Liz Cheney has been ousted from the Republican Party…for speaking the truth about election results. Anyone Republican who opposed Trump is also on thin ice, and effectively must worry about being ousted for their views. And when it comes to passing good policy, Democrats don’t have all the answers (or the majorities needed to pass legislation) either. Political scientist Rob Saldin makes the case that American democracy requires two healthy parties and lays out a roadmap that would enable both parties to function better and make space for all voters. He and Geoffrey Kabaservice discuss:
- Why moderate factions within each party are better and more realistic than hoping for a third party.
- What caused the Republican Party to seemingly lose all interest in governing.
- How nationalization of news and issues has impacted party agendas, to the detriment of every day Americans.
- Why Democrats should care about winning in rural areas, and how they can do so without compromising their national party platforms.
Rob Saldin: We need these institutions to channel democratic currents in positive directions and prevent democracies from moving into these more demagogic directions and appealing to the worst impulses of the people and all of this.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello, I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. I’m delighted to be joined today by Rob Saldin. Rob is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Montana. He’s director of the Mansfield Ethics and Public Affairs Program at Montana and a senior fellow of the Niskanen Center. Welcome, Rob.
Rob Saldin: Hi, Geoff. Good to be with you.
Geoff Kabaservice: Good to have you here, Rob. I want to work our way around to talking about your recent book with Niskanen Center senior fellow Steve Teles called Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites, which you published with Oxford University Press last year. But I also want to talk about your recent essay, “Gone Country: Why Democrats Need To Play In Rural America and How They Can Do It Again,” which you co-authored with Kal Munis of Johns Hopkins and which appeared on the Niskanen website in March of this year. Before we get there though, can you tell me something about where you grew up and how you came to be a professor of political science?
Rob Saldin: Yeah, sure, Geoff. I grew up in Boise, Idaho and went back east to Davidson College outside Charlotte for college. And it was there that right off the bat I got interested in political science. I had two fantastic teachers at Davidson that stood out to me. One was Peter Ahrensdorf, who was a student of Allan Bloom’s. I took a number of political philosophy courses with Peter and those were really kind of pivotal classes for me in just coming to understand liberal democracy better: its weaknesses, its strengths, the alternatives to it. And then I also was always really drawn towards just American politics, too. And I had another teacher, Tom Kazee at Davidson who was a more of a meat-and-potatoes American politics, elections, public policy kind of stuff… And so those were always areas that I was most drawn towards.
And I guess it was probably about midway through Davidson where it first struck me that being a professor would be a pretty good gig. I was not eager at the idea of leaving college. I thought it was a pretty good deal: take these interesting classes and read and write and talk to interesting people. And it occurred to me, “Well, maybe I could continue this kind of life as a professor.” And so from Davidson I went on the University of Virginia where I did my Ph.D., and was fortunate (in my mind at least) to be able to get back to the West when I got the job at the University of Montana. I’ve been in Missoula now, with a couple of periods of leave, for 13 years now, I think.
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay, terrific. And did you start with a focus on foreign policy, or how did your exact academic focus evolve?
Rob Saldin: Well, I chose University of Virginia largely because I was interested in the more historical-oriented wing of political science, and that’s known as American Political Development in political science and history circles. It’s still very much political science, in the sense that it is trying to understand what’s going on now, but it also suggests that to understand the contemporary, you have to have some real knowledge of the past — because we’re very rarely in a position of starting from scratch, right?
A great example of this, I think, is thinking about health policy, which is an interest of mine, and thinking about the Obama reform. And if you just look at our healthcare system, it’s rather insane. Nobody would ever propose, “Oh, I have a great idea for a healthcare system,” and implement the one we have, right? A lot of people look at it and are kind of stunned and don’t understand it. Well, if you approach it from a historical perspective, you can understand it much better, and also understand why Obama and his allies at the time chose to basically work within the confines of the system as it was rather than start from scratch and do a total overhaul, because there were so many entrenched interests in all of this.
And so it’s that kind of historically-oriented political science that I was drawn toward and that UVA was really a leading player in. It’s definitely, I wouldn’t say it’s the mainstream or anywhere close to the mainstream of people who study American politics, but it’s what I was drawn towards. And I think it offers real insights that a lot of political science sometimes overlooks.
And so I was also especially drawn towards some of the professors who were at UVA at the time. Jim Ceaser, who was on the dividing line between American politics and political philosophy. And then also Sid Milkis, who was a very, very historically oriented scholar and teacher, and so that was a great fit. The great Martha Derthick was also at Virginia when I was there. She had just retired a year or two before, but she was still a significant presence in Charlottesville and I got to know her a bit during my time there.
My original dissertation project was not exactly situated in foreign affairs, but it was looking at something that students of American politics usually don’t look at, and that is the influence of international affairs on domestic politics. And so I did that through a number of case studies, looking at the big hot wars that the United States had been involved in, starting with the Spanish-American War up through Vietnam. And so, in a sense, that did give me a little bit of a foot in the foreign policy world. But ultimately I was more interested in looking at how these foreign engagements shaped politics within the United States.
Geoff Kabaservice: And that led to your first book, War, the American State, and Politics since 1898. But you mentioned your interest in healthcare, and that was largely the focus of your second book, When Bad Policy Makes Good Politics.
Rob Saldin: Yeah, exactly. And I had the good fortune to land a spot in this remarkable fellowship program through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It was based in Harvard and the University of Michigan and Cal-Berkeley, and there were cohorts in each of these. And so I was at the Harvard site and got to spend two years there. And one of the unique features of that program was it took people who didn’t necessarily have a background in health policy, and the idea they had was that, “Well, we can bring in these people” — and it wasn’t just political scientists, it was also economists and sociologists — and the idea was, “We can bring in these social scientists who have a kind of toolbox that they’ve developed and have them take those skills and apply it to health policy.”
