In the Wake of Trump’s Election: Interview with Prof. David Menefee-Libey


David Menefee-Libey is Professor of Politics at Pomona College, where he has taught since 1989. He was awarded the Wig Distinguished Teaching Award five times, as well as chaired the Politics Department and served as Coordinator of the Program in Public Policy Analysis. His teaching and research have recently turned toward understanding the interdependence of the public and private sectors, and particularly the interdependence of governments and corporations in the United States. Before joining the Pomona College faculty, Prof. Menefee-Libey worked for the Community Renewal Society in Chicago, was a Research Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and worked as a policy researcher for the RAND Corporation.


CJLPP: In today’s political climate, it seems that rural and urban America reached a pinnacle of polarizations—do you think there is a way that Americans from all different areas as states can begin to see eye to eye?

Menefee-Libey: Well, sure, there are lots of issues where they see eye to eye. There have been plenty of issues in American history where there has not been an urban-rural divide. There was a lot of agreement about economic development policies during the 1930s and 1940s between urban and rural areas. The split over civil rights in the United States was never about urban versus rural states—it was about northern versus southern states. So, there are plenty of issues where there isn’t an urban-rural divide, but there are also plenty of issues where there are urban-rural divides. So, yes, those disparate interests will always be part of a diverse democratic society.


CJLPP: Headlines following the 2016 presidential election often pointed to the fact that millions more voters had voted for Hillary, yet despite this Trump still secured the Presidency through electoral college votes. Taking into consideration the backlash the electoral college recently recieved, do you anticipate a massive change in the future in voting policies in America? Or do you envision it like staying the same for a while?

Menefee-Libey: Well, the electoral college won’t go away. It could be tweaked, however. The most likely outcome is that nothing will change, in part because the electoral college is built to give an advantage to rural states. That was the deal that was cut in 1787—it was one of the compromises that were organized in order to get all of the states to buy into the Constitution. [It made it so] that there would be a representational bonus for rural states, so that they would be overrepresented both in the United States’ Senate and the electoral college. There was also a representational bonus built in for states with slaves, but that was amended out with the 13th and 14th Amendments. So, the arrangement in the electoral college gives a bonus to rural states, and if you wanted to amend that out of the Constitution, you would need to have three quarters of the state legislatures—that’s 38 states—agree with that. It would only take 13 states to block it—and there are more than 13 states that get a representational bonus in the electoral college—so it wouldn’t be in their self-interest to accept that kind of amendment to the Constitution. So, the short answer is: a deal is a deal, and we’re stuck with it…It’s part of the rules of the system that we are forced to play by.


CJLPP: In the wake of the election, it seems that many had an augmented distaste for the electoral college, especially on liberal college campuses. Do you see this as an opinion that is more popular now than after other elections, or is this a frequent phenomenon that follows elections?

Menefee-Libey: Sure, well, nobody hates it in principle. People only hate it when it causes them to lose—we only hate when it causes us to lose. [Those who are coming forward and expressing hate for the Electoral College at the moment are the ones who] voted for the candidate that got the popular vote, and then lost in the electoral college…I understand why people would hate it.

CJLPP: Are there any other countries that are similar to the United States that utilize a comparable system?

Menefee-Libey: No, this is one of the most deeply anti-democratic features of the American political system, this and the United States Senate are. As far as I know, there’s no country in the world that has imitated our parliamentary setup. We have the oldest written constitution in the world, and nobody has—when they have drawn up constitutions since then—imitated the United States’ Senate and that system of really undemocratic representation. There’s a really good book about this by Robert Dahl, called How Democratic is the American Constitution? I’m using it in my intro class next semester. [It talks about how The Electoral College] was just a deal that was cut in 1787 and it can’t be uncut.


CJLPP: There was so much that was not normal about this past election, but if you were to pick a standout moment or aspect that made it contrast with the way politics have been done in the past, what would you point to?

Menefee-Libey: In recent memory, we haven’t really elected [or nominated] a race-baiting person to be the President of the United States. We’ve never elected a person without any governmental experience to be president of the United States. We have never elected—at least not in modern memory—elected a person who openly incites violence from the stump, as President of the United States. This is not normal politics. This is not a normal politician.


CJLPP: Do you think that Trump’s rise and success has opened the door and will invite even more chaos and disorder in future elections? For example, celebrities feeling like they could run for office and be elected?

Menefee-Libey: I don’t know. I’m a very conservative person, not in my politics, but in my personal way of being in the world, I’m an extremely risk-averse person. I don’t like rapid change, because it often brings unexpected side effects. And, we have just changed some things really dramatically and really quickly. It feels to me like I should reserve judgement about how far that goes. But, my immediate reaction is that something broke with this election, and I don’t know if it can be unbroken. It’s much easier to destroy democratic norms and social norms than it is to build them, and we haven’t yet seen how far the breaking of these norms will go. They’ve gone very, very far. For example, with the US Senate refusing to even meet with a presidential appointee for the Supreme Court for almost a year—that’s unprecedented in American history. That is a fundamental violation of norms in the American political system—and it worked. It led the people who did it to gain tremendous returns and advantage in the political system, without consequence. So, I expect that these leaders will continue to violate norms as they see fit, as long as they continue to benefit from that. And the only thing that I can see that will stop them is voters. But, voters didn’t stop them this time. If elections continue to follow patterns that I’ve studied for the last 30 years, I would expect that turnout in the midterm election in 2018 would be lower than turn out in the 2016 election. Knowing what patterns there are in voters, that would mean that low income voters, people of color, and young people, would be far less likely to vote in 2018 than in 2016. Which would mean that the 2018 election would be substantially more—the electorate in 2018 will be substantially more Republican and more conservative than the electorate that just chose the Republican House majority and chose a Senate Republican majority and chose, indirectly, Donald Trump. So, unless something happens that I can’t see coming, I expect that this may get worse before it gets better—which frightens me.


CJLPP: Although the Republicans now are in control in Washington, the Democrats still definitely hold the power in California. Could you speak about how the situation over the next several years will potentially be different in California because of this?

Menefee-Libey: Well, California is certainly following a different path. I’ve been writing with a colleague of mine about this for several years—we call it California exceptionalism. I mean, the path of politics that California voters have chosen is quite different from much of the rest of the country. It’s true for some of the west coast, but California in particular. We’ve chosen a very different approach to education policy; we’ve chosen a very different approach to taxation policy; we’ve chosen a very different approach to energy and climate regulation. I mean, California has chosen a very different approach to lots of these things, in part, because we have a more diverse and inclusive state, and because we have a much more productive economy compared to the rest of the United States. I mean, we’re following a very different path. I’m not sure how much longer we’re going to be allowed to continue to go down that path, because some state policies are dependent on acquiescence or support from the federal government. It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration and the Republican Congress are interested in reining in California, or punishing it for not supporting Trump and the Republican party.


CJLPP: On the same vein, where do you see Oregon comparing to California and the rest of the States?

Menefee-Libey: Oregon has a Democratic governor and a Democratic majority in both chambers of the state legislature. The other two states [where that was the case, at least prior to this election,] are Rhode Island and Hawaii. That number is small in part because of the failure of Democrats to win support of voters at the state and local level, and the failure of Democratic voters to focus on politics at the state and local level. Democratic leadership has essentially surrendered control of much of the American political system to the Republicans because they hadn’t been paying attention to it.


CJLPP: For this next mid-term election, what strategies do you think the Democrats will employ to ensure that they suffer another loss? Do you anticipate an increase in ads or social media use in order to inspire voters?

Menefee-Libey: They had a lot more ads in this election than the Republicans did, [and] it didn’t work. It’s not really about ads or Twitter or Facebook; it’s more about bringing people together and communities over a sustained period of time—days and weeks and months and years. [It’s about] recruiting candidates, and serving in city councils, and serving in school boards, and serving in state legislatures, and doing the sort of slow, steady work of engaging in politics in a sustained way. And that’s, in part, what the Republicans have done, and what Democrats have not done. That’s how you end up with [the results of this past election].


CJLPP: What mistakes do you think the Democrats made in terms of where they set their focus?

Menefee-Libey: [I think that they were] focusing on individualistic kinds of things, like targeting, marketing, phone banking, mobilization, and on outreach rather than—in short—organization. They need to organize people rather than mobilize people. Mobilizing is difficult, but it’s much easier than organizing. What appears to be required now is organizing at every level of the political system—and that’s very slow, hard work, that doesn’t bring a quick benefit. The question is whether Democrats and Democratic voters have the attention span to do it—and I’m not sure that they do. I’m sorry to be so dark—it’s just that things are fairly dire right now, for Democrats. Republicans are clearly reaping the benefits of a sustained push, and taking advantages of the rules of the American political system. Which they, in part, have changed—through campaign finance deregulation, disenfranchisement of voters, and things like that. But, Republicans have clearly been able to—since Obama took office—do a much better job at organizing, supporting, and sustaining their political movement than Democrats have.


CJLPP: Would you consider the recent election results to be a failure of the Democratic Party itself, or of the voters?

Menefee-Libey: I wouldn’t say it was the failure of the Democratic Party so much as the failure of the Democratic voters. I mean the Party can do what the Party wants, but, ultimately, the voters aren’t getting what they want either. Voters need to do something—to take some initiative to make things happen that they care about. The party leaders will do whatever the voters tell them to do, so I think it’s more the Democratic voters have not stayed engaged in a sustained way.

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