The Schmookler & Huffman Show (Episode LXXVI)

This morning, Andy Schmookler and I took to the radio waves to discuss politics on 550 AM, WSVA alongside host Jim Britt as we have done for approximately 6 and a half years. The topics of discussion today included the idea of the 2nd Amendment sanctuaries, which an increasing number of counties across the Commonwealth have declared themselves to be, and President Trump’s impeachment proceedings.

If you missed the show live, you can catch it here!

What is Sacred to Me and My World?

There are quite a few things that I consider sacred.  For example, every Sunday, with the occasional exceptions where I misplace it, I bring my copy of the Bible, a gift with a by now well-worn cover which was given to me as a high school graduation gift, to whatever church I happen to be attending on any given Sunday.  Although I cannot recall when this ritual began, it is a practice that I have continued for as long as I can remember.  I do so even when I attend a church that I know does not include scripture reading as part of their service.  In such cases, I choose to superimpose a portion of text from this book, as much or as little as I desire.  In addition, I own copies of holy books from other faiths, such as the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Apocrypha, and the various texts from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  I reserve a space for them on my bookshelf (or I would do so if I had a bookshelf in my present apartment).  Even though I do not practice these religious traditions, I still treat these texts with reverence out of respect for those who do consider them sacred.  In the same way, I view houses of worship of any religious affiliation as a sacred space.  As such, I believe that there is a certain level of decorum that ought to be observed in these sanctuaries which include: refraining from profane speech, a level of dress appropriate for the situation, and otherwise not dishonoring those who believe these places have a special connection to their god or gods.  As in the case with The Eumenides with the Temples of Apollo and Athena, whether a god is present in this place (or if he or she even exists), one ought to treat them with a level of respect comparable to those who actually follow these religious traditions.

           However, I do not consider other, non-religious objects to be sacred.  For example, some people hold a flag to be a sacred object and desire to enact laws that punish those who defile them.  I oppose anti-desecration laws for flags and even for the sacred texts as mentioned in the previous paragraph.  Although I would not engage in this kind of defilement, I believe in a concept of freedom that allows individuals to do whatever they wish with their personal property.  Though when it comes to national symbols, such as flags and pledges of allegiance to a flag, these objects are clearly man-made.  Treating them as sacred demonstrates a level of devotion to a state which I feel overlaps the state and religion; I believe this behavior is dangerous in terms of promoting liberty and is the replacement of the divine (or potentially divine) with something which is clearly of our own creation, a desire to make ourselves, our history, and/or our confederations into something of far greater significance than what ought to be considered proper.  Following this line of thought, I suppose I would argue that the concept of freedom and liberty holds a certain sacred space for me as well.

            If freedom and liberty are sacred, then we shouldn’t limit our concept of what is sacred to mere physical objects.  There is also a code of behavior which I consider sacred.  Two of the most important dimensions of this thinking are a sense of honor and duty.  To borrow a reference from popular culture, I am reminded of the motto of House Tully from HBO and George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones where Bran Stark recites it as “Family, Duty, Honor” [1].  Now, this kind of honor is not that which is bestowed by one person upon another, such as the kind Simonides and Hiero discuss in On Tyranny [2], but rather a personal code of ethics which compels a person to moderate his or her behavior.  To draw a personal connection, I have worked on a multitude of political campaigns each with the ultimate goal of electing or reelecting a politician.  From time to time, during the course of my employment, some candidates or fellow campaign workers have suggested performing certain acts which, although may be of benefit to the overall success of the campaign, create a stain upon one’s personal honor.  One example that springs to mind took place while I was employed with the Republican Party of Virginia.  Toward the mid-point of the campaign season, the staff of then Representative Thelma Drake came into conflict with one of my co-workers and for some reason took it upon themselves to raid the office of this co-worker while he was away.  Although warned not to tell others of what transpired, I felt it would be unethical if I did not report what I observed to my supervisors in Richmond.  Silence would equate with complicity in a dishonorable act.  Shortly thereafter, I lost my position with the party.  When I inquired as to why I was fired, I was told it was personally requested by Representative Drake and the party would not deny a request from a Congresswoman.  Although I lost my employment, I retained my sense of honor, which I felt was far more important than some minor post.

            Although it has been a long time since my undergraduate days, if I remember my studies of Hinduism correctly, my sacred sense of duty overlaps with their concept of dharma.  In the Bhagavad Gita, the main character Arjuna is concerned with the consequences of war though he ultimately engages in conflict when Krishna reminds him of his duty or dharma.  Similarly, the Furies are compelled to avenge matricide in The Eumendies saying, “and yet we have our duty-to do what we have done”[3].  Another example of sacred duty comes from the history of Islam.  Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad, did not wish to fight the forces of Muhammad’s widow Aisha in the Battle of the Camel, as killing fellow Muslims is forbidden according to the teachings of the Quran, and attempted to negotiate a peace.  Nevertheless, once the battle began he did not retreat because he realized that if he withdrew from the conflict then he would never be able to claim his rightful place as Commander of the Faithful which, in his mind, was his sacred duty to his religion.[4] 

            The demands of honor and those of duty can come in conflict, as demonstrated by the lamentation of Orestes after he killed Clyaemestra.  Although Apollo commanded him to commit the murder, once he did so, he realized how slaying his mother would impact his honor.  “Now I can praise him, now I can stand by to mourn and speak before this web that killed my father; yet I grieve for the thing done, the death, and all our race.  I have won; but my victory is polluted, and has no pride.” [5] Similarly, returning to the history of Islam, when Ali’s men sought to defeat the wicked and rebellious governor of Syria, they ceased to fight once their outnumbered opponents began to stick pages of the Quran on their lances.  Perhaps seen as a tragic character flaw that could be exploited by the unscrupulous, their sense of honor to respect their holy book outweighed their sense of duty to defeat their enemy. [6]

            At this stage in my life there a quite a few things, both tangible and intangible, which I hold sacred.  Holy texts, places, liberty, honor, and duty are all important aspects of the sacred.  As mentioned, trying to hold all of these things and ideas as sacred can result in conflict from time to time and thus one has to weigh their competing demands to determine the best way to maintain a proper balance and desirable course of action.  Whether any individual or society as a whole agrees with my list, or that anything can be sacred in the modern world, is irrelevant.  My concept of the sacred does not depend on the outcome of a popular vote or require approval from anyone else.   

[1] “The Wolf and the Lion.” 2011. Game of Thrones 1(5).

[2] Strauss, Leo, Michael S. Roth, and Victor Gourevitch. 2000. On Tyranny: Rev. and Expanded Edition, Including the Strauus-Kojeve Correspondence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 13-14.

[3] Aeschylus. 2013. Aeschylus II: the Oresteia. University of Chicago Press. 131.

[4] Hazleton, Lesley. 2010. After the Prophet: the Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam. New York: Anchor Books. 99-126.

[5] Aeschylus. 2013. Aeschylus II: the Oresteia. University of Chicago Press. 120.

[6] Hazleton, Lesley. 2010. After the Prophet: the Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam. New York: Anchor Books. 138-139.

Virginia In Chains

At the beginning of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, the author makes the provocative statement that “man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains”.[1]  Although some theorists argue that we ought not take Rousseau’s idea of chains literally, but rather as the ties that bind us together in society, [2] when considering politics in the state of Virginia, one can find political activists and politicians weighed down considerably by the demands of their political associations. 

