Interview with Seth Masket about The Elephant in the Room

by Elizabeth Rowe (She/Her)

The Elephant in the Room

7 Questions about The Elephant in the Room with Seth Masket

Seth Masket is a political scientist, professor, and author. Seth has written multiple books, including No Middle Ground, which explores how the United States has shifted toward candidates that represent ideological extremes, The Inevitable Party, which examines different attempts to change the current party system and why they failed, and Learning From Loss, a book that walks readers through the Democratic party’s response to the 2016 election up to 2020. Currently, he is writing another book, The Elephant in the Room, which he expects to publish in 2025. Seth is a Professor at the University of Denver, where he also serves as the Director of the Center on American Politics. This week, we asked Seth questions about his life and career path.

You have been interested in the political world since studying as an undergraduate. What initial experiences sparked your interest in studying political science and led you to your career as a political analyst?

Honestly, I was interested even before that. I have been interested in politics since middle school or high school—I remember drawing editorial cartoons of the Carter/Reagan election. But that interest really grew in college. After leaving college, I went to Washington, D.C. where I wanted to work in politics. I volunteered on the Clinton/Gore campaign and ended up working in the Clinton White House for a while as a letter writer, and eventually left there and worked on some more campaigns in California before going to graduate school for political science. So I was always interested in it. 

I had to decide for a while whether I wanted to do it professionally for a living or step back from that and study it more academically. I really enjoyed working on campaigns. I was fascinated by being part of the government, but ultimately I just looked around at the people who were in their 40s and 50s who had been doing this for 20 or 30 years, and they didn't look healthy or happy, and I wasn't sure I wanted to do that. So, while running campaigns seemed great when I was younger, it was not something I wanted to do forever. But, the idea of actually studying it and teaching it seemed more appealing to me in the long run. That has proven to be a good decision. Although I've occasionally stepped back in, for the most part, I enjoy having a little bit of distance from it.

I am a big fan of your Substack “Tusk”—Have you enjoyed writing about republican primaries?

Yes, I have really enjoyed this process and have been doing this for a little over a year now. I started in February of 2023. But, I have been writing publicly, blogging and other sorts of engagements like that, for a while now. I think I started on my first blog in 2007, and I've always enjoyed writing publicly. There's something that's just much more immediate about it. But, the frustrating side of academic work is that you can have an interesting thought and something to say about an event that's going on and it might get published three years down the road. And if I have something that seems more immediate and more short-term, it's nice to be able to put that out into the world instantaneously and get some feedback on it and occasionally get some readership. I've been involved with a few different political science blogs and done some op-ed work. But when it comes to Substack, what particularly appealed to me about this was that almost all the other writing I've done has been very broad in terms of the subject area. Through this,  I wanted to focus much more narrowly on what was going on on the Republican side in the presidential race. And, for the most part, I’ve remained pretty focused.

Do you like Substack as a platform?

Having worked on various platforms like Wix, Blogger, and others, I can confidently say that Substack is by far the easiest platform I've ever used. They make it super convenient to publish content quickly, build a subscriber list, and even monetize your work. Although I haven't focused much on monetization, with only a few paid followers and limited pay-only content, I still find Substack incredibly user-friendly and a pleasure to use.

However, it's not all smooth sailing. Over the past couple of months, Substack has faced significant controversy. It came to light that several white supremacist accounts were active and monetizing on the platform. Initially, Substack's response was dismissive, stating that they were not responsible for curating content. This stance led some users to leave the platform.

Eventually, Substack took action by removing some Nazi accounts, which signaled to me that they are at least somewhat responsive to community concerns. This action, though perhaps insufficient, was enough to keep me using the platform.
One of the significant advantages of Substack is its ability to help creators find audiences they might not reach otherwise. However, there is a downside: it's essentially rented land, which can be problematic. This issue isn't unique to Substack; it's something all social media platforms grapple with. Twitter, for example, has undergone dramatic changes over the last two years, significantly for the worse in my opinion.

This dynamic has allowed alternative platforms to emerge, catering to those looking for spaces free of harmful content. There is indeed a market for social media platforms that ensure a safe and inclusive environment, and Substack’s recent controversies highlight the importance of such spaces.

In summary, while Substack offers an excellent user experience and great tools for content creators, it's crucial to be aware of the broader issues and controversies that come with using the platform. As with any social media space, it's important to stay informed and make choices that align with your values and needs.

What is your favorite moment of the Republican primary season so far?

When it comes to political moments, it's hard to pick a favorite. However, one moment that stands out to me as particularly interesting occurred in March 2023. At that time, it was becoming widely known that Donald Trump was facing multiple indictments. There were many theories about how these legal troubles might impact the political landscape. Some speculated it would help Trump, others thought it would hurt him, and some believed it wouldn't change much at all since people's opinions about Trump were already firmly set.

