Dr. Michael Wuthrich is an American comparative political scientist teaching in the Political Science department at the University of Kansas. Wuthrich is also the Associate Director for the Center for Global & International Studies. He received his PhD in Political Science from Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey in 2011. His publications have appeared in the Journal of Democracy, Political Research Quarterly, International Journal of Middle East Studies, the Middle East Journal, and Turkish Studies among others. His book, National Elections in Turkey: People, Politics, and the Party System was published in July 2015 with Syracuse University Press. He is specialized in Comparative Politics, Middle East Politics, Parties and Party Systems, Electoral Behavior, Religion and Politics, and Nationalism and Politics.
National Elections in Turkey: People, Politics, and the Party System by Michael Wuthrich
Dr. Ozan Örmeci: Dr. Wuthrich, thank you for your time. I want to start with the recent elections in the United States. Democratic Party candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden was elected as the 46th President of the United States. Biden became the U.S. President elected with the most votes in American history by having more than 81 million votes. At the same time, incumbent President and Republican Party candidate, Donald Trump also garnered nearly 75 million votes, which is more than any other Republican presidential candidate before him. Although Trump lost the election, his strong performance was also unexpected by the polls and political analyses prior to the elections. How can we explain these elections by looking at presidential and Congress results?
Dr. Michael Wuthrich: Thank you, Ozan Hoca, for inviting me to do this interview, and you can certainly call me, Michael. As to your question; this is the second presidential election in which predictions from polling have appeared misleading. In both cases, the Democratic candidate was expected to win by a wider margin than the actual result. In this most recent election, the ultimate outcome fit the general predictions, but not by the margins anticipated. Furthermore, if we look at Congressional election predictions, the Republicans performed more strongly than anticipated in 2020. In fact, as your question anticipates, the Republican members of Congress might have performed better than President Trump overall.
What does this tell us? I’m not sure, to be honest. It probably tells us several things at once, and the causal factors for these voting outcomes would be different in differing contexts and individuals. Political polarization in the United States, which was aggravated by the Trump administration, but not created by it, has led to patterns in voter turnout that have made accurate polling estimations more challenging while also exacerbating the political divide such that even a poor candidate does not fare so poorly in the election simply because of the chasm that separates the two major political camps.
As you may know, voter turnout for presidential elections in America has generally and notoriously been low for a number of reasons, one of which is most certainly an consequence of the electoral college system in which only a handful of states could argue that the result of the vote is in question. In a winner-takes-all system where one party is very dominant, it makes voting for the future President little more than a symbolic gesture. Much as Mancur Olson anticipates in his classic work The Logic of Collective Action (1965), the result of voting is far above or below the provision point that there is little incentive for an individual to vote. Typically, however, the number of registered voters who vote on election day is relatively high, but the number of registered voters compared to eligible voters has historically remained low so that turnout is a smaller proportion of eligible voters than would be ideal in a democracy. The historical challenges in many states to register has certainly been a part of this, particularly for lower class voters and racial and ethnic minorities. For this reason, polling has typically had to account for “likely voters” to estimate the outcome. These models have anticipated that Democrats will be less likely to turn out to vote than Republicans, and this has generally held true. In the current election, the pollsters assumed that if voter turnout would be higher, this would create a windfall for Democratic Party candidates, and the Republicans appeared to believe this too based on attempts by many in their party within various states in the U.S. to suppress the voter turnout by restricting voting options.
Now, why did all of this lead to an expectedly strong showing for Republicans? Partly as you can note from the overall voting totals that you shared at the beginning, a new ceiling for voter turnout was reached, even for Republicans. The polarization in American has coincided with a clear decline in overall feelings of trust for one another in society, and this has worked to enable both parties to galvanize their base and mobilize their supporters even more dramatically. A very large cultural barrier has been erected by many between the two parties in the party system, and this creates the logic for many voters that, if my party’s candidate is a horrible person, imagine how villainous the other party’s candidate must be. Despite the immorality of Trump and his behaviors that pushed through every loophole in the fabric of the country’s democratic norms, his supporters were perpetually led to believe that the opposition would only do even worse and threaten democracy in even more detrimental ways. When more Republicans went out to vote, some to vote for Trump and others to vote for Republicans in general, this created a positive outcome for the party in Congress.