And I’m actually not familiar with any other program quite like that, that takes people without any real knowledge or background or experience in a policy area and says, “Well, we can get you up to speed on Medicare and Medicaid and all this stuff. But you all have a unique angle that you can bring to it.” And so that’s where I got a foothold into the health policy world. And right, Geoff, that was the focus of my second book, which was about this ill-fated piece of the Affordable Care Act that attempted to address a significant challenge that we have with long-term care. In a nutshell, we’re an aging society. We have a lot more people who are going to be requiring assistance in the final years and months of their lives, and we’re not very well situated to handle that challenge. And there was this piece within the Affordable Care Act that attempted to make some progress in that area, set up a national program, but it was…
Geoff Kabaservice: Is this the CLASS Act you’re referring to?
Rob Saldin: Yes, yes, the CLASS Act. And it was a fatally flawed program. And one of the interesting things about it is that it was fatally flawed not because people made mistakes or people didn’t understand the problem or the design of their program. It was designed to conform to the political realities. And it eventually collapsed, it crashed and burned. The Obama administration chose not to implement it. It was eventually repealed, but not before it actually helped facilitate passage of the Affordable Care Act. Because the way that the CBO [Congressional Budget Office] scores these things, they have this 10-year window. And there are good reasons for that 10 year window, but the system can be gamed. And that’s kind of what happened with the CLASS Act and the Affordable Care Act.
The way the CLASS Act was structured for that first 10 years, when CBO looks at it, it looks like a big moneymaker. On year 11, it totally crashes and burns and becomes this huge resource suck. But in the 10-year window, it looks good, and that is one of the reasons why it was so attractive to supporters of health reform, is because — not necessarily because they were committed to that program, but because it brought all these savings that could then be credited to the Affordable Care Act, right? So it was kind of this fascinating story, both about long-term care and about the Affordable Care Act, and also about budgeting and the role of the Congressional Budget Office. And it was something that I kind of stumbled on. I went into the program very interested in long-term care, and this was the big thing at the time. And little did I know — until I really started digging into it — that it was a fascinating story. I think that illuminates all kinds of things, not just about health policy, but about the way Washington works and the policy process and the budgeting process.
Geoff Kabaservice: I found that aspect of your scholarship interesting, because at about the same time that the healthcare process was getting going on the Obama administration side, I was working to some extent in Republican politics. And there actually were some of the saner members of the Republican caucus who did raise the same objection: that Democrats were actually gaming the budgeting process through the CLASS Act and some other related devices. But that critique found no traction at all within at least the House Republican caucus. And instead was this wild blathering call that this was socialism and would portend the end of American capitalism. And that was what it turned out as — really it was the early indication that the Republican Party had lost interest in governing. Because there was absolutely no attempt to address some of these serious issues like the CLASS Act, and no attempt at all to even think about what an alternative Republican attempt to address the healthcare problem would look like. So anyway, just kind of interesting overlap in that sense.
Rob Saldin: Absolutely, Geoff. The dynamic on the Democratic side, I think, was also really interesting. And maybe just a quick word about that… Long-term care has always been one of these second-tier policy areas within the broader world of health politics and health policy. And coming out of the Clinton reform effort, which of course was a huge failure, there had been a long-term care component to that package. And some of the people in the health policy world — which leans pretty heavily in a Democratic direction, I would say — they came out of that Clinton experience thinking that long-term care was a significant part of the problem about why that package went down.
And so for a long time, you had these… The split within Democratic health policy circles, some people thought long-term care was really important, but a lot of people looked at it as something that was dangerous, something that could bring down any big reform effort. And so they kind of wanted to keep it at arm’s length, right? It was something they were worried about, scared about, not because they didn’t understand the issue and the challenge, but because it seemed really difficult to solve. There was no easy answer, and it had the potential to drag down this thing that they thought was much more important, which was extending basic health insurance to as many people as possible.
And so I talked to a lot of the people who designed the program, the CLASS Act. And they would emphasize, “Look, we were dealing with these big constraints. We had to come up with a program that was going to be politically viable.” The unfortunate thing, certainly for them and their program, is that to get something that was politically viable, you had to have a policy that was fundamentally flawed. But it’s also kind of an amazing story about how they got this thing through. And it did crash and burn there at the end, but it did in a way help facilitate passage of the larger Obamacare package.
Geoff Kabaservice: So how did you come to your interest in the Never-Trumpers and your collaboration with Steve Teles?
Rob Saldin: The healthcare book on the Class Act, that was largely based on interviews. I spent a lot of time in Washington talking to people on the Hill: mostly staffers but also people in the advocacy groups and all of this. And so I’d had this experience doing a lot of interviews. I liked that. I felt like I was pretty good at it. It’s kind of a labor-intensive thing, but I think it also offered certain insights that you just simply could not get without getting out there and talking with people who were at the center of this thing.
I had that kind of background. And that was how Steve and I did… That was the basis of the Never Trump book. I’d also long been interested in political parties, dating back to my interest at the intersection of political philosophy and American politics. That’s this kind of understanding of political parties that was very much, I think, something I picked up at UVA, particularly with Jim Ceaser and Sid Milkis. But this idea that political parties are this really essential feature of liberal democracy, and that you need these institutions to channel democracy in positive directions. Because if you look at the history of democracies, it’s not very pretty. They’re prone to all kinds of instability. They tend to collapse on themselves. And so you need these institutions to channel democratic currents in positive directions and prevent democracies from moving into these more demagogic directions and appealing to the worst impulses of the people and all of this.
