A Time for Testing: Social Science Theories


Donald Trump’s election has called into question numerous theories about how voters in the United States make decisions. The Democratic candidate lost even though the country was a peace and the economy was richer than it had been eight, four, or one year earlier. Those in the past were the best measures of who would win a presidential election.  There now is need for new political science theories to explain Trump’s success and identify bases for predicting future elections.

If we look at governance rather than election, we can see that a number of social science theories are going to get tested in the coming months.

One is the view, propounded by Theda Skocpol, that social welfare programs create constituencies that ensure their eternal preservation and periodic expansion. Social Security, the U.S. old age pension program, at first was limited in its coverage. Most women and African Americans were excluded and benefits were insufficient to provide for a dignified retirement. Over the eighty years since its initial passage, Social Security has been expanded to cover almost all Americans, benefits have become more generous, and additional provisions provide pensions for disabled workers. A similar story can be told about Medicare (the program that provides health care for Americans age 65 and older) and government provided student loans (which first were given only to military veterans and now to everyone). Those who first received these benefits became advocates for their preservation, and those who didn’t yet have access made expansion of these programs the focus of their political efforts. All attempts to repeal or cutback those programs failed. 

Trump and the Republican Congress now are in the midst of trying to repeal Obamacare (the now universally-adopted name for the Affordable Care Act), the legislation that extended health insurance to more than 20 million Americans who previously were without access to healthcare. Republicans already are encountering massive opposition, not just from Democrats who want to stymie their opponents in general and who have ideological commitments to expansive social welfare programs. Many Republicans and independents also are voicing concern. Some are beneficiaries of Obamacare and fear that its repeal and the meager replacement the Republicans offer will leave them without real heath insurance. Opposition also is coming from physicians, hospitals, and medical companies which have gained new customers and now enjoy larger profits thanks to the new patients now able to afford healthcare through Obamacare. If the Republicans fail to repeal Obamacare, or if their replacement is almost identical to the existing provisions of the law, then this theory-- that social programs, even one like Obamacare that has been in operation for only three years, are invulnerable to challenge because of their base of clients—will be confirmed. If the Republicans do manage to repeal the law and replace it with the weak alternative they propose then this will be one more social science theory that no longer fits the reality of Trump’s America.

Joseph Nye, a political scientist who took time away from Harvard to serve in the Carter and Clinton Administrations, coined the concept of soft power. He argued that the US exerts influence on other countries more by its example of liberal democracy than through military or economic power. Trump’s praise of authoritarianism at home as well as abroad, and his open expression of bigotry, exemplified by his ban on immigrants from seven Muslim countries, has in the first months of his presidency severely weakened the bases of American soft power. This is a harder theory to test, since US influence already was in decline before Trump’s election, owing to military defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan and China’s economic rise. However, there are clear measures of influence that can be tracking over the coming years. Nye wrote about the influence of American culture. It is easy to track how many people outside the US watch American movies and television. If those decline, and if fewer foreigners come to vacation or study in the US, we will have strong indicators of a decline in US soft power. 

It will be difficult to determine how such a loss of soft power affects America’s geopolitical influence because other factors can lead countries to reject US dictates and advice. However, we can look at policy debates within countries and compare how the US is depicted. If the US once was shown as a model to be emulated and now becomes a warning of a path to avoid, then the importance of soft power will be demonstrated by its absence.

Finally, Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis holds that the national rivalries of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century are being displaced by conflicts among civilizations. Huntington felt that Islam was the most aggressive and violent civilization, with “bloody borders.” Trump is the latest and most prominent exponent of a new nationalism. Sometimes it is asserted in civilizational terms, as when he and his closest advisors like Stephen Bannon call for limiting immigration to people from Christian Europe. More often, he means to assert American interests against all others, including Europeans. If Trump lasts in office, and he continues on his nationalist path, we will see if the strongest divides again become national.

Countries have limited resources and therefore usually can fight only a few battles. If the US focuses on challenging a few economic rivals then Huntington will have been wrong about the growing power of civilizational identities, especially since his theory already was belied by the actual bloody conflicts of recent decades, which have been within rather than between civilizations. The greatest casualties have been from wars within Africa and the Muslim world. The US has intervened in some of them, but it has done so in pursuit of national hegemony not to uphold supposed civilizational values.

No doubt, Trump will provide us with more surprises, and we will have opportunities to question and revise other social science theories. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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