Unlike most other states in the country, the two, state recognized, political parties in Virginia often dictate that citizens of the Commonwealth pledge loyalty to the party as a precondition for participation.  For example, during the 2016 Republican Party presidential primary, the Republican Party intended to make primary voters sign a document pledging to support whoever won their party’s nomination in the general election that followed.  However, under public pressure they ended up scrapping this plan.[3]  Nevertheless, the party continues to maintain its right to use such requirements and declares that anyone who violates this legally unenforceable oath “shall not be qualified for participation in party actions as defined in Article I for a period of four (4) years.” [4]

It isn’t merely the GOP who uses loyal oaths; the Democratic Party employs them as well.  Perhaps the most well-known rejection of these tactics comes from former Democratic U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd Jr.  He considered loyalty oaths intolerable and ended up leaving his party and declaring himself an independent when he was pressed to pledge support for the 1972 Democratic Presidential candidate without first knowing who he or she was and what principles he or she advocated.  “‘The course I am taking is an uncharted one,’ Byrd said in announcing his decision on statewide television on March 17, 1970. ‘But I would rather be a free man than a captive senator.’”[5]

According to my understanding of Rousseau, I believe he would approve of Byrd’s actions arguing that this kind of loyalty oath to a political party would be corrupt given that one side demands unquestioned loyalty to itself without offering anything in return except for the pittance of participation in a process which the state forces each taxpayer to fund.  As Rousseau explains, “to say a man gives himself for nothing is an absurd and incomprehensible statement; such an action is illegitimate and void”[6]  He goes on to add that “Whether made by one man addressing another, or by a man addressing a nation, this statement will be equally senseless: ‘I make a covenant between us which is entirely for my good, which I will observe as long as I please, and which you will observe as long as I please” [7] 

In the Old Dominion, a person may begin his or her political life free but, perhaps even without realizing it, soon find him or herself chained to a political party, a party which ironically declares itself as a party promoting liberty.

[1] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1994. The Social Contract. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 45.

[2] Kaplan, Joshua. 2006. Codes of Power: Political Thought from Plato’s Cave to Game Theory.

[3] Vozzella, Laura, and Antonio Olivo. 2016. “Virginia GOP Drops Plan for Loyalty Pledge, but Maybe Too Late for Some Voters.” The Washington Post. (October 8, 2019).

[4] “MEMBER RESOURCES.” Republican Party of Virginia. (October 8, 2019).

[5] Schapiro, Jeff E., and Richmond Times-Dispatch. 2013. “Byrd Shaped Politics in Va. for Many Years.” Roanoke Times. (October 8, 2019).

[6] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1994. The Social Contract. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 50.

[7] Ibid. 53.

The State As An Agent of Exploitation & Control


Although he likely never uttered the words “L´État c’est moi”, the phrase embodies a certain truth about King Louis XIV of France.  During his reign from 1643 to 1715 he was “the proprietor of the state” and “the owner of the kingdom” (Rowen 1961, 84-85). In more modern times, the executive of a nation is typically no longer viewed in such terms.  Some nations, like the United States, still combine the roles of chief executive and the head of state in the office of the president, while others, such as the United Kingdom, have the positions split between the monarch as the head of state and the prime minister as the head of the government.  Nevertheless, during the Cold War and its aftermath the United States and especially her president has been given the title of the “Leader of the Free World”. As Louis XIV before him, is the president the embodiment of the United States and the greater concept of freedom in general? If not, who or what is the state?  And how does it or should it interact with the society under its dominion?

What is the State?

Max Weber defines the state as a separate political community which consists of three attributes.  It has “(1) a ‘territory”; (2) the availability of physical force for its domination; and (3) social action which is not restricted exclusively to the satisfaction of common economic needs in the frame of a communal economy, but regulates more generally the interrelations of the inhabitants of the territory” (Weber 1978, 902).  He argues that in a political community, the interests of the individual are subordinate to the interests of the larger group. 

Similarly, to Weber, Michael Mann defines the state as possessing four major parts.  1. “a differentiated set of institutions and personnel”, 2. A centrality where “political relations radiate outwards”, 3. “a territorially-demarcated area”, and 4. “a monopoly of authoritative bind rule-making, backed up by a monopoly of the means of physical violence” (Mann 1984, 188).  The state possesses, to varying degrees, two types of power, despotic and infrastructural. Despotic power is that which the sovereign or elite collective body can perform regardless of the wishes of the public. By contrast, infrastructural power is the state’s ability to penetrate civil society.  He idealizes the character of the Red Queen from Through the Looking Glass as a leader with high levels of despotic power but low levels of infrastructural power.  Mann notes that states have been increasing their levels of infrastructural power historically while levels of despotic power have varied over time. 

Unlike the idea of the sovereign as the embodiment of the state, pluralists view the state not as a single person but as a competing assortment of different interest groups.  These groups are comprised of a variety of individuals each with their own goals who can shift their coalitions as their preferences dictate. For pluralist theory, “nothing categorical can be assumed about power in any community.  It rejects the stratification thesis that some group necessarily dominates a community” (Polsby 1960, 476). With no fixed hierarchy of power, there is no one group or person who is able to dominate politically on every issue. Unlike with Mann, there is no Red Queen.  Carnoy argues that “In America, the typical citizen would probably describe the government as a pluralist democracy in which competing interest groups and the public at large define public policy” (Carnoy 1984, 10). Furthermore, pluralists believe that the state serves the interest of the public good, or at least that is the intention.  The state is the servant of the people. (Carnoy 1984, 11). Furthermore, political philosophers John Locke and Thomas Hobbes agree in their various writings that one important function of the state is to protect the property of the community at large and free themselves from the state of nature. (Carnoy 1984, 17).

Despite what the pluralists might say, one shouldn’t be too quick to assume that a state is a benevolent force, existing primarily to protect and defend the lives, liberties, and property of citizens living within its borders as declared by John Locke (Locke 1993) and found at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, which substitutes the pursuit of happiness for property.  Given the state’s possession of the monopoly of violence, Charles Tilly compares the state to an organized crime racket in the book Bringing the State Back In.  Although the state can use force to protect the citizens under its care, it can also use this same force to expand its power and authority, often at the expense of these very same citizens.  He explains that “popular resistance to coercive exploitation forced would-be power holders to concede protection and constraints on their own action” (Tilly 1985, 170). Note that these concessions on behalf of the common good are not done out of concern for the public but often forced under duress.  It is the attempt of civil society, or some lesser ruling group, to place a check the sovereign’s despotic power. King John’s signing of the Magna Carta is one prime example of this principle in action. The king desired peace with his barons and the barons demanded protection from the unrestrained power of the king.  If we travel forward in time to the 1600s, we find the situation repeat itself during the reign of the Stuarts in England. The crown demanded loans which it often repaid without interest if it repaid its creditors at all. However, this policy led to difficulty in the state’s ability to pay for its expenditures. As the king sought new sources of revenue, Parliament responded by checking the power of the monarch, which ultimately resulted in the protection of property rights and requiring the state to honor its contracts.  (North & Weingast 1989).  

Returning to Tilly, he lists 4 activities the state engages in regarding violence.  “1. War making: Eliminating or neutralizing their own rivals outside the territories in which they have clear and continuous priority as wielders of force 2. State making: Eliminating or neutralizing their rivals inside those territories 3. Protection: Eliminating or neutralizing the enemies of their clients 4. Protection: Acquiring the means of carrying out the first three activities” (Tilly 1985, 181).  Using these four activities in tandem further strengthens the state. Tilly concludes his chapter with a discussion of the topic of war and how the state uses war as a tool to both protect and expand its influence. This concept is reminiscent of the thoughts of Randolph Bourne who, in his unfinished work The State declared repeatedly that “War is the health of the State” (Bourne 1970).

Marxists and Neo-Marxist have an even more bleak view of the state. However, there is no single unifying Marxist theory of the state.  As Marx explains, the state does not mold the society but rather the society which molds the state. In Marx’s time, he thought that the state was a tool designed to cement the superior position of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat.  (Carnoy 1984, 45-47). Lenin advocated for a dictatorship of the proletariat under the protection of the party to both mobilize and educate workers. Rosa Luxemburg, by comparison, stressed: “a dictatorship of class, not of party or clique” (Carnoy 1984, 61).  Although some Marxists believe that the state can be used for good purposes and others consider it only as an ill on society that must be allowed to wither away, all of them seem to be skeptical of the state.

How Do States and Societies Interact and What are the Boundaries Between them?

There is no one model which can explain the interactions between a state and civil society.  Even if there were, it would not be stable over time as the relationship and boundaries fluctuate as states and societies wax and wane, as new leaders emerge in both spheres jockeying for power and weaving their own niche in this rich tapestry.  Nevertheless, many researchers have explored state/society relationships and boundaries which provide important details and clues as to how these interactions are initially and how they might evolve.  

In China, we observe a phenomenon Joel Migdal would likely label as a strong state interacting with a weak society.  In Evolving State-Society Relations in China in China Review, Huang, Alexander Korolev, Fengshi Wu, and Xiaojun Yan all explore the topic of a powerful and centralized national state as it attempts to penetrate and control Chinese civil society.  Considering first Korolev, he observes that the Communist state has reinstituted a program called the ‘mass line’ in an attempt to improve communication between the leaders and the public.  He argues that “the use of mobilized forms of participation makes the decision-making process in China more inclusive and pluralistic than it was in the past” (Korolev 2017, 29-30). Next, there is Yan and Huang.  Private enterprise has expanded in China since reforms in 1978. Rather than snuff it out, the party has sought to bring this sector of their economy under the influence of the state by expanding the party apparatus. (Yan & Huang 2017).  Lastly, we have Wu, where we find the interaction between the state and nongovernmental organizations. She reports a tension as the government seeks to control all aspects of civil society in China, including the choice of names used to identify these NGOs.  (Wu 2017, 143).

However, in neighboring India, we discover a totally different situation than the Chinese case.  In Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner’s Claiming the State, we are told of a citizenry who is detached from the day-to-day considerations of the state.  Nevertheless, when these citizens are both motivated and enabled, they make claims on the state, seeking roads, schools, fresh water, and a host of other government services.  Unlike China, it is not a top-down approach to state-society relations, but rather a bottom-up, heavily decentralized model. (Kruks-Wisner 2018).

Despite the current differences in boundaries between China and India, one should not presuppose that these lines which currently exist cannot be redrawn. The United States in the 1960s provides one such example.  During the Lyndon Johnson administration, the government sought to redraw the boundary between church and state in the area of public funding of Catholic schools. Prior to this time, the federal government had not had much involvement in education.  However, the state wished to greatly expand federal funding of schools and, in order to accomplish this task, sought to erase the boundary between schools and the government in Washington. Despite the result upsetting some Catholics and Protestants, the state ended up redefining the long-standing border which separated it from the education system. (Mayrl & Quinn 2016, 10-14).

In recent decades we have seen an important transformation in the United States regarding the interplay between the state and the private sector when it comes to the military.  Although, as mentioned in the opening pages, Weber declared that the state enjoys a monopoly on the legitimate violence over the territory it controls. However, this boundary is eroding.  During the early days of the formation of the modern nation-state, the monarch weakened feudal lords within his realms by consolidating the use of physical power as part of his purview. But, during the Clinton and W. Bush presidencies of the 1990s to 2000s, the United States switched from a long-standing Republican ideology which stressed “national sovereignty” and “ownership and provision of the military force by the state and national armed forces” to a Neoliberal model of “fragmentation”, “individual sovereignty” and “ownership and provision of the military force by public and private actors” (Krahmann 2010, 41).  

Additional Research

Over the last year and a half, my research has focused heavily on elections and political freedom.  Although democratic nations profess to support the concept of free and fair elections, what they do in practice is often markedly different from their rhetoric.  According to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, “fair elections should ensure equal conditions for all participants in the election process…all candidates, parties, and political organizations that wish to run for office should be able to do so and to compete on the basis of equal and impartial treatment under the law” (OSCE 2007, 18).

One would assume that Carnoy is correct.  If asked, presumably the average person would agree that a state such as Virginia has free and fair elections under the definition presented by OSCE, though an inspection of the Code of Virginia would reveal a different story.  To begin with, every candidate seeking office, except for party nominees, are required to collect signatures from registered voters to have their names printed on the ballot. (Title 24.2. Elections). But what are party nominees?  Checking the code, we find “‘Party’ or ‘political party’ means an organization of citizens of the Commonwealth which, at either of the two preceding statewide general elections, received at least 10 percent of the total vote cast for any statewide office filled in that election.” (Title 24.2. Definitions).  As a result of this threshold, the state of Virginia only recognizes two political parties.  Thus, Democratic and Republican nominees are granted automatic ballot access in Virginia while independents and the candidates from other political parties are required to pass through these hurdles in order to achieve ballot placement.  It is fairly obvious that under the definition of free and fair elections Virginia does not qualify. So why do these laws exist? Those individuals who control the state want them in place as a barrier to entry for any would-be challengers.  It is yet another mechanism of the state exerting its control over civil society.


Pluralism might reflect the way a democratic state ought to be and how society should interact with it, but, in practice, it doesn’t play out this way. Nevertheless, the theory may still be valuable as an ideal for an informed citizenry to strive toward or, for more nefarious purposes, a useful fiction for the ruling elites to spread in order to maintain their control and enhance political stability.  

Although fairly pluralist in outlook in my early days, after more than two decades in political activism, working for a variety of campaigns and interest groups and running as a candidate myself, my own viewpoint on the state and its relationship with society is similar to an amalgamation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Charles Tilly.  “Rousseau therefore saw the State of his time as the creation of the rich to secure their position as the dominant class, a State presented as benefiting all but designed to preserve inequality” (Carnoy 1984, 21). However, unlike Rousseau or the Marxists, I do not believe that the state exists to benefit the rich, but rather serves the interests of the politically well-connected.  Whether in communist China or the democratic United States, in societies where the state enjoys both a monopoly on violence and strict barriers to prevent competition in the political sphere, the society and the people as a whole are relatively powerless, resorting to praying for the mercy of the ruling class.

Following the same line of thought as Tilly, Mancur Olson compared warlords, an early precursor to the state, to bandits who either roamed the countryside looking for victims or those who settle in a specific area taking “his theft in the form of regular taxation” (Olson 1993, 568).  Furthermore, as Olson wrote concerning the state-society relationship, “history until relatively recent times has been mostly a story of the gradual process of civilization under stationary bandits interrupted by occasional episodes of roving banditry” (Olson 1993, 569). Louis XIV, John, and James VI and I all died centuries ago and the Red Queen is but a fiction, but much of their legacy regarding the power of the state and its interaction with civil society lives on.  The state is no longer a single, absolute monarch, but rather a collection of the powerful elite. Nevertheless, the same desire for dominion over everything within its borders remains. At the end of the day, the state, whether democratic or authoritarian, for the most part, is an agent of exploitation and control.


Bourne, Randolph. 1970. “The State.” Fair Use Repository. (December 10, 2018).

Carnoy, Martin. 1984. The State and Political Theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Korolev, Alexander. 2017. “De-Ideologized Mass Line, Regime Responsiveness, and State-Society Relations.” China Review17(2): 7–36.

Krahmann, Elke. 2010. States, Citizens, and the Privatisation of SecurityCambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kruks-Wisner, Gabrielle. 2018. Claiming the State Active Citizenship and Social Welfare in Rural India. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Locke, John. 1993. Political Writings of John Locke. ed. David Wootton. New York (N.Y.): Mentor.

Mann, Michael. 1984. “The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms and Results.” European Journal of Sociology25(2): 185–213.

Mayrl, Damon, and Sarah Quinn. 2016. “Defining the State from Within.” Sociological Theory 34(1): 1–26.

North, Douglass C., and Barry R. Weingast. 1989. “Constitutions and Commitment: the Evolution of Institutions Governing Public Choice in Seventeenth-Century England.” The Journal of Economic History49(4): 803–32.

Olson, Mancur. 1993. “Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development.” The American Political Science Review 87(3): 567–76.

Polsby, Nelson W. 1960. “How to Study Community Power: The Pluralist Alternative.” The Journal of Politics 22(3): 474–84.

Rowen, Herbert H. 1961. “‘L’Etat C’est a Moi’: Louis XIV and the State.” French Historical Studies 2(1): 83–98.

The OSCE/ODIHR: Election Observation Handbook. 2007. The OSCE/ODIHR: Election Observation Handbook Warsaw: ODIHR.

Tilly, Charles. 1985. “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime.” In Bringing the State Back In, eds. Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. chapter, 169–91.

“Title 24.2. Definitions.” § 24.2-101. Definitions. (December 9, 2018).

“Title 24.2. Elections.” § 24.2-506. Petition of qualified voters required; number of signatures required; certain towns excepted. (November 18, 2018).

Weber, Max. 1978. Economy and Society. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press.

Wu, Fengshi. 2017. “An Emerging Group Name ‘Gongyi’: Ideational Collectivity in China’s Civil Society.” China Review17(2): 123–50.

