Which key issues defined the political landscape of 2023, and what challenges will shape the year to come? In the first of our Trending Topics series, UCI political scientists offer expert insight on some of the year's hot topics - inflation, activism, global conflict, Donald Trump, party politics, reproductive rights, and more - while looking ahead to what's in store for 2024.
- Matthew Beckmann (MB), associate professor of political science with expertise on Washington politics, particularly the modern presidency.
- Graeme Boushey (GB), associate professor of political science and director of the Jack W. Peltason Center for the Study of Democracy. His expertise includes California politics and statewide elections, American politics, state and federal policy-making, ballot measures and the initiative process.
- Jordie Davies (JD), assistant professor of political science with expertise in Black politics and political thought, U.S. social movements, solidarity, and Black feminism.
- Louis DeSipio (LD), professor of political science and Chicano/Latino studies with expertise in ethnic politics, Latino politics, immigration, naturalization, and U.S. electoral politics.
- Marek Kaminski (MK), professor of political science with expertise in voting models, democratization, and political consequences of electoral laws.
- Mary McThomas (MM), associate professor of political science with expertise in immigration, theories of citizenship, feminist political theory, the right to privacy, and gender and politics.
- Shawn Rosenberg (SR), professor of political science with expertise in political psychology, populism, deliberative democracy, ideology, social theory, and social and development psychology.
- Tony Smith (TS), professor of political science and law with expertise in law and legal institutions, U.S. politics, international law, and comparative law. He is currently editor in chief for the journal Political Research Quarterly.
- Michael Tesler (MT), professor of political science with expertise in American politics and race, ethnicity and politics.
Q: From your area of expertise, what do you consider to be the most significant political development or accomplishment this past year?
MB: We began 2023 with many economists predicting a recession. That the economy has kept plodding along with low unemployment and lower inflation is the year’s most significant development, politically as much as economically.
TS: The apparent taming of inflation is likely to be the most important political story moving forward.
MT: Donald Trump’s criminal indictments. While these charges haven’t had much of an impact on his support thus far, the prospect of a trial in the spring or summer casts a very big shadow over the election year.
JD: 2023 has been a year of major direct-action activism - large scale protests and strikes across sectors all over the US in response to inequality and geopolitical turmoil. Americans have taken a cue from the past decade of mass organizing and taken to the streets to express themselves.
SR: The biggest phenomenon of this year is the continued rise of an anti-liberal democratic populism in the US and Europe. This is highlighted by the triumphant return of Donald Trump to the astonishing ascent of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. Popular support for an independent judiciary, the rule of law, the rights of minorities and the need for respectful political debate continues to decline.
MK: The Russian-Ukrainian conflict has reached a stalemate, and the initial optimism of resolving it through enhanced Western military capabilities is diminishing. What is imperative is a more assertive American response to the conflict, involving substantial investment in the military production in Eastern-Central Europe. Such an investment would contribute to the establishment of a robust sanitary cordon, fortifying against potential future Russian aggression towards NATO.
LD: The very strong levels of support by a large share of the Republican primary electorate to former President Trump despite his many indictments and frequent lack of coherence on the campaign trail provides further evidence of the high level of polarization in the American electorate. Trump’s opponents for the Republican nomination proved not to be the strongest candidates, but none were able to mount a serious challenge to Trump’s leadership of the party.
GB: State governments have played an important role in showing the causes, consequences, and outcomes of our national political rifts. Maybe the most important example was in the area of abortion lawmaking. Following the Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturning federal constitutional abortion protections, state governments have become more expansive in pursuing both abortion protections and restrictions– with states exploring ways to limit abortion medication and others voting on (or preparing to vote on) amendments to abortion rights in the state constitutions. Abortion rights remain broadly popular in the United States, and voter response to these efforts foreshadow what is certain to be one of the most important political issues in 2024.
Q: Reflecting on the past year, who or what would you consider the biggest winner in politics, and why?
MB: Knock on wood, but I’d say Jerome Powell is 2023’s biggest political winner to date.
TS: It’s hard to pick one big winner - Biden has had an impressive legislative, economic, and foreign policy year, but at the state level, Andy Beshear was re-elected in Kentucky in a race that, had he lost by 15 points, we would not have been surprised. Still, for me the pro-choice/reproductive rights people have had the most impressive run of political wins this year.
MT: Donald Trump. Might seem strange to say that someone who got indicted on 91 felony charges won the year politically. But he began 2023 in a relatively close contest for the Republican presidential nomination and is ending it in a commanding position to be the nominee. He also recently pulled ahead in the general election polling average after never leading Biden during the 2020 campaign.
JD: As mentioned, organized labor has really flexed its muscle in the last year. The United Auto Workers Union, the SAG/AFTRA strikes, the Writer’s Union Strikes all took industrial actions with support from a largely pro-union American public. The Biden Administration also advanced new labor protections for overtime work as well as international labor standards in the President’s efforts to be seen as the most “pro-worker President in history.”
