For the past month, many liberals have been openly lobbying for the electoral college to select someone other than Trump. However, there have also been calls for a more ambitious reform: abolishing the electoral college entirely. The problem with these kinds of hopes – and, in fairness, I have wished for equally radical reforms – is that they ignore the norms and institutions that have built up around the traditional structures of American society. In political science, this dynamic is referred to as path dependence, and it essentially means that the longer an institution or tradition has existed, the harder it is to abolish. This is due to the simple fact that interest groups adapt to the system that exists and then, because they have sunk so much time and effort into the existing system, become highly resistant to change and reform.
Perhaps the most stereotypical example of this (at least on the domestic front) is welfare programs like Medicare. Typically more conservative older voters refuse to support expensive welfare programs or subsidies for younger generations, such as free college, but they are more than happy to support an unsustainably expensive welfare system that benefits them. The reason for this seemingly contradictory set of policy positions is clear: Medicare has existed for a long time, and vested interest groups like AARP have ossified around the institution, making any kind of reform exceedingly difficult.
These dynamics work to lock in pre-existing institutions and make reform or evolution extremely challenging. Ironically, despite the conservative nature of path dependence, this dynamic will actually help liberals during the Trump administration because it means that overturning Obama’s policies will be more challenging than many Republicans seem to realize. Take Obamacare, for example. Premiums might be rising and there could be massive systemic flaws in the program, but millions of people now rely on Obamacare for their health coverage and they aren’t going to allow Republicans to eliminate their coverage without a fight. This isn’t to say that Obamacare won’t be repealed, of course. However, dismantling Obamacare will be an extremely protracted and vicious fight, and repeal will likely alienate a number of rural, underserved voters who decided to vote for Trump in this past election. This is especially likely if Republicans choose to repeal Obamacare without an effective replacement program already in place.
The same dynamics exist with the JCPOA. It is certainly true that Trump, as president, can immediately suspend the Iran Nuclear Deal negotiated under Obama. However, path dependence will make this a very unpleasant experience for him because so many actors have vested interests in the deal succeeding. Companies and banks that have begun trading with Iran will fight a reimposition of sanctions as hard as possible, American regional allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia will be peeved about having to adapt yet again to American policy in the Middle East, and Trump’s dear friend Putin will be livid because Iran is a Russian ally that purchases extensively from Russian arms corporations. In short, the system will work to lock in Obama-era policies both domestically and internationally.
Path dependence isn’t just bad news for the GOP, though. It also means that progressive ideas will be extremely difficult to implement, even with a Democratic government. Take free college, for example. In Europe, free college is possible because citizens are far more willing to accept higher tax rates and because universities there do not offer the same level of amenities as American colleges. In Germany, most universities are free, but they often do not provide housing or meal plans. In other words, the model there is extremely different from that in the U.S. because it has evolved down a different path. Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages, but it is disingenuous for liberals to argue that Americans can simply tack on the advantages of European universities to the pre-existing American system without restructuring American higher education more fundamentally. One cannot simply pick and choose parts of another culture and import them into one’s own culture without also bringing in the supporting norms and institutions. Unless one understands the broader system in which institutions reside, one will never be able to fully replicate the institutions one is trying to draw from.
It seems to me that people on both sides of the political spectrum push individual policy proposals without recognizing the broader normative and institutional environments in which they are ensconced. Second order effects can often be hard to fully account for, but simply pretending that they don’t exist is untenable when trying to think through effective means of reforming and improving one’s own system.