Yan, Xiaojun, and Jie Huang. 2017. “Navigating Unknown Waters : The Chinese Communist Party’s New Presence in the Private Sector.” China Review17(2): 37–63.

Those Cursed MAGA Hats

In American politics, candidates and activists promote their causes and campaigns in a variety of ways. They use signs, rallies, and even assorted clothing. However, one item that gives me pause is one of those Trump “Make America Great Again” hats.

In 2015 and 2016 I could understand why someone would wear one of these hats. It was a marketing promotion that not only bolstered recognition of the Trump campaign and also provided needed cash. But, the campaign has been over for several years. How often do you see someone wearing a campaign hat for Hilary Clinton these days? How often did you see materials promoting Barack Obama in non-election years? How about George W. Bush?

I would argue that since his election as president, Donald Trump has done a few good things from a pro-liberty, Constitutional perspective, but far more bad things. Attempting to build a southern border wall with Mexico without congressional approval, helping the Saudi government kill civilians in Yemen, his anti-free trade tariffs, “take the guns first, go through due process second”, and separating children from their parents along with caging them at the border which has led to several deaths are a few examples that spring to mind readily. Normally, I would expect that conservatives would be up in arms about these issues. However, as was the case when President Bush was in office, few Republicans have the courage to speak out about these presidential abuses of power when one of their own reigns.

Now, some people will point out that many of these policies are continuations from Obama’s years in office, which is true, but that fact doesn’t make them any more moral or correct, simply because the previous administration did them. I’m sure many would be roundly condemning these policies if a Democrat were in the White House. Why should liberty-loving people support these actions simply because the president is a Republican? After all, when elected officials are sworn-in they pledge to support and defend the Constitution, not a president nor a political party.

I see the MAGA hat as something symptomatic of a larger problem, a cult of personality which has grown up around President Trump. It is an unhealthy sign of American political decay. For far too many people, specific policies and principles are no longer important. What is important is pledging fealty to a political party or a politician. As such, when I see someone wearing a MAGA hat, I don’t view them as an ally in the fight for liberty, but rather a willing accomplice who will not stand up for traditional American values if it is inconvenient for their political ambitions. Although we are fortunately still many steps removed from this point, unless it is reversed, I can foresee a future when MAGA hats and loyalty oaths become the modern equivalent of armbands and recitations of the Horst Wessel Lied.

I’ve heard otherwise pro-liberty politicians pledge to do whatever they can to help re-elect Donald Trump regardless of what he has done or will do. There are others who swear that they will never support the impeachment of the president no matter the circumstances. I find this rhetoric scary. The American government was not founded around the dictatorship of an individual or group of individuals. The job of an elected official isn’t to support their party 100% or nor is it to become a yes man or woman for the executive branch. The fact that some Republicans support President Trump all of the time or nearly all the time coupled with the fact that some Democrats oppose him no matter the issue ought to scare the hell out of any good American who isn’t blinded by partisanship. Day by day and year by year our liberty is being replaced by a tyranny guided by which party holds power.

Although I believe many pro-liberty folks assume that donning a MAGA hat and swearing unconditional loyalty to President Trump is simply the cost of doing business in the Republican Party these days (and if it is then you should have nothing to do with such an anti-liberty party, remember Matthew 18:8-9), it is setting a dangerous trend and is undermining the foundations of our Republic. If your principles actually mean something to you, then I don’t think you should engage in this kind of idolatrous political subservience.

Predicting Congressional Support for the President in the Years of The Donald

Written 4/25/2019

On March 14th of 2019, The United States Senate voted against President Trump who had earlier declared a national emergency on the U.S./Mexico border in an attempt to redirect federal appropriations toward the building of a southern border wall.  The vote was 59 to 41 and included every Democratic member of the body along with 12 Republicans. (Cochrane & Thrush 2019).  The previous day, the Senate voted against another one of the President’s stated positions, this time in an effort to stop U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia in their ongoing conflict with Yemen.  Here the vote was 54 to 46 with 7 Republicans joining all of their Democratic colleagues.  (Sanders 2019).  This Yemen bill had previously passed the Senate in December of 2018, but it never came before the House due to opposition by then-Speaker Paul Ryan (Detrow 2018).  When comparing the lists of individual Senators who opposed the president’s wishes in the recent votes, one finds complete overlap of Democratic Senators, but also some commonalities in the list of Republicans.  They are Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Susan Collins of Maine, and Mike Lee of Utah (Edmondson 2019 & Pramuk 2019).

Although these two high-profile cases may not be representative of Congressional support for the president in the aggregate, it does raise an important question.  How can one go about creating a model which accurately predicts Congressional vote support for the president?

Trump Vote Percentages in the 2016 Elections

Earlier in 2019, I found an ongoing project on Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website which tracks how often individual members of Congress support President Donald Trump’s position on legislation.  The website uses only a few variables.  They are: how often a senator or representative votes the same way as the president would prefer, Trump’s two-party vote share in the 2016 elections in a given state or Congressional district, how often a member of Congress is predicted to vote with the president using this 2016 electoral data, and lastly the margin between the actual vote percentage and the one anticipated using this one variable.  Why would a researcher consider this model?  “Legislators who face a choice between supporting the government (and their parties) or the specific interests of their constituencies will tend to prefer the latter because, in so doing, they maximize their chances of re-election without imposing any costs on the government” (Cheibub 2009, 120).   Furthermore, “if voters connect their votes in executive and legislative elections, the legislators will have incentives to support the executive on some key votes” (Cheibub 2009, 122-123).  Thus, as the argument goes, a legislator should support or oppose the president through his or her votes in Congress in roughly equivalent amounts as their constituents rewarded the president with their vote in the previous election.

On the surface, it appears that this model has little predictive power.  For example, as of March 15th, 2019, only 16 of the 100 Senators presently serving have actual Trump vote scores which are within 2.5% of their predicted scores.  Expanding to 5 points either above or below still encompasses only 36 senators, with a majority still lying outside of this range.  The largest differences are Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) who has a Trump support score which is 55.1 points higher than predicted and Senator John Tester (D-MT) whose Trump support score is 49.6 points lower than predicted.  In the House of Representatives, the margins are even greater.  While 136 of the 432 current members are within this 2.5-point range, at the extremes one can find Rep. David Valadao (R-CA-21) at 59.1 points higher than expected and Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-NY-22) at 74.9 points lower than predicted. (Bycoffe 2019).  Given the significant variation and the fact that over 66% of Congressional legislators fall more than 2.5 points outside of their expected values, one might make the claim that, by itself, the 2016 vote margin for President Trump is a poor predictor for levels of Congressional support.

However, if we consider our earlier list of Republican Senators, we find that four of the five of them, Murkowski, Lee, Collins, and Paul, are clustered toward the bottom of Republicans when it comes to how often their votes lineup with President Trump’s positions. 

The Importance of Partisanship and Polarization

It seems obvious that partisanship is a key defining factor in all aspects of American political behavior in the present day.  It would be easy to say that Congressional support for the president is driven first and foremost by partisan considerations and if this were the sole consideration of this paper, it would add nothing to the existing literature. [1] After all, just a cursory glance of the support score data provides ample evidence.  In the U.S. Senate, even the Republican who has the lowest support score for President Trump, newly elected Mitt Romney of Utah, has a higher support score of 70% than any Democratic senator currently serving in that body.  His closest cross-party competitor is, not surprisingly, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia at 58.5%.  Perhaps coming as a shock though, Senator Romney supported the president on both of these high-profile rebukes mentioned in the previous section of this paper.  Likewise, in the House of Representatives of the current serving members, Justin Amash from the 3rd district of Michigan has the lowest current support score for his party’s president among Republicans at 60%.  Nevertheless, Amash’s support score is still higher than every single Democratic member of the House (Bycoffe 2019).