MM: Proponents of reproductive rights. 2023 was a successful year for state-level propositions and constitutional amendments protecting a woman’s access to abortion. This has helped to ease the sting of the Dobbs decision in which the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. It also highlights what can happen when people organize and show up at elections.
MK: Donald Trump is the biggest winner, successfully reinstating himself as an electoral frontrunner despite the court battles.
LD: In their own ways, both former President Trump and President Biden saw major victories in 2023. Trump demonstrated the loyalty of his supporters in the Republican party and was remembered fondly – at least relative to Biden – by many independents. This could prove to be a winning coalition in 2024. Biden saw major legislative victories despite a divided Congress. Through much of the year, he also led a global coalition in support of Ukraine.
GB: Free and fair elections in the US? The American voter? The Supreme Court’s 6-3 rejection of independent state legislature theory in Moore v. Harper decision put to rest a fringe legal theory that would have had destabilizing effects both on US elections but also the balance of power in state governments.
Q: Conversely, who or what would you identify as the biggest loser in politics over the past year, and what's the fallout?
MB: The field is deep, but I’ll give Rudy Giuliani the award.
TS: There are always more losers than winners in politics, but among the biggest losers this year are the folks that thought - somehow - people who love Donald Trump would prefer Ron DeSantis. The financial backers of Governor DeSantis are faced with a candidate now in 4th place in New Hampshire and barely in double digits anywhere after as much as 200 million dollars spent. The fallout is DeSantis has damaged himself for future runs for president because he has been so bad at it this time.
MT: The field is indeed deep. I was tempted to say DeSantis, but since he has already been mentioned, I’ll go with Kevin McCarthy. He began the year needing 15 votes to be elected Speaker of the House and ended it as the first House Speaker to be voted out of office. One of the more humiliating episodes in the history of American politics.
JD: Americans continue to lose trust in mass media. Gallup reports that media trust in 2023 matches the “record low” recorded in 2016, with only 32% of Americans saying they trust media a “great deal” or a “fair amount.” This is deeply concerning heading into an election year that’s already laden with political drama.
MM: The legitimacy of the Supreme Court. While already in a downward spiral in 2022 as the majority of the justices seemed to choose politics over precedence, the recent bombshells regarding various ethical violations have further eviscerated any claims to moral and legal legitimacy. Chief Justice Roberts’ attempt to address the situation by putting forth a largely meaningless ethical code has only given credence to rumors that he is no longer the one steering the ship.
MK: Probably, Vladimir Putin. The war continues to drag on, and Russia is bleeding people and resources. “Probably” due to the unexpected resilience displayed by the Russian economy in the face of sanctions.
LD: As my colleagues have noted, there are many losers in today’s politics. I would put the U.S. Congress at the top (or bottom). Its approval ratings are barely in the two digits and the House of Representatives could barely elect a leader (the person who is second in line to the Presidency). Their ultimate selection – Representative Mike Johnson – was an afterthought and does not appear capable of leadership. It’s not a job where you can learn as you go.
GB: My colleagues have given us quite a roundup, and I find myself nodding with each of these suggestions. I think the declining trust in the media and public perceptions of the Supreme Court (raised by my colleagues Professors Davies and McThomas) are the most significant. To these two trends I would add a third: the alarming decline in trust in government, which continues to descend toward historic lows. This could prove an important feature in the 2024 election, and make the development and implementation of future policies more difficult.
Q: As we look ahead to 2024, what do you see as the most pressing political question or challenge that needs to be addressed?
MB: Donald Trump’s fate - criminally and electorally - are the most pressing political questions to be answered in 2024.
TS: While elections tend to be more about the economy than almost anything else, we are facing serious global threats with the ongoing Russian war of aggression in Ukraine and the brutal conflict between Israel and Hamas. These conflicts are all the more challenging given Donald Trump’s affinity for Russia and disdain for NATO and his lack of depth of understanding of the larger Middle East.
MT: What happens if Trump is convicted? Polling suggests it would hurt his standing in the election. But there’s even more uncertainty about how the Trump campaign and the Republican Party would proceed if the GOP’s presumptive nominee is convicted of multiple felonies.
JD: Will Democrats turn out for Biden again in 2024? The economy is strong, but the public is still struggling with high costs and tepid wages. With consistently low approval ratings and questions about his age, the Biden campaign will have to deliver a strong message to engender strong turnout.
SR: The big question going forward is: What, if anything, can be done to reverse the troubling trend of anti-liberal democratic populism?
MM: The proliferation of state laws that ban discussions in schools regarding sexuality, gender identity, and the history of racism in the United States. Relatedly, we have seen concerted – and successful – efforts to harm trans children by, among other things, denying gender-affirming healthcare and prohibiting children from playing on sports teams that align with their gender identity. This policing of gender and erasure of history at elementary and high schools has the potential for harmful and long-term consequences.