And so I’d long been interested in political parties, thought they were core to American democracy. And I’d also, at least to some degree, had a foot in —or an awareness of, a knowledge of — conservative politics, certainly within the intellectual higher ed/Washington policy circle areas. So all of those things for me coalesced. I was done with the CLASS Act book, was thinking about what a next project would be, and was watching this Trump phenomenon play out and was just fascinated with the way his candidacy opened up this split within the Republican Party. And it just seemed like a natural to spend more time doing these interviews and writing a first draft of history on this remarkable upsetting of American party politics, and the Republican Party in particular.
Steve is another UVA guy, although he was long gone by the time I showed up in Charlottesville, but we moved in some of the same professional networks, and he was actually the series editor for that CLASS Act book. And so we knew each other slightly. And I don’t know when… I think something had been written about the CLASS Act book, and we were in touch, and he was like, “What are you thinking about for your next project?” And I said, “Well, I’m actually thinking about doing a book on the Never Trumpers, kind of based on elite-level interviews, this kind of thing.” And Steve says, “Oh, I know a lot about that. Would you be interested in doing it together?” And a couple weeks later, I was on the first of many flights back to Washington D.C., and we set off doing our first round of interviews.
Geoff Kabaservice: How would you describe your own personal position and affinities?
Rob Saldin: On politics and whatnot, I assume you mean?
Geoff Kabaservice: Sure.
Rob Saldin: I’ve always kind of thought of myself as something of a moderate. I’ve never really fully identified as a partisan, which does cause me some internal grief, because one of the things I, as I was talking about earlier… I mean, I think parties are an essential feature of liberal democracy and particularly American democracy in that, for the most part, they’ve had a very positive influence and that partisanship is often a good thing and it’s a helpful thing. And yet, nonetheless, I’ve always kind of been somewhat reluctant, at least, to throw in with either party. I’ve always though been attracted to kind of the DLC [Democratic Leadership Council] wing of the old Democratic Party, and toward some of the more moderate (for lack of a better word) elements of the Republican Party. Much of that has been upended recently.
But no, I’ve always, I mean, to the extent I’ve considered myself a partisan in any sense, it’s almost been more of a partisan of the American political system and of the two-party system. I’ve typically found myself defending these things. And part of that, in my mind at least, entails having two healthy parties. That kind of comes at it from a very kind of detached academic perspective, but it’s one that’s suited me well and has felt comfortable. But again, things are changing, and some of that isn’t as easy to necessarily subscribe to these days as it was a number of years ago.
Geoff Kabaservice: Your book in some sense represents a building upon some of my work on the decline of the moderate wing of the Republican Party, which I wrote about in Rule and Ruin. There wasn’t much of a moderate wing by the time that book came out in 2012, and there became even less of it as time went on. But the party still seemed capable of some degree of governing, some degree even of self-assessment — because the autopsy report, so-called, came out of the RNC [Republican National Committee] in 2013 after Mitt Romney’s loss to Barack Obama in the previous year’s presidential election. And the Never Trump movement was not exactly a moderate Republican movement — I’m not even sure what the word “moderate” means these days, I have to confess — but it did seem to be interested in the vital center of coming together to discuss great national issues, problems, and hash out some potential solutions. And I think for that reason, I was okay with the label moderate being applied at least to certain segments of it.
You and I are talking now on the day when Liz Cheney may be deposed from her position as House conference chair. By the time this podcast comes out, I’m sure that’ll be a done deal one way or another. I would never describe Liz Cheney as a moderate, but she does sort of link back to an older tradition of Republican politics that was interested in governing, that did have principles, that believed in such things as objective truth, and that dealt with the moderate faction of the Republican Party, to the extent that it existed.
You’ve been on a lot of programs like Charlie Sykes’ Bulwark podcast, for example, to talk about your book. How do you look back on the book in hindsight, given everything that’s happened even since it came out last year?
Rob Saldin: Well, I’m proud of the book. I’m generally happy with how it’s been received. We got a couple of negative reviews, one of which at least was welcome: Victor Davis Hanson had a pretty strong critique in the Claremont Review of Books, but that’s okay.
I feel good about it. And looking back on it, I guess it’s remarkable in some ways the extent to which Trump still has such a hold on the party even after his defeat. And we’re in a new administration, and yet still, as you note… I mean, it looks like Cheney, who you’re right, I think five minutes ago, nobody would have described her as a moderate… But that was true, as you suggest, Geoff, of the Never Trumpers in general. It wasn’t really a moderate-conservative split. It had a lot to do with character. It had a lot to do with the violation of the norms of liberal democracy, which a lot of these people took very seriously. It also — and this is the key framing mechanism of the book in a lot of ways — it had to do with these people’s professional networks. It was a real overthrow of the Republican Party elite.
And I guess one thing that I find encouraging… We kind of end the book with this call for a return to factions, which used to be very common but have not been a prominent feature of American parties now for a couple of decades. And our kind of hope was that there would be kind of a faction, a space to create a faction within the Republican Party that would include a lot of the people who were involved with Never Trump.
And I think you can kind of see a little bit of that. Certainly Cheney is embodying that, Adam Kinzinger, Mitt Romney — who, speaking of events, just got booed and heckled at the Utah Republican meeting several days ago.
Geoff Kabaservice: And barely avoided getting censured.
Rob Saldin: Right, right. And Cindy McCain has said things like, “I’m not leaving the party.” But it certainly is not the case, I mean, looking at the Republican Party today, that there’s this burgeoning Never Trump wing of the party. There are a few holdouts, and maybe with time, there will still be some space to create a wing of the party along the lines of I think what Cheney and Romney and Kinzinger would like and are speaking to. But that’s quite clearly not where the action is right now.
Geoff Kabaservice: I do consider your book on Never Trump to be a real modern classic, particularly since you were writing about contemporary politics and yet your judgments have stood up so well. I’m curious to know what the division of labor was between you and Steve and whether you had any kind of differing perspectives when it came to the whole Never Trump phenomenon.