However, this clean party break is a fairly recent phenomenon.  For example, looking back at support scores for President Obama during the 2009 and 2010 sessions reveals at least some level of party crossover.  Among Republican Senators the Democratic president’s top three supporters in both years were Senators Collins of Maine, Snowe of Maine, and Voinovich of Ohio.  Only Senator Collins remains in office as the last of the New England Republicans; Voinovich retired in 2011 and Snowe retired in 2013.  Considering Democrats, in 2009 Senators Bayh of Indiana, McCaskill of Missouri, Feingold of Wisconsin, and Nelson of Nebraska expressed the greatest levels of opposition.  It should be noted Republican Collins supported the president at higher levels than the Democrat Bayh.  For 2010 Democrats with the highest levels of opposition, we find Senators Nelson again, followed by Feingold, and the Lincoln of Arkansas.  As to their fates, Bayh retired in 2011, McCaskill lost to a Republican in 2018, Feingold lost to a Republican in 2010, Nelson retired in 2013, and Lincoln was defeated in the 2010 elections (CQ Almanac. 2009 & 2010).

Moving over to the House in 2009, a multitude of Republicans supported the president to a greater extent than Democratic Representatives Taylor of Mississippi and Bright of Alabama.  Republican Representatives Cao of Louisiana and LoBiondo of New Jersey had support scores of over 66%. In 2010, both Taylor and Bright had the lowest support scores for Obama among Democrats while Republicans Cao and Representative Castle of Delaware has support scores of over 60%.  Much like the case with the Senators, Representatives Taylor, Bright, and Cao lost their reelection bids to the nominee of the opposite party.  Representative Castle ran for the Senate in 2010 and lost his party’s nomination.  Of the four partisan contrarians, only LoBiondo continued to serve in elected office after 2010 (CQ Almanac. 2009 & 2010).

When considering the average support scores for the president in the U.S. Senate, according to the 2010 CQ Almanac, here’s what we find.

Although support from the opposition party in the U.S. Senate has remained relatively stable over time, we observe a widening gulf in presidential support by party as the average level of support among the president’s fellow partisans has been increasing.

By comparison, again using data from the 2010 CQ Almanac, the disparity of support for the president in the House between his own party and the opposition has become even more pronounced.  Not only is support among the president’s own party increasing, as is the case in the U.S. Senate, but since the Carter administration, the president has been less successful at persuading opposition party members to vote for his proposals.  As Therianault finds, “since the early 1970’s, the Senate has polarized about 80 percent as much as the House” (Theriault 2008, 197).

Not only has partisanship played a role in predicting presidential support scores in the past, but partisanship is also becoming increasingly an even more important indicator as polarization in both the House and Senate expands.

While in an earlier era, it may have been possible for scholars accurately to assert that political parties were of little theoretical importance in explaining political behavior and legislative results in the House, it is certainly not true now.  Parties are consequential in shaping members’ preferences, the character of the issues on the agenda, the nature of legislative alternatives, and ultimate political outcomes, and they will remain important as long as the underlying forces that created this partisan resurgence persist (Rohde 1991, 192)


The 2016 presidential elections continued the longstanding gender gap trend in American politics.  According to the Pew Research Center, women preferred Clinton to Trump by a 12-point margin.  In addition, that election featured the largest gender gap since at least the 1972 election (Tyson et al. 2016).  That news isn’t particularly shocking, especially given the vulgar and objectifying comments Donald Trump expressed regarding women as part of the Access Hollywood tape (Transcript 2017).  The difference of attitudes between women and men regarding the president hasn’t been limited to just his election.  In mid-2018, the Cook Political Report stated that “the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that just 39 percent of women give Trump a favorable approval rating, compared to 58 percent who disapprove of the job he’s doing.  And, among white, college-educated women…the gap is staggering-just 26 percent approve to 71 percent disapprove.”  Furthermore, during that time period, time white college women voters expressed their preference for a Democratically-controlled Congress by a 25-point margin (Walter 2018).  According to exit polls from the 2018 midterms, 59% of women cast a ballot for Democratic Congressional candidates while only 40% picked Republicans, arguably one important reason why the Democratic Party won control of the House of Representatives in November (Velencia 2018). 

Recent research has found that “eight attitudes predict Trump support: conservative identification; support for domineering leaders; fundamentalism; prejudice against immigrant, African Americans, Muslims, and women; and pessimism about the economy” (Smith & Hanley 2018, 11-12).

Considering the theory of descriptive representation advanced by Mansbridge and others (Mansbridge 1999), which advocates that in democratic systems representative legislators should not only advance the preferences of their constituents but also share other traits such as ethnicity and gender.  Presumably then, given the extreme negativity women express toward the current president as compared to men, it is reasonable to expect that female members of Congress, (along with those from immigrant families, African Americans, and Muslims) irrespective of party, ought to be less inclined to support President Trump as compared to their male counterparts. [2]

Career Politician Support for Trump

Throughout the 2016 election cycle, the Trump campaign focused its rhetoric on three issues or slogans, “Build the wall”, “Lock her up”, and “Drain the swamp” (Overby 2017).  While being sworn in in January of 2017, now President Trump continued to rail against beltway politicians.  “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have bore [sic] the cost” (Hemmingway 2017).  Therefore, one might expect that the longer a politician is in Congress, the less likely he or she would be to support the current president.  However, I would argue that the opposite is more likely the case. 

As one example, consider the rather remarkable turnaround in attitude of Senator Lindsey Graham, the three-term Senator from South Carolina who also served almost a decade in the House of Representatives.  A recent article from CNN explores this transformation. Before receiving the Republican nomination for president:

Graham said this of Trump: “You know how you make America great again?  Tell Donald Trump to go to hell.”  And, oh yeah, Graham also called Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot”. 

Fast-forward to the here and now.  “To every Republican, if you don’t stand behind this President, we’re not going to stand behind you,” Graham said in South Carolina recently (Cillizza 2019).

So why has Graham reversed his tactics?  “While Graham’s number used to lag those of other Republicans among GOP identifiers, since he has taken up the President’s banner on most every issue, his approval among Republicans in South Carolina has steadily risen” (Cillizza 2019).  Senator Lindsey Graham is not burdened either by ideology or consistency and thus serves as a perfect illustration of David Mayhew’s theory that many politicians are “single-minded reelection seekers” (Mayhew 2004, 17).

Although simply looking at rhetoric and tweets might lead one to believe that Democratic leaders such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has been in the House for the last 32 years, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has been in the Senate for 20 years, are bitter enemies of the president and thus would have little desire to work together, much of their mutual animosity is kabuki theater.  For example, as taken from an article from late March 2019, “President Donald Trump says he wants to work with Democrats to pass legislation to rebuild U.S. infrastructure…‘They want it, I want it,’ Trump said, adding that he spoke to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ‘the other day’ about the issue” (Breuinger 2019).

While senior members of both parties have seen presidents come and go, staying in power by working to pass legislation for the benefit of their constituents and thus bolster their reelection chances, the current crop of freshman Democrats have been a largely vocal group, several of them making headlines for bucking their own party leadership openly calling for the impeachment of the president despite opposition from Speaker Pelosi. (Perticone 2019).  In addition, others have found that once in office, legislators are typically relatively stable in their voting behavior (Asher & Weisber 1978) and thus new members, who are more polarized than the generation who came before, would be less likely to support the president.

Strength of the Opposition

Based upon the assumption of Mayhew, one would expect that congressional legislators are keenly sensitive to the power of presidential opposition in his or her district.  In the case of a Republican President such as Donald Trump, the greater Democratic candidates perform electorally, the less likely it would be for the member of Congress, regardless of their partisan affiliation, to support the president’s agenda.  “It may also be true that legislators who are truly insecure about their political standing, or that of the president, might be more willing to base their decisions on whatever local information they do have than to make risky inferences from national trends” (Borrelli & Simmons 1993, 107).

Hypothesis 1 – Representatives from states and districts which reported lower vote totals for Donald Trump in the 2016 elections ought to have correspondingly lower levels of support for him while in Congress.

Hypothesis 2 – Female legislators as a whole ought to have lower levels of support for President Trump as compared to male legislators, regardless of their party affiliation.

Hypothesis 3 – Support for the president in Congress ought to be positively correlated with legislators’ tenure in office, thus more senior members are more likely to support the president as compared to incoming freshman.

Hypothesis 4 –Higher vote totals for Democratic Congressional candidates in the 2018 midterm elections, regardless of victory, ought to correlate with lower support scores for a Republican president for the legislator of that district.

