Ruling the void

by Lorenzo Piccoli

What good is political science if it flubs the biggest development in American politics in generations? Using this question, some commentators are turning “political science didn’t predict Trump” as the 2016 version of “economists didn’t predict the 2008 recession“. But this is factually misleading: there are plenty of political science books anticipating Trump’s rise.

For instance, the findings of Peter Mair’s “Ruling the Void” show how strong outsiders could escape the control party rankings used to have on their candidates. The book was published in 2013, two years after its author had unexpectedly died of a heart attack. Obviously, Mair didn’t predict the rise of Donald Trump. Nonetheless, his book explains why someone like him, like Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, or Marine Le Pen could succeed against the odd.

Once upon a time, political parties created a vital link between the public and political decision making. Now this is no longer true: parties have become glorified spin doctors for state power as their leaders are more interested in their role as part of the government than in representing their voters. Traditional elites have progressively abandoned domestic loyalties, forming a sort of global elite, like the one that assembled in Davos one month ago. Mair suggested that traditional political parties have become glorified spin doctors for state power and he quoted another political scientist, Rudy Andeweg: “the party … becomes the government’s representative in the society rather than the society’s bridgehead in the state.

It is become of this context that at some point voters rebel against the traditional parties and look for outsiders. Like Martin Wolf wrote some time ago, “it is not hard to see why ordinary people … are alienated. They are losers, at least relatively; they do not share equally in the gains. They feel used and abused.” In Italy these people vote for another party, say the Five Star Movement; in the US they vote for outsiders shaking up the traditional party ranks. Elites need to work out intelligent answers to voters’ discomfort. But this is for politicians to find. Good political science, on its part, should remain concerned with asking the right questions.