Get updates on Healthy at Transy, our COVID-19 action plan.

1780 – The Official Blog of Transylvania University

TransyPods – Interview with Professor of Political Science, Dr. Don Dugi

Tristan Reynolds interviews Dr. Don Dugi about the 2016 presidential election.

Listen to the interview with Dr. Don Dugi


[MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER: Welcome to another Campus Conversation– Discussions with Transylvania University Faculty, highlighting their interests, passions, and pursuits. Here is Tristan Reynolds.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: I’m here today, to talk with Dr. Don Dugi, a professor of political science at Transylvania University. And we’re going to talk a little bit about the 2016 election.

In the past 72 hours, Hillary Clinton has given a speech on ending deep poverty. Half a dozen women have come out to accuse Donald Trump of various forms of sexual assault. The emails of a senior Hillary Clinton advisor have been released by the organization, WikiLeaks, possibly with the assistance of the Russian Security Bureau. And it’s only 10 o’clock in the morning.

So here’s the first question. How many of those things will matter at all, to the end result?

DON DUGI: Probably, not much because there’ll be a whole new array of issues tomorrow. Some will follow-up on what you just mentioned, but there probably, will be others, as well.

Whether or not the accusations of sexual impropriety on the part of Trump or whatever correspondent’s problems occurred through the emails, it remains to be seen. We’ve been beaten around the head and shoulders with this information now for several weeks so we may be reaching a saturation point on some of.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: It seems like it’s been a very eventful past few days in terms of campaign news. Is it fair to say that it’s simply been an unusually eventful past week or so? Or does this campaign have more stuff going on?

DON DUGI: Well, there have been campaigns– for lack of a better word, dirty campaigns– in the past. For example, 1828 with Jackson and Adams. It was a very bitter campaign, but unlike today, it tended to be mostly, involving politicos. And it tended– because of the lack of kind of media we have today– it tended to be relatively limited in impact.

Today, things can go viral in a heartbeat and that kind of explosion of information can generate a lot of negativity very quickly, in a way that really wasn’t possible in previous elections. For example, it’s only been really, the last two presidential elections where you’ve see any meaningful use of social media– for example– which now plays a major role in making issues, perhaps, more virulent than they might have been otherwise.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: And this may be nothing I’m picking up on, but the fact that you went back to 1828 for an example of a dirty election–

DON DUGI: There are many since then, I always just picking one. You can pick lots of elections. Think about even someone as relatively benign as HW Bush, developed the Willie Horton strategy to try to demean Dukakis in that election. Nixon was dirty tricks. There have been problems throughout our history, but I’m talking about the kind of media-driven stuff that you were referring to.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: So do you see anything about this campaign or this election, more generally, as genuinely unusual or unprecedented?

DON DUGI: Well, not entirely. There’s been an undercurrent of unrest in the country for a while, which was exacerbated by the economic downturn in 2007-2008, when we saw things like the Tea Party emerge in a significant way. Related to that is there’s development of a kind of an outsider mentality in politics and in elections.

For example, in Kentucky, you elect Bevin governor who’s an outsider and who has demonstrated the kind of problems that can sometimes, occur as a consequence of electing an outsider. He’s being sued right and left for decisions that he’s made related to a variety of power grabs.

Well, one has to imagine that at the national level, Trump is sort of an analog. He’s never had a position of public trust. He’s someone who is, to a large extent, his popularity’s based on that outsider persona.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: What do you mean by outsider persona?

DON DUGI: Someone who hasn’t been elected to office. Someone who comes to the political arena of from outside the beltway, but not only outside the beltway, but outside regular political channels.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: So there’s been this development of the outsider as a political brand– for lack of a better word– but at the same time, it’s still taking place within the two major parties. Is that fair to say?

DON DUGI: Well, it has. Remember, the Tea Party in Congress, at least, plays with the Republicans. And clearly, Trump is running as a Republican Party candidate for president. But how much a party can absorb is an interesting question.

Clearly, the Republicans and president are fairly splintered. Trump clearly is not in the same vein as someone like a Ryan or may be close to Cruz, but not so close to some of the main line Republicans in Congress. Or that were running for president in the primaries, like Bush and others.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: Is it just the Republicans who have splintered?