Data Collection and Analysis  

I gathered the data for my regressions from several sources.  My dependent variable, the Trump support score, and my independent variable of the 2016 Trump vote margin both come from Aaron Bycoffe on the website which he reports was compiled using data from ProPublica, Daily Kos, the Cook Political Report, and the U.S. Senate (Bycoffe 2019).   Although his data includes every senator and representative who have served in any portion of the Trump presidency, I’ve restricted my analysis to current members of Congress and thus have 100 observations for the U.S. Senate and 432 for the U.S. House of Representatives.  Although earlier political scientists have wrestled with the question of what Congressional votes one should consider, such as overall support, non-unanimous support, single-vote support, or the use of key votes, no matter what method one uses, so long as it is done uniformly, the differences between the measurements are usually minor.  (Edwards 1985).

My remaining independent variables, Republican, Years in the U.S. Senate/U.S. House, Female, and Percentage of the Democratic vote in the last relevant general election all come from Politico as listed on four different sections on their website (2014 Election Results Senate, 2016 Election Results: Senate, House Election Results 2018, Senate Election Results 2018).

The U.S. Senate results provide highly statistically significant evidence for the first hypothesis only, which tested the theory put forth by Aaron Bycoffe, that legislators are influenced by presidential election outcomes as illustrated by the 2016 election results.  A greater percentage of the vote that President Trump captured in a state in the 2016 election is positively correlated with an increased likelihood of a U.S. Senator from that state voting with the president’s wishes.  Given that the Trump margin had a range of -32.2 to positive 46.3, means that two senators who have the highest and lowest Trump margins respectively are predicted to differ in support for President Trump’s legislative proposals by about 26.4% points.   As expected, the partisan variable is remarkably strong, predicting a Trump support score difference of 56.46 points and it is significant at the 99.9% level. 

In addition, the percentage of the Democratic vote in the last general election had a P value of .9, thus only statistically significant at the 90% CI level, but surprisingly it had a positive coefficient thus indicating that a greater level of Democratic support in a district is related to stronger support for the president.  Running the model again, with the percentage of the vote for the last Democratic candidate for Senate alongside the partisan control while excluding the other previously used variables, yields a negative coefficient for the Democratic vote, as predicted, but it is still not statistically significant.

Looking at the results for the U.S. House paints a markedly different picture.  Here, we find statistically significant evidence for the first three hypotheses.  Although part of the explanation could revolve around the sample size, which is more than four times as large as the previous model, research from other political scientists leads me to believe that there is more to this phenomenon than such a simple explanation.  As with the Senate, the partisanship plays the largest role in predicted support scores for President Trump though it is even larger than the value predicted for the U.S. Senate.  This finding coincides with the research of Sean Theriault who found that party polarization in the U.S. House of Representatives is greater than what is found in the U.S. Senate.  “Since the early 1970s, the Senate has polarized about 80 percent as much as the House” (Theriault 2008, 197).  In addition, almost all of Theriault’s “Gingrich Senators”, members of the Senate who previously served in the House with Newt Gingrich and are believed to be more polarized than those who have not, are no longer members of that chamber.

The House’s coefficient on the 2016 Trump vote margin is only about a third as strong as it in the Senate model, though I would suspect that part of this difference stems from the increased partisan polarization as well as state legislative efforts at gerrymandering to draw as many safe, noncompetitive districts as possible within their borders.  As potential evidence of gerrymandering, we observe an even greater disparity in the 2016 Trump vote margin ranging from a staggering -88.9 to a positive 63.  Thus, when considering legislators from two different House districts, one with the highest observed Trump vote margin and another from the lowest, this model would predict a support score difference of 16.1 points, holding everything else equal.

As predicted, the coefficient on the female variable in the House is negative and also statistically significant.  Again, this difference could stem from the fact that there are more women in the House, so the sample size is larger.  By proportion, they are roughly equal at the present time.  While 25 of the 100 U.S. Senators are female or 25%, 102 of the 432 or 24% of Representatives are female.  But there is a considerable disparity in partisanship between the two groups.  While 32% of female Senators are Republican, less than half of that number, 13%, of women in the House are members of the GOP (Women in the U.S. House of Representatives 2019, Women in the U.S. Senate 2019).

Lastly, as was the case with the Senate, the coefficient of the 2018 Democratic vote percentage in the district is positive and this time statistically significant.  Running the regression again with just the last Democratic vote tempered by partisanship still produces a positive coefficient, therefore I have to conclude that my hypothesis that greater support for Democrats in a district should produce lower Trump support scores does not hold up, at least with this data set.  I would be interested to see if other researchers have found similar outcomes, and, if so, what can account for this result. 

As for the remaining hypotheses, if the reader will recall, the Senate data only provides evidence only for the first hypothesis, that lower Trump margins in the 2016 election coincide with lower support scores for the president.  By comparison, the House data indicates backing for the first hypothesis along with the second, that female legislators ought to be less likely to support Trump’s proposals as compared to their male counterparts, and the third, the longer a representative has been in office, the greater likelihood it is that he or she will back the current president.


When David Mayhew wrote Congress, the Electoral Connection back in 1974, he observed that when it comes to the United States Congress, “its parties are exceptionally diffuse.  It is widely thought to be especially ‘strong’ among legislatures as a checker of executive power” (Mayhew 2004, 7).  Although presumably true at the time that they were written, his words sound out of place in the present American political climate where many activists expect their elected officials to steadfastly stand with their party’s president or in opposition to the other party’s president regardless of supposed party principles or previously held positions.  But Mayhew wrote during a period when the parties were less cohesive and before the rise of polarization in the mid-1990s.  It would be interesting to hear how he would update the theories in his book if it were written today.  As he admits in the preface to the second edition, published in 2004, “I have not tried to revise or update this 1974 work.  That would be a nightmarish task” (Mayhew 2004, xiii). 

The once common conservative Democrat, liberal Republican, or ideologically moderate Congressman has become a relic of a bygone area.  Although non-conformists thrived in the mid 20th century, due to the pressures of partisan polarization, by the 1990s they had become all but extinct.  Legislators such as Jim Jeffords of Vermont or Richard Shelby of Alabama who often voted against the interests of the majority of their party or their party’s president either ideologically sorted themselves into a different party or found themselves replaced by partisans who did a better job at toeing the party line (Fleisher and Bond 2004).

Although the parties have split, in part over support for the current president, given historic trends one does have to wonder about the fate of Congressional Republicans who oppose President Trump more than their fellow partisans or Democrats who unduly support him.  As two examples, there is talk that Representative Amash may end up leaving the Republican Party and seeking the Libertarian nomination to challenge Trump in 2020 (Kopp 2019).  Presumably, if he were to do so, he would be expelled from the party and likely lose his seat in the House should he decide to run again.  On the other side of the aisle, there are rumors that Senator Manchin might run for West Virginia Governor in 2020 (Everett 2019).  If successful, the Senate would lose one of the few Democrats left in an increasingly Republican state.

As mentioned in an earlier footnote, as an avenue of future exploration along the lines of descriptive representation, it would be interesting to explore additional personal attributes of members of Congress.  For example, are they are immigrants to this country or the children of immigrants?  For those recently arrived individuals, do those with a European background support President Trump to a greater degree than those who come from, as the president calls them, “shithole countries” (Watkins & Phillip 2018)?  What about race and religion?  How much of a role do these personal factors play in levels of Congressional support?

At the end of the day, it seems obvious that political party affiliation is the most important factor in determining the level of a legislator’s support for President Trump, although it isn’t the only issue at play.  About a decade ago, Cheibub wrote that “separation of power leads to independent legislators who act on the basis of their individual electoral needs; in response to these needs, they build personal ties with their constituencies.  Consequently, parties will play smaller roles and legislative behavior will be more individualistic.” (Cheibub 2009, 127).  But, after observing trends, especially now, during the years of The Donald, the reverse may be the case in the United States. 


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[1] Noting the exception of political scientists in the mindset of Keith Krehbiel who have argued that political parties have no influence on legislative behavior.

[2] As I’m conducting final revisions on this paper, I realize that this thought may help explain why Representative Justin Amash (R-MI-3) has the lowest support score for President Trump among Republicans in the House of Representatives given that his father is a Palestinian immigrant and his mother is a Syrian immigrant.  It would be a good variable to explore in future research.