MK: A big question is who will be elected the next President. However, internationally, the big questions are about the two ongoing conflicts, and the possibility of escalation and involving China.
LD: The outcomes of the 2024 U.S. elections will shape the future of the United States and the world. Considering the relative unpopularity of both leading candidates, the tone of the race will likely be negative. Turnout will be key and there is already evidence that many adults who do not regularly vote may sit out the 2024 elections.
GB: How the political system (political elites and the public at the national and state levels) respond to the outcome of the 2024 election is critical. We have seen an alarming trend in American politics where a growing number of partisans discuss electoral contests in existential “all or nothing” affairs and reject outright the legitimacy of their opposition. Will the losers of the presidential election and contested state contests accept the results and allow the opposition to govern? Will the winners pursue policy or punish grievances?
Q: What trends or developments should we be watching for in the coming year, and how might they shape the political landscape?
TS: The Republican Party may be in a death spiral because of two related pressures. First, the faction of the party that seeks to completely or mostly limit abortion access could co-exist with the faction that wants abortion to be safe and legal as long as it was in fact safe and legal. Now the pro-choice folks have to abandon the party to get policy. If the party continues to insist on a hard core anti-abortion policy position, the party will continue to shrink and may become too small to win. Secondly, Trump has ignored long held conservative tenants and just turned the Party into a vehicle for the pursuit of personal power. Whether he’s flirting with fascism, quoting Hitler, making anti-democratic declarations, or ignoring the Constitution, he has pushed the party away from conservative principles in every dimension in favor of populist rhetoric. The Republican Party under Trump is not really conservative anymore. These two factors may lead the Mitt Romneys, Liz Cheneys, and Chris Christies of the world to split the party.
MT: Biden’s approval rating looms especially large. History suggests that a first-term incumbent with Biden’s current approval rating of around 39% should win only about 47% of the two-party vote. So, it’s difficult to see him being reelected if that rating doesn’t improve. The silver lining for Biden, however, is that presidents running for reelection often become more popular over the course of the election year as the campaign reminds disaffected supporters why they voted for them in the first place.
MM: Apathy, especially among the young. What I am seeing now with my students – in terms of feeling disconnected from national politics and turned off by the candidates - is reminiscent of 2016. Back then, I was told by many young people that were surprised by Trump’s victory that they just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton. We are already hearing similar sentiments about Biden with, potentially, similar results.
JD: I am interested to see how the Democratic Party will forge an identity beyond being an alternative to Republicans and Trump. As Biden takes to the campaign trail, amidst the apathy that Professor McThomas mentions, how will Democrats position themselves as a party of the future?
LD: I will be following the efforts to reach out to African American, Latino, and Asian American electorates by both parties and the degree to which recent inroads by Republicans in winning largely shares of the minority vote continue in 2024. In a race that is sure to be very close in the small number of battleground states, these newer electorates can determine who wins in the Electoral College.
GB: An essential question will emerge depending on who controls the White House moving forward. If Republicans win, how will the ensuing administration undertake their promises to curtail the power of the federal bureaucracy? If the Republicans secure unified government following the 2024 election (which is a strong possibility given the current Senate map), how will they govern– especially given the current unpopularity of some of their policy positions regarding abortion and healthcare access. More generally – what, if anything, will the next Congress and Presidential administration do to strengthen (or weaken) solutions to the climate crisis.
Q: What's next in terms of political shifts or changes, and how might these impact the broader political climate?
TS: The combination of challenges to reproductive freedom and the ongoing inaction on assault-type weapons has led to impressive turnout among the younger voters. If this enthusiasm perseveres, the voting electorate will look a lot more like the general public.
MM: To echo Dr. Davies comments, the increase – and success – of direct-action activism has the potential to bring more people into a broader understanding of politics and political action. It will take such communal effort and organization to counter the continuing and growing disparity in wealth, health, and opportunities.
LD: Immigrants and refugees are in the political crosshairs in a way that they have not been for many years. Moderate Democrats are allying with Republicans to further narrow opportunities to immigrate to the United States and to restrict the rights of immigrants claiming asylum.
GB: Responding mostly to my colleagues above – these are all essential points. One question at the state level is whether the parties in control of state government will look to incorporate these voters in their policies and political campaigns, or if state party elites will look to cut off support from certain groups of voters by changing the rules of who can participate in elections and how.
Q: Finally, do you have any upcoming research, projects, or events that we should be on the lookout for in 2024?
TS: In June 2024, NYU Press will release The Politics of Perverts: The Political Attitudes and Actions of Non-Traditional Sexual Minorities. My co-authors and I have taken over 3000 surveys about politics from members of the BDSM, Polyamory, Nudist, and Furry communities. Combined these groups are perhaps 4 times the size of the LGBTQ community yet they have no legal protections against discrimination.