by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University

Every year, the MPSA Annual Meetings convene at the Palmer House Hilton in downtown Chicago.  Just a few blocks away, the Trump International Hotel and Tower looms, the former President’s name clearly visible from down the street,  Does Trump’s legacy still loom this large over political science?  The short answer is:  yes.

First of all, the authoritarian turn is not limited to the United States. Two years and two days after the January 6, 2021 insurrection attempt here in the U.S., supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s followers staged a remarkably similar coup attempt on their own capitol.  Hungarian President Viktor Orbàn is notoriously anti-immigration and hostile to democratic institutions.  Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi championed a 2019 citizenship law that creates a double standard for immigrants to seek citizenship based on religious belief, notably excluding Muslims from its fast-track processes.  The examples go on and on, but there is little doubt that the U.S.’s outsized role in the world’s politics, military affairs, economics, and media attention puts Trump at the center of this authoritarian turn.  The Donald may no longer be President, but like his building, his impact does still loom over the MPSA conference.

As has been the case since his 2016 election, conference papers feature far more attention to topics including authoritarianism, populism, social divisions, and political polarization than beforehand.  Since 2020, add a sharp uptick in attention to conspiracy theories and election denial.  Both topics have entire panels dedicated to them, and plenty of papers on other panels, lightening talks, and poster sessions as well.

Regarding this authoritarian turn, a few themes have emerged from the posters and panels I have attended so far.  One is that support for an authoritarian candidate typically drives decisions on other issues rather than the other way around.  In a traditional approach, such as the classic approach to voting advanced by Anthony Downs (1957), voters determine their stand on issues and then support candidates accordingly.  But subsequent work such as that by John Zaller (1992) found that on many issues, voters were not very knowledgeable and had no opinion.  When asked by pollsters to take a stance, voters often relied on cues provided by candidates and elected officials they support, a finding also consistent with that of Samuel Popkin (1994).  Zaller called this phenomenon “making it up as you go along.”  Popkin called it “low-information rationality” using “information shortcuts.”

An excellent example of this phenomenon occurred when pollsters partitioned a sample of voters and asked one group about their support for the Affordable Care Act, and the other about their support for Obamacare.  Despite the fact that Obamacare is a nickname for the ACA, polls consistently showed higher support for the ACA, presumably because voters unfamiliar with the policy used the name “Obama” as an information cue, and those that opposed Obama’s Presidency inferred that Obamacare must be a bad policy.  Referring to the ACA by its formal name does not contain this same cue.  Since Obama has left office, one aspect of the ACA—Medicaid expansion—has continued to be passed in the states, including many Republican-voting “red” states, such as Oklahoma and Missouri, where it was passed by petition initiative. The fact that Medicaid expansion is rarely referred to as part of “Obamacare” anymore may help boost its popularity in these places.  Forty states now have some form of Medicaid expansion.

We see this same “making it up as you go along” phenomenon with Trump supporters, with voters arriving at positions on issues such as whether or not the former President should be put on trial today being determined by voters’ views, not of the charges themselves but on Trump himself.  If readers will forgive the pun, it appears that support or opposition to the former President himself trumps other considerations when voters make up their minds.  In fact, the phenomenon is so extreme that in their new book The Bitter End, John Sides, Chris Tausanovitch, and Lynn Vavreck (2022) find that when Trump was impeached the second time, most voters polled, both for and against impeachment, viewed this issue as being the most important one in determining their vote choice.

And thus we begin where we started.  Like Trump’s immense building, his legacy and that of other authoritarian leaders and would-be leaders still loom large over political science this year.  However, a few questions do present themselves, for political scientists willing to tackle them.  First, since support for (and opposition to) Trump appears to drive many stands voters take on other issues, it begs the question of why voters support (or oppose) Trump in the first place.  Is it the case that voters take positions on certain issues—such as Trump’s signature one, immigration—then cast their support behind candidates with the same positions and let that person’s stand on other issues influence their own opinions?  Another, not necessarily mutually exclusive explanation is that voters’ support or opposition for this and other candidates is affective—that is, emotion-driven.  However, it should be noted that research in political psychology continues to muddy the waters about whether or not an “authoritarian personality” actually exists.  It may, but the evidence is not a clear-cut as once believed.

The second under-tilled field for research concerns a post-Trump politics.  Joe Biden has been President for more than half a term and the midterms did not feature the anticipated “red wave.”  The United States and many other democracies continue to become more diverse.  Increasing numbers of young people list their religious affiliation as “none”.  These and other phenomena did not cause the rise of candidates like Trump, Bolsonaro, and Orbàn— indeed, those candidates’ success may be more a reaction to, rather than a cause of such changes, which deserve more study in their own right.

The authoritarian turn appears to be one of the major political developments of our era, and this year’s MPSA conference makes it clear that the related research topics are far from exhausted.  Perhaps in the coming years, we will observe a post-Trump politics begin to take shape, with political scientists’ interests shifting accordingly.


About the Author

Michael A. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored three books, the most recent of which is co-authored with two Emporia State colleagues, Drs. Bob Grover and Rob Catlett.  It is entitled Low Taxes and Small Government: The Brownback Experiment in Kansas and was released by Lexington in 2019.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on Twitter