Ballot Access Laws and the Two-Party System

Partisanship and the strength of the two major political parties have waxed and waned in the United States over the last several decades.  After Ross Perot’s strong performance in the 1992 Presidential Elections, “a number of political observers-Theodore Lowi (1994) and Gordon Black and Benjamin Black (1994) among them-began to argue for the creation of a third major party, citing strong public support that they claim exists for a viable, mainstream alternative” (Collet 1996, 431-432).  Almost two and a half decades later, public support for a viable third party remains high.  According to a Gallup poll in September of 2017, only 37% of respondents believe that Republicans and Democrats do an adequate job while 61% claim that these parties do a poor job and a third party is needed.  This mark of 61% in favor of a new party is the highest point in their reported data from 2003-2017. (Gallup 2017).

One does have to wonder that if the majority of the American public favors the creation of a new political party then was hasn’t a viable alternative emerged?  In answering this question, it seems likely that many political scientists would point to Maurice Duverger and his famous political law.  As William Riker states, “Duverger’s law proposes that ‘the simple majority single-ballot system favors the two-party system.’  Duverger described this sentence by saying: ‘Of all the hypotheses…in this book, this approaches most nearly perhaps to a true sociological law’” (Riker 1982, 754).  I would wager that is unlikely the average American knows the name of Duverger or his law, nevertheless, throughout my exploration of politics I’ve heard it time and time again that voters don’t end up casting their ballots for their sincere choice due to worries of wasting a vote or throwing a vote away due to the idea that the United States is a two-party system.  But, is it possible that the reason why we don’t see an abundance of supposedly badly desired third-party options listed on the ballot is that there are other institutional factors at play, specifically in the area of ballot access laws?

In his famous work, An Economic Theory of Democracy, Anthony Downs explores the topic of party systems and ideologies in chapter 8.  He argues that in a population where political opinions are normally distributed in a bell curve, two major political parties will emerge on each end of the ideological spectrum and, over time, they will become more and more alike as they converge toward the median voter (Downs 1957, 114-119).  In the latter half of the chapter, Downs considers the topic of new political parties.  In particular, he explores the creation of the Labour Party in Britain who, thanks to the expanded franchise of the working class, was able to position itself to the left of the Liberal Party to become the dominant party to rival the Conservatives.  “New parties are most likely to appear and survive when there is an opportunity for them to cut off a large part of the support of an older party by sprouting up between it and its former voters” (Downs 1957, 128).  If, as Downs claims, parties shift over time, and new parties either spring up to supplant the old ones or in order to shift a political party in a certain ideological direction, why have we not observed this trend in the United States?

Randall Holcombe suggests an answer.  “In the Downsian model of political competition there are no barriers to entry, and suppliers of legislation are chosen from those who are competing to become suppliers based on how closely the output they propose to supply matches the desires of demanders” (Holcombe 1991, 233-234).  So why then have these ballot access laws emerged?  Holcombe compares incumbent legislators to a cartel and makes the claim that given that they control entry into the political marketplace, they can set thresholds, such as ballot access laws, to secure their continued monopoly on political power and keep competition at a minimum.  “The coalition of incumbents uses barriers to entry to place challengers at a competitive disadvantage, which frees incumbents from having to strictly follow the desires of the voters” (Holcombe 1991, 231).

Thomas Stratmann explored the topic of ballot access restrictions about 15 years ago by examining both signature requirements and filing fees.  He found “that monetary ballot access restrictions are an impediment to both major- and minor-party candidate entries into electoral contests…a $1000 increase in the filing fee leads to a 4% decrease in major-party candidates and a 43%…decrease in minor-party candidates” (Stratmann 2005, 69).  He also determined that “signature requirements have no statistically significant effect on a minor-party candidate’s decision to enter the race” (Stratmann 2005, 69).  I found this second statement particularly curious and one that demanded further investigation.

Unlike many other nations, the United States does not have uniform ballot access laws.  “US electoral administration is decentralized and the exact voting experience (such as ballot format and voting technology) can vary from state to state (and even within states)” (Taylor 2018, 721).  He goes on to add, “a cursory look at the US party and electoral systems would suggest that they represent clear-cut proof of Duverger’s law, the notion that single-seat plurality elections tend to create two-party systems” (Taylor 725).  From 1946 to 2014, he reports that in the United States the effective number of political parties is 2.07 while the effective number of parliamentary parties is even lower, 1.94. (Taylor 2018, 725).  He briefly touches on ballot access laws, “state election laws essentially guarantee a ballot slot for major party nominees in the United States, but not for smaller third parties (most especially not new ones)” (Taylor 2018, 727), but his central theory is that the rigid American two-party system results from a presidential system and the phenomenon of primary elections.

So, do ballot access laws make an observable difference in elections?  If so, how?  One particular election springs readily to mind.  During Super Tuesday on March 6th, 2012, along with a multitude of other states Virginia held its Republican presidential primary.  Although several candidates sought to have their names listed, including Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, according to the Republican Party of Virginia “Gingrich and Perry fell short of the 10,000 signatures of registered voters required for a candidate’s name to be on the ballot…it was unclear if Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, or former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman submitted petitions to the state board” (NBC News).  Gingrich, Huntsman, Perry, and Santorum filed a lawsuit in order to be listed as candidates but were unsuccessful (Myers 2012).  As a result, Virginia voters ended up with only two choices, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.  

After this election lawmakers sprang into action to lower ballot access laws presumably in order to provide greater competition.  Where primary challengers once needed 10,000 valid signatures with at least 400 signatures from each of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts to run for any statewide office, (§ 24.2-506) after 2012 both of these requirements were cut in half (§ 24.2-545).  In the next election which followed these reduced requirements, 13 candidates appeared on the ballot for the 2016 Virginia Republican presidential primary.  Although certainly curious, one should be wary of drawing conclusions based upon a single observation.  Once more contests have taken place, it will be interesting to note if the average number of candidates on the ballot in a primary is statistically higher after the signature requirement slashing. 

However, it is also important to note that unless they are running for a party’s nomination in a primary, neither Republican nor Democratic candidates need to collect any signatures to have their names placed on the ballot for a general election.  But, any third party or independent candidate is still required to cross this threshold (§ 24.2-506).  Along these same lines, one does have to wonder if ballot access laws are used as a tool to keep third-party and independent candidates out of competition (as Virginia State Senator Mark Obenshain (R-26) mentioned to me in late 2014).

With all of these thoughts in mind, my hypothesis is two-fold.  First, there is an inverse relationship between the hurdles of ballot access and the appearance of third-party candidates.  That is to say that greater restrictions on ballot access will result in fewer third-party candidates running for office and fewer restrictions will result in a greater number of third-party candidates.  Second, one would expect fewer uncontested elections in times when ballot access requirements are reduced.

Testing my hypothesis turned out to be a more difficult task than originally anticipated.  Unfortunately, ballot access laws are not readily available for most states and require poring through either state code or election laws.  My original thought was to have “a tale of two Virginias”.  Given that both West Virginia and Virginia have a bicameral General Assembly featuring a 100-member House of Delegates and either a 40- or 34-member State Senate, it seemed like a natural comparison at first glance.  Virginia requires third party and independent candidates to gather 125 voter signatures to appear on the ballot for House of Delegates and 250 signatures for the State Senate while West Virginia requires 1% of the number of voters in the previous election.  However, upon closer inspection, this comparison quickly became exceedingly messy.  For starters, while Virginia elects its House of Delegates in every odd-numbered year and the entire Virginia Senate in every other odd-numbered year, West Virginia elects its House of Delegates in every even-numbered year along with an alternating half of the West Virginia Senate.  Adding further complication, although the Virginia House of Delegates is elected in 100 single-member districts, presently the West Virginia House of Delegates is broken into 58 districts where most are elected through single-member plurality and others in multi-member block votes.  Given these considerable differences in election times and district magnitude, it seemed nearly impossible to draw any meaningful comparison between the General Assemblies of the two states.

