by Hallum Cowell
Professor Brian Brox is an associate professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans, Lousiana. He also acts as head of political science undergraduate studies at the University and directs the US Public Policy Programme. Professor Brox is also head of Brox Research, a firm which conducts market research and public opinion data.
The professor was in Cardiff on February 5 as part of a United States Embassy outreach programme to give a talk on the upcoming US presidential election. The talk lasted an hour and a half and ended with a half-hour question and answer segment. During the talk, the workings of the Electoral College and federalisation were discussed as were the chances of the federalisation of the United Kingdom and right-wing political shifts in Western democracy. After the talk, Professor Brox sat down with Gair Rhydd to talk about the election.
Last week, the Iowan Democrat and Republican parties went to the polls in the first state primary of the 2020 presidential election; the fact that Iowa is the first state to vote is a source of much pride amongst Iowans. Unlike most primaries however, Iowa retains the caucus system; a system where Democrat party members vote in person for the candidate of their choosing, before gaining an opportunity to ‘realign, or vote again,’ in later voting stages. The Iowan Democrat Party caucauses caused controversy this year as the results were delayed for well over 48 hours. When asked why Iowa continues to be the first state to vote, Professor Brox explained that “the reason why it goes first is because of tradition, the tradition of going first. They work very hard to maintain the position of going first, at least up to this point they’ve had a lot of say in internal party decisions. It’s the influence that comes with coming early.” For the past six US elections, the Democrat candidate who has won the Iowa caucuses has been the person to achieve the candidacy at the Democrat National Convention (DNC) and so the results are seen as very influential.
But how representative is Iowa of the larger U.S. political situation? “There’s quite a bit of historical tradition for Iowa. But this may be the end of that given that everyone has rightly pointed out, it’s not just that Iowa is not representative of American voters it’s not even representative of all Democratic voters. And so, whether it should have such a strong influence on the Democratic nomination … and it’s just not an urban state, there’s only one urban area and it’s not even that big compared to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. It’s not representative of what the American democratic party is.” Professor Brox went on to add that “there are lots of problems with Iowa and I’m wondering if people’s problems with Iowa are that it’s first or whether it’s a caucus and maybe both get changed? So, should Iowa maintain caucuses and just go later, or should Iowa become a primary and remain first or maybe both get changed so we’ll see what happens, but obviously the importance of it being first, it actually has a numerical significance to deciding the nomination. Because it’s first, the media intensity of the coverage is so great, campaigns can be made or broken on it.”
A lot has been made recently about whether the US political system is still fit for purpose, with Professor Brox answering “the literal answer to your question is yes it’s working as intended because this is what a bunch of white men of property in the 1780s intended, is it working for both the political preferences and the governing need of a 21st-century continent-wide democracy? Some people say yes, they say that we still need the filtering mechanism”. He went to say that “the ultimate defenders of the system say we have a president every year, every four years we have the Electoral College which produces a president. It works, it doesn’t fail. Is it representative of the will of the people? Not directly and particularly as we have had a minority president four of the last five elections so legally the president won the electoral college majority but has a minority of the votes in terms of full popular votes.
“Part of the reason that’s not more of an issue is that due to American federalism power is so diffused the president can do a lot but the president can’t do everything. Sometimes people can take out their frustration by altering policy in different ways. Technically presidential vetoes can be overridden so if Congress can make up you can get policy made that way, you could focus on going state by state and getting other things done on the local level. The idea that there would be greater impetus for electoral college reform if we had a unitary system, a prime ministerial system, like we elected this one person by this system, consistently producing minority presidents by this mechanism and it changed everything, in the terms of how policy and regulation in the united states people would be a little angrier.”
When asked for his predictions about the upcoming 2020 elections, Professor Brox refused to be drawn into making an outright prediction. “I’ve seen some predictions and some models that suggest that Trump has a slightly better chance, those tend to focus on using economic conditions as predictors of the vote. The economic conditions in the United States aren’t bad right now, that typically abounds to the benefit of the administration. When the economy’s good and unemployment is low you vote to re-elect. On the other hand, his public opinion numbers, they are improving recently but they’re still not great. There’s also a lot of time between now and the election, so depending on his state of public opinion will at least contentedness if not outright happiness with the state of the economy, be overwhelmed by the displeasure with his performance in office”.
He went on to add that “there are models that point both ways, I really think at this point, we still haven’t had the campaign, we still don’t know who the actual Democrat candidate will be, I think a fair estimate at this point is kind of a coin flip. I’m more confident saying the Democrats will probably retain the House of Representatives. The battle for the Senate will be tight, I mean if I had to bet, I would probably predict the Republicans maintaining control of the Senate, perhaps by a narrower margin.”
Bernie Sanders has been doing well in the election campaign so far, winning the popular in Iowa and polling in front in the next state to go to the polls, New Hampshire. Some are saying that this represents a larger shift in US politics. “It’s clearly a moment, it’s clearly happening and real. To the point of your question is it enduring? I don’t know. I think a good portion of it is it’s the left side reaction, the same way the right side is having this populist reaction, this populist moment among many western allies. People are anxious about economic welfare and one solution is basically to retain our money to ourselves, get rid of alliances, get rid of the trade, focus on America first that’s kind of the right side’s reaction to it. Some of the left sides say we should have universal free education; we should have universal free health care.”
After the dual combination of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote in 2016, we asked whether or not there can be further parallels between America and the UK: “Americans’ impression of British politics is that you have a lot more governing elements, less frequent elections. So, you pay attention to elections then you don’t have elections for a while unless the government falls. But then all of a sudden with Brexit, now there’s a mass of EU citizens working here and lots of Britains working in Europe. And there’s just lots of day to day implications to actually leaving. What are you going to do with Ireland and the border and there are lots of important things that you’d think would make the average British citizen pay attention?”
When it comes to American political engagement, he said “the news cycle is constant in the United States, Donald Trump’s, let me charitably say, performance in office is consistent and energetic and but just the electoral counting. We don’t stop, we just do it all the time, the election is over and we’re thinking about the mid-terms. It’s just relentless to the point where I think that many Americans, even proper democrats (in terms of democracy) they’re trying to be properly interested and engaged, it’s relentless. I know people who are political science majors who say they sometimes just have to turn it off, it’s just too much.”
Finally, Professor Brox discussed how Donald Trump achieved electoral success, “The best quote I heard on this, I believe it’s from Marine Dowd, but she might have been reporting it from someone else. The thing about Trump at the time, people who were sceptical if not outright critical of Trump did not take him seriously but when he said stuff, they took him literally. Trump supporters were doing the opposite, they took him seriously but they didn’t take him literally so he would say things, they wouldn’t put a lot of credence in him but the overall effect.”
After this he added “And so people that were suffering from economic distress who, generation past, had consistently voted for democrats, given their labour or working-class station in life, saw this as someone who’s willing to stand up for people like me. The media class and the media elites and political classes focused on how many lies he said during his time in office. It didn’t matter to these people because they are not looking for a description of truth, they’re looking for, in his own way, to empathise and reflect about how they feel about the thing.”