Whether Trump leaves the office of President or not (and it most certainly seems that he will), the strident cultural polarization existing between the left and right, which brought Trump to the office four years ago, will certainly continue. This will be an important issue for the new administration to address, but one cannot imagine that the Biden/Harris victory has brought an end to the social strife. That is definitely, yet, to be seen. Trump, as a populist, resonated with many in the country who felt like they weren’t being listened to or that their preferences were being displaced. He represented the hope in simple and dramatic solutions, and the need for black and white decision-making. Anxieties that had been created about terrorism and security, levels of immigration, including illegal immigration, and changing economic realities for many had been festering for years prior to 2016.
Despite his rhetoric and support from white nationalist groups, it appears that he made gains with minority populations, black men and Latinos in particular, and much of this has to do with the relative increase in prosperity some members of these communities experienced during the Trump presidency, particularly until the pandemic stifled the economic growth. Thus, a number of cross-cutting social, cultural, political, and economic factors led to the confusing election results. It is within these cultural identity communities in which we can also imagine an element of preference falsification (ala Timur Kuran’s conceptualization) in pre-election polling. Pollsters certainly hadn’t captured any sort of gains for Trump in minority communities in pre-election polling, and there are obvious reasons why these new Trump supporters, small in number though they may be, felt hesitant to acknowledge their private preferences publically, due to the clear view of their communities in general. In any case, although he did not win by the landslide often anticipated by polling, Joe Biden did win by a clear margin in both the electoral college and the popular vote.
Dr. Ozan Örmeci: What can we expect from Joe Biden-Kamala Harris term in the next four years? What will be the most important issues and themes in the new era?
Dr. Michael Wuthrich: It is hard to know how they will proceed domestically, but in terms of foreign policy, I think it will largely be a return to more of a traditional approach. It is fairly clear that one of their first goals will be to repair relationships within the Western alliance, particularly with Western European countries. There has been some estrangement there over the last four years. The Trump administration was curiously soft on Russia, inconsistently tough on China, and totally forged a new course with North Korea, which ultimately resulted in little of benefit. The Biden-Harris team has frequently promised a return to important international treaties, including the Kyoto Protocol (and now the Paris Climate Agreement) and the JCPOA nuclear treaty with Iran. It will be easy for the United States to return to international climate treaties, but the Biden administration will likely experience a challenge in trying to return to a solid agreement with the Islamic Republic on the nuclear issue. The narrative of the Islamic Republic has been that the United States is immoral and untrustworthy, so the Trump administration’s actions played into the hands of the conservative operators of the regime. From this angle, it’s not surprising that elements within Iran’s regime, along with Russia, were trying to interfere in the U.S. elections on behalf of Trump. Trump actually strengthened the hardliners position domestically in Iran.
It will be important to see if and how the Biden-Harris administration is able to rebuild relationships that have experienced strain over the last four years. Previous transitions between Democratic and Republican Presidents have not resulted in such dramatic shifts in approaches or participation in treaties. Based on previous norms, most American analysts would not have anticipated that the U.S. would break the treaty with Iran regardless of the party affiliation of the Presidents following Obama. Now, a precedent has been set that the U.S. may enter an international agreement and then renege on it four years later. How this will affect American diplomacy going forward is a big question. Even if other governments find the Biden-Harris administration sympathetic, they may wonder what an agreement will cost them with a future administration.
Dr. Ozan Örmeci: What would be the most important issues in Turkish-American relations in the new era? Do you think the lack of personal relations between President Trump and President Erdoğan will negatively affect U.S.-Turkish relations from now on? What will be the most problematic issues in bilateral relations in Biden presidency?
