The Political Economy of a Collapsing Two-Party System & Warnings from 2014 Democrats Failed to Heed

Academics Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen, writing for the Institute for New Economic Thinking, recently published an interesting working paper, Industrial Structures and Party Competition in an Age of Hunger Games: Donald Trump and the 2016 Presidential Election.

It should come as no surprise at this point that they found that political and economic elites continue to yield extraordinary influence upon the Democratic and Republican parties.

“The US presidential election of 2016 featured frontal challenges to the political establishments of both parties and perhaps the most shocking election upset in American history”, the authors began their report. They continued,

Within the Democratic Party, the desires of party leaders who to continue to depend on big money from Wall Street, Silicon Valley, health insurers, and other power centers collides head on with the needs of average Americans these leaders claim to defend. On medical care, minimum wages, unionization, and many other issues, there is no consensus; only intense wrangling behind a cloud of opaque rhetoric and increasingly hollow “resist” slogans. The continued pressures to blame the Russians for the Democrats’ failures is also doing nothing to clarify matters.

They note that Trump’s “presidency looks to be a moment in the disintegration of a money-driven political system that now appears trapped in a fatal circle of corruption and cynicism. 2016 showed that mass citizen involvement can dramatically reshape politics, but it also highlights the essential point of the investment approach to politics, which is the enormous advantages elites retain in political action even as political systems collapse. We doubt that citizens who did not like 2016 and 2017 will find 2018 more agreeable.”


“2014 suggests that the Democrats’ ability to retain any mass constituency at all may now be in question” – Dec. 2014 report


The authors begin their paper by reminding readers that there were warning signs resulting from the Democratic Party collapse that occurred at the ballot box in the U.S. in 2014.

They point to research reported on by Thomas Ferguson in December of 2014, with a cautionary eye on Hillary Clinton’s then-looming candidacy.

Though some Democrats try to sugarcoat the dismal facts by focusing on changes since 2009, when the President assumed office, the truth is that the fruits of the recovery have gone lopsidedly to the very richest Americans. Wall Street and the stock market boom, but wages continue to stagnate, and unemployment remains stubbornly high…The administration’s continuing efforts to court Wall Street, along with its reluctance to sanction even flagrant misconduct by prominent financiers just pour salt into these wounds….2014 suggests that the Democrats’ ability to retain any mass constituency at all may now be in question. The facts of globalization, top-heavy income inequality, and the worldwide tendency toward austerity may just be too much for a party that is essentially dominated by segments of the 1 percent but whose legacy appeal is to average Americans….Right now Hillary Clinton’s strategists appear to be pinning their hopes on firing up another ritualized big money-led coalition of minorities and particular groups instead of making broad economic appeals. – Burnham and Ferguson, December 2014.


An introduction to the paper, courtesy of INET:

This paper analyzes patterns of industrial structure and party competition in both the major party primaries and the general election. It attempts to identify the genuinely new, historically specific factors that led to the upheavals, especially the steady growth of a “dual economy” that locks more and more Americans out of the middle class and into a life of unsteady, low wage employment and, all too often, steep debts. The paper draws extensively on a newly assembled, more comprehensive database of political contributions to identify the specific political forces that coalesced around each candidate. It considers in detail how different investor blocs related to the Republican Party and the Trump campaign as the campaign progressed and the role small contributors played in the various campaigns, especially that of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. It also critically evaluates claims about the final weeks of the election in the light of important overlooked evidence.

PDF of Industrial Structure and Party Competition in an Age of Hunger Games: Donald Trump and the 2016 Presidential Election


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