What surprised me was how Trump's indictment in New York caused a rally in his support. According to the polling I was doing with county Republican leaders, and other polls as well, he experienced a 10-point boost in the Republican primary. Interestingly, this surge didn't come from undecided Republicans; it came from those who had already decided they wanted someone other than Trump. These supporters, particularly those who had been leaning towards Ron DeSantis, swung back to Trump, seemingly driven by a need to defend their leader against what they perceived as unjust attacks.

In hindsight, it seems obvious that Trump's legal troubles would solidify his base rather than weaken it. This phenomenon highlights a key aspect of this nomination cycle: actions that would typically be damaging are instead viewed as rallying cries. Trump's supporters see him as their true leader under attack, and every new controversy only strengthens their resolve to defend him. This moment in March 2023 encapsulates this dynamic perfectly, and it's one I keep coming back to when thinking about the current political climate.

Tell us more about The Elephant in the Room and what you think that book's gonna look like.

I'm excited to share an idea I have for a new book, tentatively titled The Elephant in the Room. It's not just about Donald Trump; it's about the broader story of the modern Republican Party. While the main focus is the 2024 presidential nomination cycle, I'm using that as a lens to explore a longer, more complex narrative involving many key players.

Trump is undeniably important, but he's not the sole focus. This book delves into the conservative populist faction within the Republican Party, which has been gaining momentum since at least the early 1990s. Pat Buchanan's 1992 campaign is a notable early moment for this group. This nativist, anti-immigration wing of the party has historically been popular among non-college-educated whites and has often been dismissed by the Republican establishment.

For years, leaders like Reagan and the Bushes would acknowledge these populists without fully embracing their vision, especially on immigration. The party's establishment consistently told them that to win, they needed to nominate candidates like John McCain or Mitt Romney, despite the populists' reservations. However, those candidates lost, and when Trump came along, defying expectations and winning, it gave this faction a newfound confidence.

Trump's victory allowed this wing to rise within the party, placing many of its members into leadership positions at various levels. This shift significantly changed the party dynamics, as the previously marginalized group found itself in control.
My book aims to explore not just this history, but also how these changes have reshaped the Republican Party today, and by extension, the country and the world. The traditional strategies of the GOP—such as selecting a unifying nominee and conceding gracefully after a loss—have been upended. Now, the focus is on selecting candidates who energize the most fervent base, questioning election results, and prioritizing symbolic stances over practical governance.

By examining these transformations, The Elephants in the Room will offer insights into the current state of the Republican Party and its broader implications. I believe this story is crucial for understanding the new rules of political engagement and governance in the United States.

Do you think primaries can get any more divisive than they already are?

One fascinating aspect of the GOP primaries is how Trump is performing. While he's not winning with an overwhelming majority like an incumbent might, he's still securing victories in all the primaries so far. If he were to lose a primary, it would undoubtedly get ugly. We can expect Trump to claim the process was rigged and accuse his rivals, like Nikki Haley, of various misdeeds. As we've seen from past experiences, Trump doesn't handle losing well, which could lead to even more division within the party.

This primary race might not last much longer. Haley's campaign has already outlasted many others at this stage. However, Trump's campaign will soon intersect with his legal battles, both civil and criminal. He'll be bouncing between courtrooms and rallies, which will define his campaign strategy. If authorities, like the Attorney General of New York, start seizing his properties—Trump Tower, Mar-a-Lago, and others—it could escalate tensions significantly.

Based on the current trajectory of the Republican primary, what can we expect this fall? While I can't predict the exact outcome, a few scenarios are worth considering.

My passion for political science stems from a love of nominations and primaries. I thrive on watching parties debate and decide their future direction. However, general elections are a different story—they're far more stressful. The pattern we've seen in recent cycles will likely continue: the election will be static in terms of polling numbers because Americans already know so much about Trump and Biden. Despite this, we'll still see billions spent on ads and intense media focus on the presidential race due to the high stakes.

Don't expect much movement in the polls. There will be plenty of arguments but probably no debates. It would be beneficial to shift some focus to congressional or state legislative races, but that's unlikely to happen.

In November, we'll likely face one of two outcomes. If Trump wins, we could see one of the most aggressively anti-democratic administrations in American history, marked by militarization of cities, mass deportations, and stringent abortion bans. If Biden wins, Trump and his allies may try to delay or reverse the results, potentially leading to political violence.
So, while this primary season is intriguing and even enjoyable for those of us who love the intricacies of political strategy, the potential outcomes in the fall are far from reassuring. Let's make the most of this current phase while we can.