Rob Saldin: Yeah. So, I mean, in terms of just the basic division of labor, Steve has that great book on the conservative legal movement. And so, as I mentioned before, we kind of organized the book around these professional groupings. And so we have one chapter on lawyers, and Steve took the lead on that. We have a chapter on economists, and Steve took the lead on that. We have two chapters on the foreign policy experts, national security types, which in a lot of ways constituted the real center, the most hardcore element within the Never Trump world. I took the lead on that given my background with the first book and everything. That seemed natural.
We had two chapters on political operatives, like people who run campaigns and whatnot. I took the lead on those chapters. And then we had a couple chapters on intellectuals, and Steve took the lead on that, although I did a bunch of stuff on the Reformicons, which was kind of this other wing. You mentioned the autopsy earlier, and we kind of framed a lot of that around there was an autopsy crowd and then this Reformicon crowd.
And so that was the basic division of labor. But we of course shopped drafts around. We did a lot of the interviews together — not all of them, but we did a lot of them together. The Never Trumpers were so concentrated in Washington, D.C., it was easy to tick off a lot of boxes with a number of trips to D.C. But Steve and I also went up to New York for a couple of days and did a round of interviews up there.
So it was very much a collaborative process, I think, and we worked well together. It was the first book I had coauthored, but it was quite a positive experience. You sometimes hear people say how difficult it was or that it strained the relationship or whatnot, but I don’t think that was the case with Steve. And in terms of where we were coming from on it, Steve is very much a Democrat. So he is a partisan in a way that I’ve never really considered myself to be. And I think he was maybe a little bit more critical of the Never Trumpers than than I was, and especially I think in their failure to see what was coming. Steve certainly thought they should have been more clued-in to what was happening and that something like Trump was possible.
And I agree with that to a certain extent, but probably not quite to the degree that Steve does — although because the Never Trumpers are so concentrated in D.C., I think there was something of a blind spot in their understanding of what was going on within their party. And on the one hand, you can understand that if you’re kind of living in the Acela Corridor and that’s your world, and you’re hopping from AEI to the Heritage Foundation, and if that’s your whole social network and your professional network and everything else, it’s probably easy to miss some of these things going on out in the country.
But I guess that would be one place where maybe Steve and I were a little bit on different pages, although not to any huge degree. It was, I think, a real positive experience, certainly for me.
Geoff Kabaservice: Daniel DiSalvo came out with a book about 10 years ago called Engines of Change: Party Factions in American Politics from 1868 to 2010. I think he went to UVA as well. Did you overlap with him?
Rob Saldin: Absolutely. Dan is an old friend, for sure. So yeah, we arrived in Charlottesville at the same time, and like me, he was a student of Jim Caesar and Sid Milkis. And in fact, Kal Munis, the guy who I did the piece on the rural Democrats with, he just finished up at UVA. So I don’t necessarily go out looking for UVA collaborators, but it keeps kind of coming back to Charlottesville in some ways. But yes, so Dan for sure is an old and dear friend.
Geoff Kabaservice: So you’ve been talking about factions for a long time then, in other words?
Rob Saldin: Well, yeah. I mean, we talked a lot about Dan’s dissertation project and later book project, and I read early drafts of that. So that was very much something that I was clued into. But I think it was also very much kind of… To the extent there was kind of an orienting thing at UVA at the time I was there and working with the people I worked with and the people Dan worked with — and Steve also studied with Jim Caesar — the whole role of parties and their place in a liberal democracy was really kind of a central feature of kind of the UVA school of thought on these things. So yeah, absolutely, parties and the role of factions has always been something that I’ve been attuned to for a long time.
Geoff Kabaservice: In my book, I didn’t exactly foresee the coming of Trump, but I did think that things were going to go from bad to worse for the Republican Party. And in fact, I took as the title of my last chapter that verse from Yeats about some rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born, which seems a little prophetic at least. But what I was bothered by was the disappearance of not just the moderate faction, but factions generally from the Republican Party and its replacement with an ideological monoculture. And I think, in hindsight, it seems that Trump was able to effect his hostile takeover of the Republican Party partly because it was a monoculture, that there weren’t in fact distinct factions that could have resisted his rise.
Rob Saldin: Yeah. Yeah, right. I think, Geoff, you look back over the course of American history and you see that factions have been the norm, not the anomaly. And this has always been one of the reasons why I think some of the calls for a third party kind of missed the mark. I mean, it’s not been the case, if you look at a lot of other similarly situated countries, right? Well, they have multi-party systems. And in the United States, it’s not that we’ve lacked that desire for more than two options, it’s just that we’ve typically expressed that not through third parties — because our system is quite hostile to third parties, it’s just very difficult.
And so I’ve just always been skeptical about the plausibility of a third party, but also just the basic critique that, “Oh, we only have two options.” Well, actually, over the course of American history, there have been more options on the table. They’ve just taken the form of these factions within the two major parties rather than a whole bunch of different separate parties. And so it has allowed for these outlets that I think are quite natural.
And again, if we were in another country, maybe it would make sense to think about starting a third party. But so many of our institutions just make that so incredibly difficult in the United States. Who knows… Occasionally new parties do form. But the last time we had a real major player, a new player in the party space, was when the Republican Party formed in the 1850s. So that should give us some pause about how plausible that route is.
And so yeah, I think one of the things that stood out to certainly Steve and I in the Never Trump book was… Thinking about our current situation in the United States, I think there is a demand for more than two options again, and in some ways I think you can see kind of the beginnings of maybe a return to more factionalized politics. And we at least think that would be really healthy for the Republican Party, but also just for the health of American politics. Factions can really create spaces for working across the aisle, for all kinds of kinds of healthy aspects of American democracy.
