It may make sense taking a look back at history as we are trying to understand what has been happening south of the border over the last months. Ever since Donald Trump formally announced his candidacy in June 2015, most observers where hit by surprise as the campaign unfolded through a series of events that culminated in the electoral outcome of November 8. If viewed through a broader historical lens, however, these developments are surprisingly consistent with a deeper pattern of presidential politics.
In his magisterial work on the evolution of the modern presidency published in the early 1990s, Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek identified four reoccurring leadership patterns in US politics. Each leadership pattern represents a typical reaction to the condition of the broader socio-political context and the incumbent’s affiliation with the heritage of this era. Current events seem to demonstrate once again the predictive power of Skowronek’s The Politics Presidents Make.
Reconstructive presidents take office when the established political order is widely perceived to be in crisis, and the incumbent is elected with a mandate to entrench a new political regime. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first reconstructive leader of the twentieth century. His New Deal politics set the stage for a profound reordering of American politics through interventionist policies which presupposed a fundamentally new understanding of the role of the state. The second and, until the 2016 presidential election last reconstructive leader, was Ronald Reagan. The “Great Communicator” repudiated the foundational principles of the post war order and successfully entrenched the neo-liberal regime.
All other incumbents worked within the pathway established through reconstructive leadership. Presidents as different as Lyndon B. Johnson or George W. Bush were poised to hammer out the inherited agenda under relatively stable regime conditions through the politics of articulation. Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton intrinsically opposed the public philosophy of their time, but the regime’s resilience forced them to reconcile their convictions with the political realities of the day. This pre-emptive leadership pattern is best exemplified in Clinton’s Third Way approach. Finally, Herbert Hoover or Jimmy Carter were both affiliated with the ideological commitments of their time, frantically searching for solutions to rescue a regime already in decay. Such desperate efforts geared them towards the politics of disjunction, in Skowronek’s view an almost impossible leadership situation.
Against this backdrop, the looming Trump presidency indicates the resurgence of reconstructive leadership, in the United States as elsewhere. The neo-liberal order so successfully entrenched in the 1980s and 1990s is no longer resilient. In light of economic growth rates in steady decline, rising public and private liabilities and growing social inequalities, it becomes increasingly difficult for affiliated governments to breathe new life into an order in decay. As German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck has argued in his latest book, “buying time” through short-sighted emergency responses may no longer be a viable alternative; the disenchantment of a growing segment within the electorate the consequence.
As history has shown, such rather exceptional permissive conditions open the door for aspiring political leaders committed to reset political time through reconstructive leadership. What is worrisome about this trend is how reactionary messages begin to resonate with an appalling number of voters. While major innovations like Obamacare in the United States or the Paris Climate Agreement on the international level demonstrate that managing a cautious transformation of the neo-liberal order is possible, such achievements have been rare, and perhaps they came too late.
We are witnessing a major historical transformation whose outcome, in principle at least, still is open. History does not simply repeat itself, but certain deeper patterns exist. In light of this, the destructive force unleashed by contemporary crusaders such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen is profoundly disturbing. The success of the Make America Great Again campaign represents yet another milestone within an accelerating, breath-taking development, suggesting that neo-nationalism has a fair chance to superimpose, if not to replace, the increasingly vulnerable neo-liberal order of the day.
Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Comparative Federalism and Multilevel Governance,
Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo