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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

The Disruption of American Politics

Allan Rivlin and Sheri Rivlin, Zen Political Research
Washington, DC
November 8, 2016


MODERATOR: Hi, good afternoon. My name is Miriam Magdieli, and on behalf of the Foreign Press Center, I would like to welcome you all here this afternoon. It’s my pleasure to introduce Allan Rivlin of Zen Political Research. Mr. Rivlin has spent more than 30 years in politics, fundraising, advocacy, and polling, including 17 years with Peter Hart Research Associates, where he was a partner. He is considered an expert both in qualitative and quantitative research, including advanced statistical analysis of survey data, so we’re very fortunate to have him here tonight. As I mentioned, he is one of the founders of Zen Political Research, and he will share his insights and thoughts on today’s election.

Just one final note: Mr. Rivlin’s opinions are his own. They do not reflect those of the U.S. Government. And he will speak for a few minutes, then we’ll open it up to Qs and As. If you ask a question, please state your name and outlet at the top. Thank you very much.

MR RIVLIN: Hi. Thank you. The first thing I’ll tell you is I do not know who will win this election and I’m not here to predict tomorrow’s news today. What I want to talk about is the disruption of American politics that the election of 2016 represents, and first I want to define my term “disruption.” And here what I’m talking about is the disruption that’s been going on in all areas of commerce since the dawn of the internet age, where you see airlines and taxi service and insurance companies and investments, law, medicine, but especially the disruption in the delivery – the news media and the delivery of information is a trend that we’ve been seeing.

And my wife Sherri, who is the other founder of Zen Political Research, and I were at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas the year before last, in March of 2015. And there the word “disruption” is a good thing. When – if you’re in Silicon Valley or Wall Street or the South by Southwest Festival, disruption means opportunity. It means incumbent businesses being overtaken by new insurgent businesses. And we left that festival, where there was some discussion of disruption of politics, and wrote a blog post that said disruption in American politics isn’t just possible, it’s in our inevitable future.

Now, at that time, Donald Trump was not even a candidate for the race. Everyone assumed it would be Jeb Bush versus Hillary Clinton. The opposite of disruption is legacy, and so we looked at all the – at that point there were some – nearly 20 candidates for – considering getting into the presidential race, and we said who’s legacy here? And the answer was Jeb Bush. And we were clear that Jeb Bush was the pure legacy candidate in the race, and we made what at that time was a real prediction that Jeb Bush was going nowhere, and certainly he did go nowhere for exactly that reason. He represented everything people didn’t like about Washington. Now, you can also say Hillary represented legacy as well on the Democratic side, but as the first woman who had a realistic chance of being president, she’s not a pure legacy candidate. But clearly, what we’ve seen in the period since then is that the disruption in American politics took over and has become the theme that really defines this election.

So if Donald Trump wins, then people will say he’s like the Google or Facebook of this election. If he doesn’t win, if Hillary wins, then it doesn’t mean that disruption didn’t happen. It means that disruption continues, but he’s more the MySpace or the AOL or Yahoo – companies that are not eventual winners but nonetheless are stepping stones from a period where everybody got their news from CBS News or The New York Times or the daily paper or Time and Newsweek to the period where we’re in now, where everyone with a computer can be their own editor and everyone with a cell phone could produce a video that gets seen around the world. It’s the disruption in media that makes the disruption in politics possible.

But what characterizes disruption is a lack of loyalty or even disdain for the incumbent institutions and new ways of communicating with voters. And what the 2016 cycle started with was Donald Trump essentially – really the voters in the Republican Party essentially saying “you’re fired” to the leadership of the Republican Party. And you had the same kind of insurgency on the Democratic side, although it was beaten back, the – Bernie Sanders beaten back by Hillary Clinton.

But the – this trend toward disruption didn’t start with this election. It has been ongoing. It was the case that the Republican Party was the establishment party going back to the period of the Vietnam War. Ronald Reagan ran against Washington, and that was an effective insurgency that looks a lot like this cycle. But then that gained momentum, rising all the way to the rabidly anti-Washington Tea Party and then Trump. And what we really see is a political realignment of insiders versus outsiders. So there was a period in this cycle where – I’m a partisan Democrat. There was a period in this cycle where I was very certain that Donald Trump was going to win. And I think many people in the Washington insider political class in both parties would have said sometime in the summer that it was really his race to lose if only he could stop getting in the way of his own campaign and run a pure insider versus outsider campaign, without making it about all the other things that helped keep him in the news but turned off so many different groups.