And again, that kind of goes back to… That was a theme of my training, but we need these institutions that channel democracy in positive directions and kind of keep it on the rails. And we do think that factions would be one way of doing that now — and, again, that the time is kind of right for a return to more factionalized partisan competition.
Geoff Kabaservice: You and Steve sort of adapted the conclusion of your Never Trump book into that article, “The Future is Faction,” in National Affairs last fall, I think it was. Can you talk a little more about what we’ve lost by not having factional intraparty conversations, at least within the Republican Party?
Rob Saldin: Yeah. Well, I think one of the things that has been lost is that the role of these individual members of Congress, there’s a little bit less to it. So much of the power has been concentrated in the hands of the leadership. And that creates just fewer opportunities to be involved in the act of legislating, when things are hashed out in the Majority Leader’s office and then just presented to legislators.
So one of the things I think that would be positive about a return to more factionalized competition is that it would create more space for members of Congress to be really involved in the act of legislating and perhaps make that a more central part of the job. I mean, some of these members of Congress now, they aren’t even hiring staffers who do policy; they just hire comms people.
So when you have more factionalized activity… And by that, I should say, what we have in mind are real kind of durable, institutionalized factions, right? Not necessarily just a group that calls itself… comes up with a name, but things that endure. A good example of this would be those old DLC Democrats who had their own think tank, and they had their own magazine, and they had their own real institutionalized, central way of identifying candidates and helping those candidates. And that meant something. It was recognized in the media, but also within the country. You could be a Democrat back in the early ’90s, say, and you could say, “Hey, I’m a DLC Democrat. I’m not a Michael Dukakis Democrat. I’m not a Ted Kennedy Democrat.” And that meant something. People knew what it meant. So that distinguished them from maybe the mainstream of the Democratic Party, right.
That’s the kind of thing that we have in mind here. And if you had that, then these factions would be competing within the party. They would have some shared interest, obviously, in working with other factions within the party to elect the president from their party and everything that goes along with that. But they would also be in competition with one another within the party. And this would be important in the sense that to be elected Speaker of the House or Majority Leader in the Senate, you’d have to get buy-in from these different factions and you’d have to make some concessions to the factions. You’d have to basically give away a little bit of your power.
So it would decentralize power a little bit. And you could imagine scenarios in which a faction in the Republican Party might actually, on policy X, have more in common with a faction in the Democratic Party than with the other faction in the Republican Party. And so it would open up, I think, some more spaces for dynamic, entrepreneurial policymaking and get us back to a place where there is some work in a bipartisan fashion. I think that not only is a natural thing for people in a big, diverse country like ours — just two options doesn’t quite satisfy the kind of diversity we have — but it would also just open up a much more healthy milieu in Congress, and in Washington more generally, that would lend itself much more to a kind of healthy, dynamic democracy.
Geoff Kabaservice: So what you’re saying about the importance of faction suggests a pretty direct transition to your article about the Democrats’ need to regain an ability to compete in rural America.
Rob Saldin: Right.
Geoff Kabaservice: Is that right?
Rob Saldin: Yeah. Yeah. One of the things that strikes me, just watching the recent cycles… I mean, what we’ve seen in so much of the country is just this growing split between urban American and rural America. It has really kind of become a defining feature of American politics. In that piece, Kal and I focus on five Western states: Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. And you can really, really see that collapse on full display in those states. As recently as 2008, the 10 Senate seats out of those five states were evenly split. And now the last Democrat standing is John Tester from Montana.
One of the interesting things, and why I think Democrats would do well to take their collapse in rural America more seriously than I think some of them want to do, is because of the way our institutions are set up. We have a situation where these small rural states really punch above their weight. These five states that we focus on, they account for less than 2% of the total U.S. population. But they send 10 senators back to Washington, which is 20% of the way to a Senate majority if you could get all 10 of those — which Republicans are very close to doing. They’re 20% of their way to the Senate majority, and that’s before you even look to the 98% of the rest of the country’s population. So the Senate is such a big player here, but it results in a situation where for Democrats it’s just very hard for them to enact their policy goals even when they routinely have significant national majorities. But because their support is so concentrated in urban areas, and we have a political system in which geographic disbursement is really important, that’s a real problem for Democrats.
We also think it’s, again, just a problem for American democracy to have Democrats so dominant in some of our urban areas and Republicans just so overwhelmingly dominant in a lot of rural counties. And I guess I would also mention here, our friend and colleague Steve Teles has a kind of a companion piece on Republicans and how they could improve their standing in urban areas. My piece with Kal and Steve’s piece on Republicans and cities came out at roughly the same time, and kind of take their bearings, and their concern over what this means for the health of our democracy more generally, and just apply it to the two parties in these two different venues.
Geoff Kabaservice: There were a number of causes for the Democrats’ underperformance in the congressional elections in 2020 — in particular, the failure of the anticipated blue wave to materialize. But one of them certainly was the Democrats’ collapse in rural America, which you’ve been talking about. And yet aside from that one blowup within the House Democratic conference after the election — where Abigail Spanberger said, “We need to never talk about or even mention the word socialism again,” where the “Defund the Police” movement was blamed for a lot of the Democratic losses — I haven’t really heard much about Democrats’ ideas about how they might do better in rural America. And in fact, if anything, it seems like there’s some denial about the need to do better in rural America. Why do you think that is?
Rob Saldin: Well, I think that’s exactly right: a denial or, I think in some cases, it’s also kind of a resistance to making a play for rural America. And I think a lot of that has to do with… When we talk about rural America in this context, a lot of what we’re talking about is white rural America. And of course rural America is more than just white people, particularly in the South. But even in these five states that we focus on in this piece, there’s a significant Native American population and whatnot. But still, to a large extent when we’re talking about this, what we’re talking about are white rural voters. And a lot of Democrats, I think, don’t see that as the future of the party, and just find it far more appealing, far more exciting to try to target minorities that maybe haven’t voted regularly in the past.