DON DUGI: No, one of the things that happened during the primaries was that the Democrats had their own splits, particularly because of the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. And so, as a consequence of his defeat, there was a certain level of bitterness among those people who supported him. And the tendency will be to either, not vote or perhaps, if third-party candidates are available to vote, a protest vote for a third-party candidate.

That may hurt the Democratic candidate. It remains to be seen. If Sanders comes out and campaigns for Clinton, it may dampen some of that effect, but we’ll have to wait and see.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: So taking all that into account, is it a fair assessment to say that the two major parties are facing some difficulties?

DON DUGI: Well, it’s pretty obvious that they are. But the problem is that, it’s very difficult for third-parties to become major parties. The cards are stacked against them because most of the elections and campaign laws are established by states. And the two parties– the Democrats and Republicans– historically, have controlled those.

Right now, most of the southern states and, well, many states are controlled by Republicans and they’re not going to be particularly positive about allowing third-parties to emerge and gain any ascendancy.

The halves make the rules and in this case, the two major parties are the halves.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: You mentioned the parties controlling at the state level ballot access. It can seem like the two major parties– Democrats and Republicans– are a natural part of the political system.

DON DUGI: Well, the two major parties have been around for a long time. This party system really, has been more or less in place, at least, since FDR. So there’s a certain degree of entrenchment– I suppose– but I can’t imagine that it’s necessarily, natural. Most scholars will tell you that we’ve had at least, six party systems in this country. And so they have changed over time, although, it’s been fairly stable for a while.

Again, beginning after 2007, we’ve had some political disruption. Whether or not that leads to some kind of partisan realignment remains to be seen. At this stage, we’re just going through the throes of angst on the part of a lot of different members of each of the parties.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: How did we get to that point of angst?

DON DUGI: Well, clearly, there are a lot of problems economically that affected people, especially given the housing bubble. But we’ve had a series of bubbles burst over the last 30 years. And a lot of people have been economically disadvantaged because of especially, things like the housing collapse.

So there’s a lot of angst about not being able to control their own destiny and things like that. Lack of efficacy. There are a number of factors that play into this– political dislocation being one of them.

But it’s also the case that a lot of what’s going on today is based upon an appeal to our baser– I say, ours. I frankly, don’t share them, but a good number of the people in our society do– baser instincts like racism, misogyny, anti-immigrant mentality– all of these sorts of things. So again, when you have a downturn in the economy as we did, people naturally look to blame somebody. And one source of the blame has been immigrants. The existing politicians or political network or governmental structure, again, they lash out and that’s largely what’s been going on since at least, 2007.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: When you talk about people looking for somebody to blame, we’ve seemed to settle on two groups, in that there is a movement on the left against the 1%– I think like Occupy or the Sanders campaign. And then, also, blaming immigrants or blaming foreigners. China’s taking our jobs or Mexican immigrants are taking our jobs.

Do you see any particular reason we’ve seemed to have congregated around blaming one of those two groups?

DON DUGI: Well, the concern about the 1% of course is because there is increasing inequality– economic inequality in the country. And while the 1% may not feel that that’s a problem, it can be a serious problem because it can, obviously, lead to political instability. And that’s not something that is particularly healthy in a political system.

As to the business about anti-immigrant sentiment, there’s always been an undercurrent of that in this country– for whatever reason. In the middle-late 19th century, the antipathy was towards people like the Irish, the Jews, the brown-skinned Europeans. And clearly, from then it was against the Chinese.

And we’ve had serious problems in terms of immigration in this country. We’ve never really had a particularly coherent policy about immigration. It’s always reflected prejudice on the part of some policymakers. Even one of the justices on the Supreme Court who commonly was thought of as one of the great heroes for his dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson– the First Justice Harlan who said, business about the Constitution being colorblind, was really prejudiced against the Chinese.

So again, it’s been a problem for a long time.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: I want to go back to something you said earlier. You mentioned that inequality drives political instability– what do you mean by that?

DON DUGI: Well, again if people perceive themselves as being not only disadvantaged, but taken advantage of in the system, they’d be foolish if they didn’t strike out. Wouldn’t they? That leads to political instability.

One of the classic notions about that, of course, came from someone like Karl Marx, who said that, if you keep concentrating wealth, eventually, there’s nobody left to buy things. So the thing can collapse on itself, anyway– that’s, obviously, a matter of economic instability.

So again, having great disparity between the haves and have nots has never been a particularly sensible way to run a country.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: There’s this train of thought in political science or political philosophy that the parties themselves have become more vehicles for the haves or the upper part of that unequal relationship than they have for the have nots. Does that seem reasonable to you?

DON DUGI: Well, vehicles is probably understating it. Tools would probably be a better way to characterize it. Clearly, one of the things that’s changed dramatically is– and this is reflected in, perhaps, in the party situation we’ve been talking about– is that the parties have less control these days because of the upswing in interest group activity, especially the super PACs.

If you pay any attention to campaign advertising, most of it is third-party advertising these days. Coming, again, from a limited number of super PACs. Now both parties have them, but historically, the Republicans had a higher percentage of super PACs and PAC money.

So again, the role of these organizations in electing officials– and it’s not just at the presidential level, this goes for school boards, for heaven’s sakes, all the way through state legislatures and to the Congress of the United States and to the presidency– the role of these groups has really, changed the operations of parties.

And to the extent that candidates and office holders at any level owed their success to one or another of these super PACs. It’s not surprising that they would take care of their interest.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: Maybe this is a simplistic way of putting it, but so far, you’ve described what seems to me, to be a very broken system in very deep ways.

DON DUGI: We still do the elections. We still follow the game plan, to a certain extent. The players may be broken. Whether or not the system is totally broken remains to be seen, but remember, that this system of government was not designed to work particularly efficient. The structure of our government itself, emphasizes, again, separation of power. Checks and balances. Limited government. All of those sorts of things.

And so, it’s not surprising that there would be some difficulty in achieving systematic policy, systematic dealing with problems.

Look at the way we have the division between Congress and the presidency today. When you have divided government– that is the president of one party and Congress of another party– it tends to create a real inability to effectively govern.

We have a president who made an appointment to the Supreme Court in February, is not going to happen– the confirmation. These sorts of things, again, are exacerbated by the party system, to some extent, but there are also, a structural feature of our system. Congress has that prerogative. It’s part of their power array.

So again, the system itself is not designed to run particularly smoothly so it’s not surprising that other operational aspects of the system, like the party system or the electoral system, would also have some issues.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: What can an individual do in a system like this to effect change as they see it?

DON DUGI: Well, there are so many structural barriers to individual action that it’s very difficult. You want to really change things, become a billionaire and contribute to lots of campaigns– I suppose.

Short of that, the ability of individuals to change things is very limited. Now, social movements might be effective, but even so, you mentioned Occupy a little while ago, again, it dramatized certain aspects of the system and led people to recognize that it really wasn’t the top 1%, it’s the top 1/10 of the 1% that we’re really talking about.

And so it promoted some clarity in our understanding of inequality, but it really didn’t change the inequality. It just highlighted some major features of it.

Social movements– in order to be effective, have to be on a massive scale these days. It’s very difficult to achieve that kind of massive scale because we are so splintered in terms of our particular interests. We are a large population now, with very diverse economic, social, and other interests.

And one of the things that happens is that, in terms of politics– especially what we have seen at the national level, but also at the state level– economic conservatives tend to be able to control things to a large extent because they can manipulate the perceptions of conservatives with other adjectives, like social conservatives and whatnot. So a lot of the potential for those mass social movements is co-opted by major parties.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: So is everything just awful, all the time?

DON DUGI: Not necessarily. We have had instances where people in elected office have risen to heights. It’s not something you want to make book on. Again, politics is a little bit like what John Maynard Keynes said about capitalism, when he said capitalism is the belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives can somehow work for the good of us all.

Well, to some extent, politics is a bit like that, isn’t it? People who go into politics for a variety of reasons, but often, to promote their own agenda. But the idea that there is confluence among all those agendas is problematic, isn’t it?


TRISTAN REYNOLDS: Dr. Don Dugi. Thank you.

DON DUGI: You’re welcome.

SPEAKER: You’ve been listening to another in our series, Campus Conversations– Discussions with Transylvania University Faculty.