And so there is a very strong feeling that – in the electorate that the transformation of technology and the globalization of the economy has meant that there are winners and losers, and a large number of people count themselves among the losers, and they don’t feel that – they feel that the system is rigged by the powerful and wealthy for the powerful and wealthy, and that they’re not part of that. And so both the Bernie Sanders effect and the Trump effect share that in common and is really being expressed.

So my main point is if Donald Trump wins, then it’s clear to see that there’s been a major disruption in American politics. Under the scenario that Hillary Clinton wins, people will breathe a sigh of relief and feel that the disruption has turned back, but that’s really a temporary feeling. What’s really going on are much deeper forces that are going to be driving American politics continuing into the future.

And so what we have is a period where the support for Congress, belief in Congress as an institution – as all of our institutions have come under fire, from the Olympics to large corporations to our police departments, but especially government and our politicians, people have really lost faith in these institutions and the major news media – and support for Congress has been bouncing between 10 percent and 20 percent in national polls for a long time, that we really have a system that, whomever wins, the consequences are likely to be less than it may appear from other parts of the world that are looking in on our election.

We have a phrase that – in American politics that we repeat to each other all the time and that is that elections have consequences. And the reason we say elections have consequences to one another all the time is because it contradicts our actual experience. Really, we have a lot of problems. We have an election and the day after the election, we realize that little has been resolved of those problems and very little is getting done right now. So we have a governing system that is very dysfunctional now. It is a broken system. It’s not completely broken, but it’s been breaking for a long time and it’s getting worse. The structural issues that lead to this problem are that we have a 50/50 nation, but we have almost no 50/50 congressional districts. We have congressional districts that are drawn to be very highly partisan, so there are now very few of the centrists in our – the House of Representatives in particular to make the deals to get things done.

So it is, in some sense, just as our founding fathers set it up to be, a very conservative system where it’s very hard to get things done. But right now, we have a system where it’s very hard to get things done and that will continue after this election, regardless of who wins. So if Donald Trump wins, we’re not likely to be in the totalitarian state that his critics have suggested he would take us to because he wouldn’t have the power to get there. And if Hillary Clinton wins, we’re not likely to get into the liberal utopia of her supporters or that her critics fear she would take us to. She really will – if Hillary wins, it’s looking like it will be largely due to Hispanic voters and especially women Hispanics, Latinas. And so immigration reform will be top of her agenda and something on an infrastructure bill will be the top of her agenda, and that may be the end of her agenda. It’ll be difficult for her to get either of those things passed and it probably will not go further than that.

So what I really – I’m not predicting the election but I am predicting the future, and the future I’m predicting is kind of dismal, where we continue to have a divided government and the inability to really solve the bigger problems that we realize we need to solve to get our nation and our economy healthy.

The – that’s a fairly dismal prediction. The path out of that would be if either party had real solutions to the challenges that the economically challenged voters are experiencing. I – at best, Hillary Clinton has gotten halfway there before the election, and if she should prevail, she should be addressing that other half right away. There’ll be lots of discussion of a nation needing to heal, but I wouldn’t bet on it. But I don’t know who’s going to win.

Anyway, those are my remarks. And now I’m happy to take any questions that anyone has.

MODERATOR: Please, right over here. And a reminder to state your name and outlet at the top. Thank you.

QUESTION: Konrad Kramar. I’m from the Austrian national daily Kurier. We’ve seen this swing of working-class voters all over Europe. Why didn’t we see it in that size in the U.S. polls? It might change today, but, like, if I compare it to Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, what have you, you’ve seen 20 percent of voters go from the social democratic parties to the populist right. So in comparison to the U.S., is the phenomenon similar or maybe are we up to some surprise tonight?

MR RIVLIN: It’s a very good question, and I don’t rule out any surprise tonight and I’d love to all get back together tomorrow and have the other half of this discussion when we know how the votes are counted. I think that that has been the fear all along. I think that the first thing you can say is that we are not Austria or Europe. We are different and so many different things are at play. But then the other half of it is this belief that Trump could have won but he offended too many groups along the way. And so he started out by offending Hispanic Americans and then by offending Muslim Americans in the way he did – and there are several other things he did – he really started challenging college-educated voters altogether.

It was sometime in the summer, when the Miss Universe was being discussed and then the tape came out about women, that you add women to that list. And then you’re just building up numbers of opposition that become so great that even if there are other forces at work, even if there’s a working-class movement at work, it is diminished by the people who are ruled outside the group that you’re appealing to. So I think that may have mitigated what might have been a broader trend and may be a broader trend continuing, although I’m not sure it would – it feels the same flavor as it may feel in Europe.

MODERATOR: Over here, please. Thank you.

QUESTION: Hi. My name is Nikki Kasimova. I’m from Echo newspaper in Azerbaijan. You mentioned the nation needing to heal and Clinton addressing the working class, or the other side. And as I’ve been watching this election, I had a feeling that the divide is great and that there really is so much mutually opposing rhetoric. But it kind of reminded me, I was here when George Bush, Jr. was elected. And it also felt the same way, and I had a lot of people I knew who said if George Bush wins, we’re moving to Canada. And I’m hearing the same thing, and a lot of them did. But I just was wondering whether in your view this – and again, just based on the really – the kind of rhetoric where – we’re hearing from the more liberal base, saying I don’t believe I’m sharing a country with people with whom I share so little in common. And do you feel that that division, that divisive rhetoric within the country, is more obvious in this election? Is it really as bad as it sounds, or has the country been already through that sort of rhetoric back and forth?

MR RIVLIN: I have a lot of things I want to say in response to that. Let me see if I can organize them and get them out. First of all, that election – those two elections, Bush vs. Gore and then Bush vs. Kerry, were remarkably divisive. And I often imagine a world where Bush, having won in the Supreme Court, having won less than the majority of the popular vote, realized that it was his job to heal the nation right away and really reached out to the other side in a national reconciliation move, but they did just the opposite. They grabbed the reins of power and they acted in a way that really angered the Democrats who thought that Gore had been a statesman to step aside, as we all hope whoever is not the winner tonight will be willing to step aside.

Then it felt like it was the worst it could be, and now it feels like it’s the worst it can be. And there are many statements from people, “Yeah, we said Bush was the worst you could be, but we cried wolf then. Donald Trump really is the worst we could have.” And so even though we said Bush was really bad, he wasn’t that bad. This guy’s really bad. And so in that sense – but I do feel that whomever wins, the best thing they could do would be to heal the nation. And speaking to the supporters of whoever wins, there is a long way to go to start seeing the opposition as worthy of respect. And there is an awful lot of rhetoric among both sides, but in particular my side, where there is very little respect for the people who support Donald Trump. And I think that’s got to change, because there are a lot of reasons to vote for Donald Trump that are not deplorable. And I think that that word in particular is one that, should Hillary win, she should address and walk back and really try to heal the nation in that sense.

Those – that was at least two thirds of what I thought of when you asked your question.

MODERATOR: Next question. (Inaudible), please.

QUESTION: I’m Juliano Basile from Valor Economico. It’s a Brazilian financial newspaper. How divided is the country now after the elections? Do you think that the country was more or less divided before the elections? And how it will be possible for a president to govern in such a divided, two-party system?

MR RIVLIN: First of all, it’s an excellent question. And it’s more complicated than we’ve had in the past. Many of you are from countries with multi-cameral – multiparty states. But we’re so used to having Democrats and Republicans, and the left and the right, and everything simple. Well, the split that’s gone on within the right is remarkable and sets up a very interesting period where – for right now, let’s say, should Hillary Clinton win, and I’ll go even further, and should she not sweep into power to strong ruling majorities in both houses of Congress – I think it’s very unlikely that she will get a House of Representatives; she’ll be dealing with Speaker Ryan. The Senate is a little bit more up for grabs, but the Senate will be very closely divided and very hard to work politically.

But you have this – beyond the – Donald Trump defeated the Tea Party candidates in order – on his way to completely obliterating the establishment candidates. So he represents – his brand of Republicanism stands very much in opposition to the establishment Republicans who have – many of which, particularly the Bush family, which represents two presidents and a candidate for president, and everybody who’s worked for them – many people who were in their administrations came out in support of Hillary during this campaign. So there would theoretically be a way to move legislation through with the Democrats, assuming one unites the liberals and the moderates within the Democratic Party, the Sanders and Clinton wings of the Democratic Party. You could have the moderates and all of the Democrats and some portion of the Republicans who were not Trump supporters, and theoretically you could move things forward. I don’t think that’s likely. And the reason it’s not likely is because all of the Republicans right now fear their right more than they fear the center, and so it will be very hard to work with Republicans. Even if Speaker Ryan wants to move legislation forward, the rank and file is not necessarily there to support it.

So there may be enough to get one or two big things done in the early period, and then it will become very hard to move things forward. And the cultural divide that your question referred to, but your question also referred to just where the supporters of the two candidates feel themselves to be from different countries. And they don’t live in the same neighborhoods; they live geographically quite separated from each other. I don’t – I’m not optimistic. I would hope that we could learn to speak to one another. I’m not optimistic that we will find good language to do that.

MODERATOR: Yes please.

QUESTION: I’m Nammo Abdullah with Rudaw (ph) from Kurdistan. I have one question. So Donald Trump, during the campaign, showed some one might call authoritarian tendencies. For example, he said if he becomes president, he will try to bring back the libel – to have libel law in the United States. So I want to know how much faith you have in the American institutions that will prevent any president from abuse of power.

MR RIVLIN: I – in some sense, I’m less dismal when it comes to that. I think that the American institutions – in a Trump victory, assuming a Trump victory – a close one, perhaps – there – it would be more difficult than many fear for Donald Trump to bring back any kind of authoritarianism. We have the courts and we also – that would defy his coalition, if he really did it, that there are many people who support him for economic, cultural, feelings of wanting to send a message, who would not be willing to support real authoritarianism if they saw it. So in that sense I think – and I – through them, to their legislators, he would face resistance even in his own party, and complete resistance from the Democrats if he tried to do that. And complete resistance from one or the other party right now is enough to block anything.

And so in that sense, I see a lot of things moving to the courts. I see – however this election comes out, there’ll be new in power and out of power, and the group out of power will test their ability to block legislation, and that will end up in our courts. I think it’s very likely that some number of states go into the courts right after this election. But we’re headed to a lot of things in the courts, but the courts here in this country are very strong and are designed to stop exactly the kind of move to authoritarianism you’re talking about.

MODERATOR: You had a question here.

QUESTION: Thank you. Dmitry Kirsanov of TASS. I wanted to try and clarify a couple of points, if I may. You – while speaking about disruptions, you also mentioned Ronald Reagan and essentially put him in the same category, saying that he ran against Washington and was a disruption himself. Do you think Donald Trump is a one-off phenomenon, or it’s a dawn of a principal new era in U.S. political life?

And the other thing is, since you are in the business of predicting the future and already told us that it’s going to be dismal regardless of who wins, why is that? Is it – I mean, you said that Republicans are fragmented and there is center and the right and all that. Is it simply because no one will be able to negotiate with each other, or what’s going on, precisely? Thanks.

MR RIVLIN: I – the first question – there is a debate among historians as to whether history is driven by great men and women – we have to say that now with the possibility that a woman could lead – or by forces of technology and sociology and politics. That’s an old debate. And one could look at Donald Trump as evidence of the great man theory, and especially if he doesn’t win – if he doesn’t prevail, then you say he simply wasn’t a great man to achieve. But I really think he’s evidence of the larger technological-social forces, and in that sense, if he’s Yahoo or MySpace, he will be followed by others who will walk down his path. I’m particularly worried by the Tea Party Republicans, represented perhaps by Senator Ted Cruz, who can see what Donald Trump did right to win the nomination but would not make the same mistakes he made in the general. That will be their theory and they will be formidable opponents to – now assuming a Hillary Clinton re-election bid.

And so in that sense – but what I’m really talking about isn’t dismal necessarily for the life of Americans, but it is that there’s so much that we could do to make the life of Americans better, but we haven’t been able to do it. I mean, there is an agenda of things that the political scientists and economists would want to do if they could just get Congress to make compromises and move things along: a major tax reform bill that makes things fairer for everyone and a lot simpler, and Democrats and Republicans could really agree on that; funding the infrastructure that would strengthen our economy; but mostly, my mother is famous for caring an awful lot about the long-term debt of this nation, and we live in a world that is over-leveraged and there’s too much debt and we’re not doing anything to really address that problem. And it doesn’t look like we’re going to be able to get things done.