Dr. Michael Wuthrich: It is no secret that U.S.-Turkey relations have been strained since the Iraq War. Various issues have played into the tensions over the last several years. Chief among them has been differing positions on the proper approaches to the challenges faced in regard to Turkey’s neighbors, specifically Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Iraq, of course, was the earlier problem, and Turkey’s primary concern, especially at the outset, was stability on the border and the prevention of a Kurdish breakoff state that would have repercussions with Turkey’s management of its own Kurdish population, rising Kurdish nationalism, and the border activities of the PKK. The United States often appeared to favor the Kurdish population in Iraq, and although the mainstream position in the U.S. government had no designs for a separate Kurdish State, there were always enough individuals within the State Department’s bureaucratic apparatus to spout sympathy toward an autonomous Kurdistan that it fueled anxiety on the Turkish side. The U.S.’s need in recent years to find elements on the ground in Iraq and Syria who would be willing to support the American agenda and the ability of Kurdish organizations to be patently anti-Islamist and be able to form effective militias proved to be a combination that American governments relied on heavily. Although this appeared to be an affront to Turkey, from the U.S. position it was mostly bald pragmatism and, as history has shown to Kurdish militias in Syria and the KRG in Iraq, the American government feels a very limited obligation to the aims and aspirations of the Kurdish organizations once the functional need for these groups is over.
In recent history, Turkey’s reaction to the delay in receiving F-35’s from the U.S. by purchasing S-400 air missile defense system from Russia has added an element of stress. Erdoğan’s public disapproval of the U.S. government for not extraditing Fethullah Gülen and the implication of the Turkish government in the illegal dealings (fraud, money-laundering, and sanctions evasions) of Halkbank have also added to the strain in relations between the two countries.
It is these latter issues that prove to be the most critical in regard to the transfer of power from the Trump administration to the Biden administration. It is true that many in the bureaucratic Washington establishment have a critical eye on Erdoğan’s Turkey and the bureaucratic apparatus in Ankara could be described as having a similar critical eye toward Washington, D.C. However, it is important to point out that Trump and Erdoğan actually had fairly strong personal relations with one another. Throughout the Trump presidency, Erdoğan was unnaturally subdued in his criticism of Trump and Trump was largely praiseworthy of Turkey’s President. The Washington bureaucracy may have responded with groans, but Trump had a very open ear to Erdoğan’s requests at several key points, including the withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria in advance of a Turkish invasion. The Trump administration was also trying at several points to work on behalf of Erdoğan’s interests, including exploring ways to extradite Gülen despite the illegality of this action and the pressure campaign that resulted in the removal of a U.S. attorney who was presiding over the Halkbank affair. It could be argued that the positive feelings between Trump and Erdoğan mitigated the pending problems existing between the two countries. The Trump administration also held off sanctions against Turkey as a NATO member purchasing Russian defense equipment as long as possible, despite the strong Congressional and bureaucratic pressure to do so. When the administration finally placed the legally required (as part of CAATSA law) sanctions on Turkey, it was after Trump lost the election and they were as minimal and as targeted to specific interests as possible.
President Erdoğan, much like Trump, styles himself as a businessman and deal-maker on the international stage and is one who does not handle personal criticism well. Erdoğan’s strained relationships in Europe and, less so with the Obama administration, had to do with criticism of his style of domestic governance. Trump’s lack of criticism toward Erdoğan and his respect for Erdoğan’s ‘style’ as a strong populist ruler likely cemented their positive perceptions of one another. The Biden-Harris administration is unlikely to take this approach. There will be pressure from the State Department bureaucracy underneath them to apply more pressure toward Erdoğan’s government to adhere to the rule of law domestically. At the current juncture, some of the most pressing issues related to the PYD/YPG in Syria have resolved themselves mostly to Turkey’s liking; so, some of the previous tensions have been reduced. It’s still not clear how the U.S., under Biden and Harris, and Erdoğan will deal with the issue of S-400s. The money has been spent, but the implications of the purchase has probably made Turkey less secure actually. Unless they change course, they have closed themselves off from a lot of military and defense hardware, and they are stuck with the whims of a very capricious actor in Putin.
Dr. Ozan Örmeci: You lived several years in Turkey. You know Turkish Politics and Turkish-American relations very well. How would you explain Turks’ perception of the United States and recent tensions in bilateral relations?