And that that’s the future of the party, and that there’s something kind of unsavory about the idea of going into rural America. And you know the stereotypes that that brings about — kind of a nicely captured by Hillary Clinton’s use of the term “deplorables.” But there’s something unpleasant about the idea of having to cater to these people. And so I think that’s a big piece of it. But yeah, I think there are different responses from Democrats. I mean, I think to the extent it’s recognized and seriously grappled with, a lot of Democrats, I think, sometimes have these almost too-clever-by-half, easy solutions that they want to latch on to: “We can just give our candidate an image make-over, and bring out some props like a cowboy hat and a bolo tie, and shove them out on the campaign trail. And if they look the part, then there you go, that’ll do it.”
They also kind of indulge in what I consider to be rather long-shot structural changes like, “Oh, well, if we just eliminated the filibuster, or we can add some states, and deal with our structural problems that way.” I think Kal and I try to make the case in the piece that it would be better in a variety of ways for Democrats to try to think more seriously about what they could do in states that actually exist rather than trying to bring in other states. All of these things, I think even if you were able to do some of them, wouldn’t be quite the silver bullet that a lot of Democrats think and assume that some of those structural changes would be. But it’s also just not in the cards right now, best I can tell.
Joe Manchin is a big supporter of the filibuster. He doesn’t like the idea of District of Columbia becoming a state. And this is very frustrating to a lot of Democrats, that Joe Manchin is not on the right page. But the reality is if Joe Manchin wasn’t in that seat, it would almost certainly be a Trumpy Republican. So we kind of think that the work that the Democratic Party has to do to become more competitive in rural America, it’s kind of the long, hard slog. And it does run counter to, I think, where a lot of the energy in the party is. But again, I think if they want to be serious about enacting their agenda, you cannot be hemorrhaging votes in rural America the way they have recently. You’ve got to make some play.
And it doesn’t even have to be the case that they have to be winning these rural counties. Just losing them by a somewhat narrower margin would help, it would help tremendously. And it wouldn’t just be in kind of the rural states we look at, the Montanas and the Idahos. But think about states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and Michigan and Minnesota. If the Democrats would do a little bit better in those rural counties, they would be able to then let their strength in urban areas really carry the day. I mean, they’d have something close to a lock on the Electoral College if they could just stop the bleeding in some of these rural parts of those states.
Geoff Kabaservice: You point out that one of the factors that’s making life much more difficult for Democratic candidates in rural areas and states is the nationalization of American politics. And yet, that’s also part of the reason why it would be really difficult for them to break out of this situation. Because with so much of the energy in the Democratic Party, as it seems to me being with the progressive faction, they really don’t want to give latitude to dissident positions in rural states or areas on issues like guns or abortion. So how would you actually break out of this nationalization of politics that you describe?
Rob Saldin: Well, you’re right, Geoff. And I mean, to be honest with you, I don’t know that the situation is salvageable for Democrats in rural areas. I mean, it’s very much cutting against the grain. One thing that I reflect on a lot, having grown up in Idaho… When I was a kid, I was too young to remember Frank Church, but he was still a significant figure in the Idaho that I grew up in. And his wife was still alive and very much a significant figure in her own right in Boise, and in the Boise of my youth. But Cecil Andrus was still around. He was this four-term governor — and sandwiched in between he was Interior Secretary for Jimmy Carter.
Well, he left office, I believe, in ’95. And what happened then is that the bottom just totally fell out for Democrats in Idaho. And I think you can kind of see that in a lot of these smaller rural states, certainly like in South Dakota. You see these individuals who have their own kind of iconic brand that allows them to still win, sometimes pretty damn narrowly, but they can hold on longer than just… and kind of obscure the natural partisan dynamic. And I think that’s what happened when Cecil Andrus left. The bottom fell out for Democrats. And it wasn’t obvious at the time, that’s the thing. But looking back it becomes very clear. When Andrews left, that was the end for Democrats in Idaho. Like in Montana… I wonder about that a lot. I’m not sure that once you have people like Max Baucus and John Tester, whenever he steps down… If things just revert to a kind of normal Democratic candidate versus a Republican candidate, the typical norm is that it’s a Republican blowout.
So I’m not entirely sure that it is salvageable. But if it is to be salvaged for Democrats in some of these areas, I think you’ve got to take a two-pronged approach, and this is what Cal and I lay out in that paper. On the one hand, you got to be defensive, and have the latitude within the party to be defensive and to be able to rebrand yourself a little bit on some of the real hot button issues — like, in particular, the Second Amendment and abortion. The cultural salience of those two issues is just hard to overemphasize.
And that kind of thing is very difficult because, of course, for a Democrat to rebrand on the Second Amendment or abortion — even in a rather modest way to go back and adopt the old Bill Clinton language on abortion of “safe, legal, and rare” — well, that’s really not where the base of the party is at. In doing some of those things, you’re really kind of running into some resistance inside the party. So that’s difficult. But I also just don’t see any way around some of that. You’re never going to outgun the Republicans on Second Amendment issues, but you could blunt it a little bit and take away a little bit of the power of just being condemned as some hostile opponent of the Second Amendment.