I think the word I would really attach, predicting the future, is more chaos – that things are going to be more chaotic, with not the sort of reliable two parties with strong leadership in each of the parties, where Ronald Reagan, although he did represent – he ran against the establishment Republicans when he came to power and then certainly upset the Democratic power centers in Washington, but the way in which he did it, he was still a strong leader of his party and Tip O’Neill was a strong leader of his party and they could get together and make a deal that really helped the U.S. economy come out of the ‘80s in a much stronger place. We don’t have those kind of dealmakers right now because they don’t have that control over their own parties and they’re not able to make their deals, and in that sense, there’s just more chaos and new leaders emerging for the two parties constantly.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Tamrat and I’m an editor for Addis Fortune, which is a business paper based in Addis Ababa. I’m curious to know how much of weight can you give to the fact that one of the candidates is female and the attitude most male voters may have about that, and with the possibility that she may get elected, how do you foresee American men react to the fact that they will have a female president?

MR RIVLIN: I mean, I think that that may be – one of the things that happened as soon as Donald Trump got into the race is everybody started talking about Donald Trump and just about nothing else, and that is probably the biggest regret of this election, because it is a remarkable, historic story that America could elect first – the first African American president and that it’s not such a big deal followed by the first woman president and it’s not such a big deal.

But it really is remarkable the degree to which – I mean, there has always been, and it’s certainly helped Donald Trump to galvanize a sort of macho male base within his support. But there will be an awful lot of women voting for Trump and there will be an awful lot of men voting for Hillary Clinton. And to some degree, it may have happened far later than it did in many other countries. It may have happened far later than it should have in the United States. But it is happening with relatively little disruption, to use the word that I started with, and that is something to be celebrated, for certain.

MODERATOR: We’ll take one last question here.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir.

MR RIVLIN: Maybe one more.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir. This is Jahanzaib Ali. I’m from ARY News TV. What we have seen here in the presidential debates and the election – there is a politics of accusations, but lot of accusations – Hillary or Trump, I mean, the both of them are accusing each other for several thing. Do you really think that these are the real American values?

MR RIVLIN: I would like to say no right off the bat to you, but you look at our television and we have – an awful lot of our entertainment television shares the same characteristic. But it is also to our credit that Americans hate this election. They are so happy for it to be over. I mean, it shows up in the polling, but it shows up in your conversation with your neighbor. I mean, everyone is saying please, please, please, let this be over. And so our greatest fear is that, like the 2000 election, it’s not over instantly, and I don’t – again, I don’t know. But no, I mean, Americans hate this election, but they did pay an incredible amount of attention to Donald Trump.

And just the one thing I will say – I said before that the way to have a disruption is to have disloyalty to the incumbents but a new way of communicating with voters, and people say what Donald Trump did was he used Twitter and that that was his means of communication. I think that actually misses the point. What he figured out is that the old media only likes to criticize, and so he made himself the object of criticism by making a mistake – two mistakes a week so that the press was always talking about the mistake he had just made. And usually those mistakes were to be overly critical of somebody, so he used that fact that Americans are – and they say they don’t like it, but they like to hear somebody calling somebody else a name, and that became pretty much what you could wake up to or go to bed to on the news every single night – what name did Donald Trump call somebody and who’s saying he made a terrible mistake by doing it. And that was how this whole year started. It was in the summer where that stopped being a good idea, but Trump didn’t stop doing it. (Laughter.) And I think he may have lost the election then.

Should we take that one more question? She was behind the pillar there.

QUESTION: Thanks. Carien du Plessis. I’m from South Africa, freelance journalist. I have a question about party politics. You talked about technology, and I mean, as journalists we’ve seen the role of journalism change because of Twitter, and there’s more decentralization, so we’re rethinking our role. Do you think party politics is dead? I mean, looking at Trump, who says he’s leading a movement like it’s – like never before and looking at what’s happening in Europe, Brexit, do you think party politics is dying?

MR RIVLIN: It’s certainly facing a very serious challenge. And in American politics, we talk about a third party. And I’ve never believed there’s any meaning to that number, third. I think we go from two, which we’ve had, to something like five in a heartbeat, that – we don’t stop at three. And of course, there’s two other candidates on the ballot today. I already voted, but – and three – one more in some states, Utah.

But I think that there is a danger with every election that a new party emerges, splits one side and potentially splits both sides at once. Because if you only split one side, you probably lose, but if you split both sides at once, and then pretty soon you’re at five or six. And we look like half the countries represented here, Israel, Italy, whatever, where there are just a lot of parties and coalitions are necessary. I don’t know if that would be a bad thing, but it would certainly be a big change.

Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Thank you all very much. And the next briefing will be at 4:30. Thank you.