What do you think of third-party candidates? How do you think they will affect the outcome in the fall?

The thing with third-party candidates is that they often seem more impressive early in the year than they turn out to be. Campaigns have a familiar way of reminding voters what they either liked about their party or disliked about the opposition. This effect usually brings partisans back to their respective camps, and those briefly considering a third-party option, like Robert Kennedy Jr., typically end up sticking with the main parties.

In the end, I'll be surprised if someone like RFK Jr. gets more than one or two percent of the vote. However, even a small percentage can still be influential. If he's on the ballot in swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, or Georgia, that one or two percent could be a game-changer, depending on which party he pulls more votes from.

At this point, it's not clear which side RFK Jr. would impact more, adding an element of mystery and potential for a spoiler effect. This uncertainty makes many people uncomfortable, knowing that a small third-party vote could sway the election in unexpected ways. It’s a dynamic that’s sure to cause significant concern and frustration as we get closer to the election.
What steps can be taken for there to be a more bipartisan ecosystem out there for people to invest and, regardless of party, get things done?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about and discussing potential reforms to make our electoral system function a bit better. While moderation in politics isn't necessarily the goal, it's crucial that the options available to voters don't include the end of democracy as one of the choices. Here are some ideas I've been considering:

First and foremost, everyone who is eligible to vote should be able to do so without obstacles. Although we've made progress in recent years, there are still barriers that prevent some people from voting. We need to make voting more accessible and straightforward.

Moreover, we could implement changes to our electoral system to support the existence of more political parties. Initially, I wasn’t too concerned about shifting from a bipartisan to a multi-party system, but now I believe it could be beneficial. Such a change would lower the stakes of elections, reducing the high tension that comes with one party’s victory over the other.
To encourage this, we could introduce reforms like multi-member State House districts and ranked-choice voting. These changes would allow third or fourth parties to emerge in various regions, providing voters with more options and fostering more diverse coalitions in legislatures.

Additionally, we need to revive local media. Local newspapers and news outlets play a crucial role in holding politicians accountable and ensuring they represent their districts effectively. Better coverage of local politics leads to more responsible governance and keeps politicians from blindly following their national party lines or special interest groups. Some states, like New Jersey, have experimented with funds to support local newspapers. These efforts are vital because they reintroduce the local voice into the national political conversation, which is essential for a healthy democracy. Revitalizing local media and introducing electoral reforms will require significant effort, especially after decades of decline. However, moving in this direction is crucial for creating a more functional and representative political system.

So do you have any advice for candidates—Republican, Democrat, independent, doesn't matter—who are running in this divisive sort of political world that we're in? What advice would you have for them to get through all this?

When asked about career advice for students interested in politics, I always have a ready answer. Remarkably, many students are still eager to pursue careers in this field. My advice to them is to get involved in local or state legislative elections.
There are several reasons for this. Firstly, it’s easy to lose sight of local and state politics, but understanding these areas is crucial. Local and state elections are the bedrock of our political system, and engaging at this level provides invaluable insights.

Secondly, working on local or state campaigns can be far more engaging and educational for newcomers. In these settings, you can quickly find yourself involved in a variety of critical tasks—speech writing, fundraising, candidate staffing, and advance work. These opportunities are often more accessible and hands-on compared to working on a congressional or presidential campaign, where roles can be more segmented and hierarchical.

Getting involved locally allows you to learn and contribute in meaningful ways right from the start. It’s a fantastic way to build a solid foundation in political work, gain practical experience, and make a real impact in your community.

What are your favorite podcasts, television, movies, or books right now?

When it comes to favorite books, one that stands out for me is All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren. Although it’s been several years since I read it, this novel remains a fantastic political book. It’s a great story and one of the best explorations of U.S. politics I’ve ever encountered.

On the non-fiction side, I highly recommend What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer. This book offers an in-depth look at the 1988 presidential candidates, including highly consequential figures like Al Gore, Joe Biden, George Bush, and Robert Dole. It’s an excellent read for anyone interested in the intricacies of political campaigns and the people behind them.

Recently, I read a fiction book titled Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. It was outstanding—a beautifully written and deeply emotional story that I couldn't put down.

For a TV series, I can’t recommend The Boys highly enough. While it may seem like just a twisted take on the superhero genre, it’s actually deeply political. The show offers a smart critique of unaccountable power and militarism, with themes of War on Terror language woven throughout. It’s a brilliant, dark look at power dynamics and definitely worth watching.

These are just a few of my top picks that offer a mix of political insights, emotional depth, and thought-provoking entertainment.

Thanks Seth! Have questions? Drop us a line!