So those are difficult but necessary. And it wasn’t that long ago that the Democrats did encourage candidates running in some of these rural districts to take stances that fit their districts. I think we’ve lost some of that in more recent cycles, but it wasn’t that long ago. The other thing is a more offensive strategy. And the good news here for Democrats is that it’s much easier. And what we have in mind on this front is to try to find some ways to creatively localize their campaigns and their appeals and their brands. And so by this we mean finding some of those issues that don’t map onto national politics, that don’t fit neatly into our national partisan cleavages — because when that happens, I just don’t think the Democrats have much of a chance at all. And for that matter, Republicans in urban areas don’t have much of a chance at all if the only considerations that people have in their minds, when they’re assessing these candidates, falls in line with the national politics and is just an extension of Tucker Carlson’s show and Rachel Maddow’s show.
So you have to find some way around that. And again, for us, that involves identifying some things that matter locally on the ground but that aren’t synonymous with the big national disputes. For example, I think for a long time Democrats in the West used public lands as this kind of an issue and were very adept at painting themselves as defenders of public lands and demeaning Republicans as opponents of public lands. Well, public lands are quite popular in the West. When you raise that kind of an issue to the forefront of people’s minds, that kind of blunts some of our natural tendency towards nationalization, which we see as fundamentally the big problem for Democrats in the West. If people are just talking, as you mentioned earlier, about “defund the police” and stuff like this, I mean, that’s very bad news for Democrats in rural areas. And so you’ve got to push back against that. We tried to identify some potential openings for that.
But another old good example that I like… There was this terrible asbestos problem in the little town of Libby in northwest Montana. It just devastated that community. And it had to do with a mine, and there was all this asbestos in the mine, and it contaminated everything. Well, Max Baucus, former senator from Montana, really made dealing with that issue a focal point of his time in the Senate. And again, that’s something that mattered a great deal to that community and played very well across the state. I mean, he helped that community in a real way, but it also was something that ran counter to what people were debating back in Washington.
For Democrats in the West and in these small rural states, if that’s the only thing people are thinking about, it’s game over. And again, the good news there is that that’s the easy part, in a way. You aren’t going to get pushback inside the party on that like you are on the gun stuff or the abortion stuff, right? But we basically think that’s your two-pronged strategy. Play a little defense on the hot-button issues, try to create some space between yourself and the national party, and then really lean into some of these local issues. And I think that’s actually a playbook that would work well for Republicans in certain areas too that are extremely Democratic.
Geoff Kabaservice: I agree with you, Rob. I wonder if I could actually put on my historian hat here for a moment. You are a program director at the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana, and your center is named for Mike Mansfield and his wife. Mike Mansfield was the longtime Senate majority leader; in fact, I think he still has the record for being the longest-serving Senate majority leader. And he’s somebody who has interested me, partly for what he says about the change in politics in places like Montana. He was the successor, as Montana’s at-large delegate in the House, to Jeannette Rankin, who’s a great figure in American history. She, I think, was the first woman to be a federal official of any kind. She was a Republican pacifist who cast a vote against the U.S. entrance into the First World War and then was the only member of the House to vote against the U.S. entrance into the Second World War.
Mansfield, I think, fought in that First World War. He was also a professor of political science and maybe history at the University of Montana as well. But he became a Montana’s at-large delegate in the ’40s, was there for a decade, then went to the Senate in 1953. And he was an institutionalist, he was a powerful leader, but he also was somebody who believed in bipartisanship and cooperation across the aisle. If I’m remembering correctly, he used to have breakfast with Vermont’s Republican Senator George Aiken every morning in the Senate.
And when I look at the people you’ve had serving in your state recently… Ryan Zinke, who was an interesting guy as Montana’s at-large delegate, and then ran into ethical dilemmas, as did so many other people who served in Trump’s administration. And then Greg Gianforte, who is now your governor, whose probably signature act was being convicted of assaulting a journalist — a very Trumpian symbolic act. And I’ve just got to wonder, within this one state, how you got people like Mansfield and now Gianforte. I mean, it’s a real change from giants to homunculi.
Rob Saldin: Yeah. Yeah, it sure is, Geoff. Mansfield was known as the conscience of the Senate. He had a good working relationship with his counterpart on the Republican side, Everett Dirksen, and obviously came from a very different time — a time at which we did have factions, I might note. And that influenced his approach to his role as party leader and leader of the Senate as a whole.
But you’re right. The crop of Republicans in Montana is now very different than it used to be. And there was a different Republican network if you go back 20 years, associated with maybe most notably Marc Racicot, who was a two-term governor and a confidant of George W. Bush — and in fact apparently had an opportunity to be attorney general for Bush. He was the public face of the Bush campaigns during the whole recount thing in Florida in 2000, but a real ethical guy.
And there were controversies back then, too, but a very different type of Republican than what we see today in Montana. In fact, Racicot has spoken out a number of times against Trump, but he’s basically a nonentity within the Republican Party anymore, as are all of those people from that generation and of his mindset — which dovetails very much with the Never Trumpers; in fact, he was at least somewhat linked in with that crew, and certainly with that mindset.
But the Republican Party has moved in a different direction. And I think that has to do with some of the things we’ve been talking about. One of the things that happens when you have the polarization around urban and rural lines like we do today is that that fuels more polarization and negative partisanship and extremism, and it diminishes electoral competition. And so you have these incumbents now who worry more about a primary challenge from their own ideological extreme than they do about a general election matchup with the other party. And so it incentivizes some of these performative theatrics that have become so common now, and it minimizes — or actually disincentivizes, I think, in many cases — compromise.
And you mentioned Gianforte’s assault on the journalist. I mean, one of the interesting little debates among Montana journalists and political observers is whether that incident, which happened — he assaulted that journalist; it was the night before a special election to replace Zinke in the House after Zinke went to be interior secretary — about whether that assault on Ben Jacobs helped or hurt him. I mean, the assumption was that a crime like that, well, clearly that is going to do harm.
