarez from Caltech discussed the challenges of election administration in America today; Jane Junn of USC discussed the gender gap in the 2016 election, especially the role played by white women voters in helping to elect Trump; and Ben Newman of UC Riverside explored the relationship between Trump’s racial rhetoric and civil discourse in the country.

Overall, the message seemed to be that the underlying issues which existed in the body politic before the 2016 election – including partisanship, polarization within Congress and tensions among the public – have been exacerbated since then.

USC Associate Professor Christian Grose said, “The symposium was an impressive gathering of the nation’s top scholars of parties, legislatures, and elections. The intellectual engagement was of high quality, and I left with a better academic understanding of the role of parties at this point in our nation’s history.”