Exploring the idea of changes in ballot access further, I discovered that West Virginia had modified its ballot access laws in 1999, doubling the signature requirement from 1% of the votes cast in the previous election to 2%.  However, in 2009, the West Virginia General Assembly voted to return to their earlier requirement of 1%.  (West Virginia 2017).  Even though I could not find the lines in the West Virginia Code which listed these changes, I contacted the office of the Secretary of State who confirmed the details mentioned above.  In addition, although I would have preferred to look strictly at single-member districts, as I believe it would yield more precise results, using this information I would be able to examine the total number of third-party candidates who ran in each election cycle in years where the 1% rule was employed and others where the 2% hurdle was in place to determine if either resulted in statistically significant differences.  At the same time, these results would show if times of lower ballot thresholds would yield more political competition through fewer uncontested elections.

For this data, I combed through election results from the West Virginia Secretary of State’s website.  I decided to use general election data from 1996 to 2018 for several reasons.  First, one of the major third parties in West Virginia, the Libertarian Party of West Virginia, was founded in 1994.  Although a Libertarian candidate ran for governor in the 1980 gubernatorial election, the party did not field another candidate for this office until 1996.  Similarly, the Mountain Party did not run a candidate for governor until 2000 (Historical Election Results).  Second, I discovered that as one explores the publicly available data, the farther one goes back in time, the spottier information becomes.  For example, for several elections in the mid-1990s, the website fails to list the party affiliation of some or all of the General Assembly candidates.  Therefore, I would need to exclude such elections and thus each year would not have the same number of elections, 100 for the House of Delegates and 17 for the State Senate.  Along these same lines, for uniformity purposes, I excluded the results for any special elections that took place for either of these bodies during the time frame.

Figure 1 shows both the total number of 3rd party candidates (those who are neither Republican nor Democrat) who ran for the West Virginia House of Delegates in a given year, as well as the total number of unopposed elections.  As mentioned, after the 1998 elections, the General Assembly doubled the signature requirements from 1% to 2% and, as the chart shows, one does not see the number of 3rd party candidates return or exceed the 1998 levels until 2012 after the ballot requirements were lowered once more.

Running a regression with the dichotomous variable of ballot reform (the elections of 1996-1998 and 2010-2018 as opposed to 2000-2008), we find a fairly substantial coefficient of 6.14 with a P value of .05, lending considerable support for the idea that yes, in the West Virginia House of Delegates 3rd party competition is statistically higher when ballot access laws are at a lower threshold.

By comparison, running a similar regression using the same dichotomous variable of ballot reform, we find that, on average, that during times of lower ballot access thresholds, there are about 4 fewer uncontested races per election cycle.  However, this result is not statistically significant. 

Moving on to the West Virginia State Senate we observe a similar pattern.  Right before the ballot access signature requirement was doubled, there was a high-water mark of 3 3rd party candidates that was not met or exceeded until the 2014 elections.  I find it also especially interesting the sharp decline in uncontested Senate elections after 2012, dropping to 0 for these last two cycles. 

Looking at a regression for the Senate using the same variables as the previous tables, we find that this lower threshold for ballot access predicts about 1.5 more 3rd party candidates per cycle as compared to the higher percentage.  The P value is .09, which is higher than the desired .05 or lower, but given that only 17 seats are elected each cycle and only 10 elections are in the data set, I think it still shows some important significance.

Moving on to unopposed Senate elections we find that lower ballot access laws predict 1.5 fewer uncontested contests.  However, like the House results, the high P value means that we shouldn’t think too much of this outcome.

After presenting these findings in my class, Elections and Political Parties Around the World, my professor, Dr. Herron, suggested examining the results of local elections in West Virginia as well, based upon the assumption that third parties are more likely to run candidates at the local level given that costs of running such a campaign would be lower as would be the signature requirements necessary to achieve ballot access.  The three largest cities in West Virginia, Charleston, Morgantown, and Huntington, seemed to be the most logical places to examine.  After some preliminary research, I discovered that cities in West Virginia hold their council elections in the spring of odd-numbered years.  However, with the exception of the road bond issue in 2017 and a vote on an amendment to the West Virginia Constitution in 2005, the Secretary of State’s website had no other information about odd-numbered year elections.  Calling Mac Warner’s office revealed that state law did not require localities to present their municipal election results to the secretary and so they chose not to do so. 

Delving further, I tried calling the clerk in the respective cities in the hopes of gleaning information.  In Charleston, they told me that they did not keep any records of their previous council elections.  In Morgantown, the elections are nonpartisan and thus it would be nearly impossible to determine if any of the candidates were associated with third parties.  Lastly, in Huntington, the clerk told me that they did not have any electronic records of their city council elections.  However, as the election results are listed in the council meeting following the election, one could go through the council minutes for the past two decades to compile the data.  Unfortunately, that data collection would have to take place by hand in the municipal building in Huntington which although may prove valuable, will require considerably more time to collect.  By comparison, the Virginia Board of Elections website includes results for city council elections from 2000 to the present, General Assembly elections from 1947 to the present, and federal elections all the way back to 1789 (though the data appears to be incomplete prior to 1851) (Virginia Elections Database).  If I could offer a policy recommendation for the West Virginia General Assembly, I would suggest that not only should they require localities to report their results to the secretary of state, they should make certain that the records listed on the website are as complete and accurate as possible. 

In a 2012 article comparing the single-member plurality systems in the United States, the United Kingdom, and India, Patrick Dunleavy declares “Duverger’s law is now junk”, finding that “perfect two-party systems like this are now found almost nowhere outside of the USA…in particular, all the major Westminster system countries have shown strong trends toward multi-partism” (Dunleavy 2012).  Richard Winger has the same observation stating “in most two-party systems, there are substantial third parties.  In Great Britain…the Liberal Democratic Party is a very substantial third party…Canada has several very substantial third parties…only in the United States is there a two-party system with no substantial, long-lived third parties” (Winger 1996, 321).  Returning to Taylor, he adds, “the presence of first-past-the post systems do not create such outcomes in Canada, India, or the United Kingdom, such rules do not typically create the type of rigidity that we see in the United States” (Taylor 2018, 725).

What is the difference which can account for the abundance and success of third parties in other first past the post systems and their almost nonexistence in American politics?  Could stringent and unfairly applied ballot access, as mentioned in the case of both Virginia and West Virginia be the key?  Although he explores a much earlier time period than the focus of this paper, Winger argues “ballot access laws for new and small political parties were lenient in the United States, prior to 1930.  In fact, there were no ballot access laws in the U.S. before 1888.”  As a result, “there were several substantial third parties before 1930” (Winger 1996, 322).  He goes on to state that changes were made in ballot access laws due to fears surrounding the Communist Party and although these stringent requirements were successful in their aims to thwart the Communists, they also successfully squelched every other third party as well. (Winger 1996).

However, as mentioned in the early paragraphs, not all researchers agree that more stringent ballot access laws have led to a decline in American third parties.  For example, although Tamas and Hindman admit, as Winger does, that “ballot access laws became gradually more difficult for third-parties since the inception of the Australian ballot…[and]…there was a dramatic drop in the percent of House districts in which third-party candidates were getting onto the ballot…[however]…except in extreme cases, ballot access laws have had only a small impact on the ability of third-parties to get their House candidates onto the ballot” (Tamas & Hindman 2014, 273).  It is important to note that these researchers used data from federal level elections while I focused on state-level results.  It is possible, of course, that there is a discernable difference between the two and invites further explorations. 

In conclusion, the topic of ballot access laws and how they can influence third-party competition and electoral competition in general is an ongoing debate between political scientists that this paper cannot resolve by itself.  However, these West Virginia results provide some clues.  Given the findings of Dunleavy and others, I’d like to examine ballot access laws in both the UK and India to see if they have high thresholds or laws, as found in some US states, which create uneven playing fields so that existing political parties can use their advantage to squelch competition and potential rivals.  If not, this discovery would help explain why Duverger’s Law is still alive and well in this country while other researchers have discredited it when discussing single member plurality systems elsewhere.  Free and fair elections are the supposed hallmark of democratic nations.  After all, unequal ballot access laws clearly violate the international concept of free and fair elections.  “All candidates, parties, and political organizations that wish to run for office should be able to do so and to compete on the basis of equal and impartial treatment under the law and by the authorities” (The OSCE 2007).  If one or more political parties are using electoral laws to enforce a monopoly (or perhaps more appropriately called a duopoly) and prevent potential rivals from mounting a challenge, then the wishes of a majority of the American people for more options at the ballot box will continue to go unrealized. 


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