But Gianforte, he’d run for governor before and lost, and the knock on him was he was this effete, rich carpetbagger from New Jersey — which was always a little unfair, I thought. He’d been in Montana for 25 years, started his business (which made him wealthy) in Montana, raised his kids in Montana, all the rest. But in any event, that was his reputation. Well, then he assaults this journalist. And I’ll put it this way… There are a lot of people around Montana who think that that actually helped, and it made him look tough. And he was a Trump guy and that helped him overcome some of those things that made him culturally a little out of step with the rest of Montana.
But certainly, I mean, you look at the congressional delegation on the Republican side: Steve Daines and Matt Rosendale, who is the new member of Congress who replaced Gianforte when Gianforte came back to be governor. These are definitely the type of Republicans who are Trump loyalists. They were very much a part in making the case that the election was fraudulent, all of these things. Daines was among those senators who was with Hawley and Cruz and all the rest who said they were going to refuse to certify the election on January 6th. Steve Daines did back off that after the insurrection. But yeah, that’s the type of candidate that is successful in Montana now, and I think it’s very much a reflection of a polarized electorate.
Geoff Kabaservice: Can I ask you about a somewhat more appealing Montana politician? I’m thinking of Wilmot Collins, who is the mayor of Helena, the state capital. And if I’m remembering this correctly, he’s a Liberian refugee. He’s an independent. I guess he is registered now as a Democrat, and in fact ran for the Senate briefly as a Democrat. But he seems to have had considerable appeal even to Trump voters. Is he in any sense following the Saldin-Munis playbook for what Democrats ought to be doing in states that are rural like Montana?
Rob Saldin: Yeah. Yeah. I’m not sure, Geoff. You’re right, he ran for U.S. Senate briefly against Daines in the last cycle before our then-governor Steve Bullock — who was making a long-shot bid for the presidency for a little while — before he quit that and jumped into the Senate race. I’m not sure about Collins. I would not be surprised. In the redistricting process with the census and everything, we picked up our second U.S. House seat, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Collins is looking at running for that.
Whether he fits what we have in mind, I guess I’m not sure. For a long time there has been this debate in Montana politics — and to a degree, it’s the same debate that goes on in national politics — about whether minority candidates, whether women, can win as Democrats in these states. And I always thought the answer was obviously yes. Collins, you’re right — he’s from Liberia, a black man. After these last few years, I’m less certain that race and gender aren’t important factors. I don’t know how that would play in the rest of Montana. So I think you can look at some recent history, and there was a woman from Butte who ran for Senate and didn’t do very well…
We have a small-n problem here, to use a social science term, so it’s hard to extrapolate and draw conclusions just from a handful of cases. But it does make me wonder. I mean, so much of what Kal and I are suggesting in this piece is that you’ve got to… So many Democratic candidates who run in rural areas now I think just seem so culturally removed from these areas. Jon Tester would kind of be an example. He’s a working farmer from a very rural part of the state.
But a lot of times, what Democrats in some of these places do, they look to Missoula, where I’m from, or Bozeman or Helena. These are what pass for urban centers in Montana. For most of the country, they’d be considered small towns, but these are our urban centers. And in some ways they mimic urban centers in other places: culturally progressive and everything else.
So I don’t know if Collins quite fits the bill. And in some ways that’s unfair, because his potential liabilities, at least in some respects, are things he has no control over. He’s the kind of guy, I think, who progressives in Montana love, but whether he would be able to win statewide office or one of the House seats, I don’t know. I guess I have my doubts, which I am reluctant and somewhat saddened to say, but I’m afraid it might be true.
Geoff Kabaservice: One of the many interesting things you pointed out in your paper, but one of the things I hadn’t thought about, is that part of the problem politically in Montana is the decline of local news — and not just the papers, which we’ve heard about, but also the television stations. And I wonder if the Democrats could benefit from just a revival of interest in localism and trying to shore up some of these eroded foundations that affect a lot of these communities, including their news sources.
Rob Saldin: Yeah, exactly, Geoff. Kal and I are actually thinking about doing a piece specifically on that, actually, on the decline of local news. And I think that absolutely is a big part of the story here: newspapers in particular, local newspapers. I mean, I think everyone’s fairly well acquainted with the challenges in journalism in general, but particularly in the newspaper business and the decline of newspapers. And where that is hit hardest, of course… And some newspapers are thriving; the New York Times and Washington Post come to mind.
But where you’ve really seen this hit hard are in those rural areas, and that just furthers this trend towards nationalization, right? If you don’t have your old local daily paper or your local weekly paper, that just then sends you off into more nationalized areas and it makes it makes it very hard, I think, in the case of Democrats in, say, Montana, to do that localizing process that we talk about — to try to identify things that take some of the attention off just, “Oh, is it going to be Nancy Pelosi who’s Speaker or Kevin McCarthy?” Well, if that’s the only thing people are thinking about, we know what the result is going to be.
And so, yes, I think the decline in local media is a significant problem for Democrats in rural areas, and for Republicans in our urban areas, in our cities. If everything just comes down to a thing about, “Well, which team are you on? Are you Trump or anti-Trump? Are you with Pelosi and the Squad, or against them?” — well, that really is poisonous for Democrats in the parts of the country that we’re talking about. And again, we just think it’s really an unfortunate and unhealthy thing for American democracy as a whole, right? It screws up the way our system is supposed to work when you have everything nationalized in that way. And so quite apart from wherever your partisan inclinations would take you on these things, there’s also this larger thing about what is helpful for having a healthy, dynamic, vibrant political system.
Geoff Kabaservice: Rob, I really appreciate your filling us in on the politics of Big Sky Country and all the other rural parts of the country. Really appreciate your being here with us today. Thank you so much.
Rob Saldin: Thanks for having me, Geoff. Good talking with you.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform, and if you have any questions, comments or other responses, please include them along with your rating, or send us an email at email@example.com. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingenieri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.