Dr. Michael Wuthrich: The general relations between the United States and Turkey have become very strained. In previous decades, you could argue that anti-Americanism existed, but that it was more partisan or ideological, typically affecting not more than half of the population. The left and center-left in Turkey behaved more suspiciously and distantly to the United States, and the traditional center-right, in particular, was more positive toward its American ally. In the 1950s, the Democrat Party in Turkey often styled its policies as creating a ‘little America’ in Turkey, and there was strong support for America’s liberal economic model and also its more liberal approach toward religion. For a long period of time, the elites on the nationalist Turkish far right were also reasonably positive about America. Alparslan Türkeş, for example, spent some of his years of foreign military training in Kansas in the middle of the U.S. During and immediately after the 2003 Iraq War, however, the anti-American sentiment in the Turkish public skyrocketed across the political spectrum. Although the AKP elites were the last to take advantage of using anti-Americanism for domestic political gain, parties of all ideological perspectives began to use negative “American associational” references to discredit their domestic political opponents. In other words, parties broadly on the left and the right began to slander their rival parties by suggesting that their true objectives and motives were given to them by outside forces, certainly including the U.S., but also to a lesser extent, Europe and Israel. It is hard for Turkish elites not to pick on their American allies because it has become too easy. Erdoğan’s turn against the United States especially picked up post-2013 as he began to level blame on a variety of foreign specters for the trouble upsetting citizens in Turkey. But, of course, the big break in Erdoğan’s attitude toward the United States occurred after the 2016 attempted coup d’état and his failure to convince the U.S. government to extradite Fethullah Gülen for his alleged role in the event.
The fact that the United States can’t legally extradite Fethullah Gülen has also been made to be misunderstood by the Turkish public. First, the ‘Green Card’ that Gülen eventually received was part of a long process that also involved support from pro-AKP circles to help push his residency status through, and this was to give him the legal status to protect him from having to return home and face the secular judiciary’s indictment of his organization’s behaviors. Within years after his permanent residency was granted, the Erdoğan government and his aligned judiciary wanted to extradite Gülen, but were blocked by his legal rights that many of the same people advocated the U.S. giving him years before. Basically, the standard of evidence needed to extradite a person with Gülen’s current legal status cannot be provided by the Turkish government. The Turkish governments boxes of ‘evidence’ was clear showmanship, either to appear to the domestic public in Turkey as having gone above and beyond in their provision of evidence, or to perhaps give the United States enough cover to justify the extradition. In any case, where an individual’s civil rights have sanctity, there was not enough evidence in those empty boxes to give the American legal system grounds to turn him over to the Turkish State. In these cases, the U.S. President cannot legally interfere against the rights of an individual. Ironically, this has nothing to do with whether or not Gülen bears guilt in the attempted coup d’état in July 2016, but whether there is enough evidence for a court case against him. In conversations with bureaucrats and analysts in Washington, the general consensus is actually that the “Gülen issue” is a huge albatross in their relations with Turkey that they desperately want to remove if they could.
At the same time, the anti-Americanism in Turkey is largely leveled at the U.S. administration and foreign policies and not as much toward average American citizens. As you mentioned, I lived in Turkey for nine years as I taught at Bilkent and did my PhD work there. My wife and I did a lot of traveling and we were always treated kindly wherever we went. Yes, it is true that there is a commonly held conspiracy theory that any American in Turkey could be a CIA agent and/or missionary (with some believing that these two categories are really the same thing), but even still Turkish people are extremely charitable to individuals. Although I was occasionally embarrassed about policies and decisions that were being make by the U.S. government, I never felt afraid to admit to anyone in Turkey that I was an American citizen. I deeply appreciated Turkish people’s ability to separate their frustration with governments from individual citizens and the gracious hospitality and friendship that I consistently received.
The strain in Turkey-U.S. relations and the frustrations of Turkish people toward the U.S. government is a source of deep sadness for me. Of course, I think it would be to both countries’ interests if we understood one another better. I feel that bureaucrats in Washington also have misunderstandings about Turkey and its citizens and what their true aims are. There is a lot of misinformation floating around on both sides. The American populace in general is fairly unaware of the specifics about Turkey, so they are, unfortunately, strongly affected by the press coverage that has painted Turkey in a negative light over the last few years. I don’t know what it would take to begin to correct this misperceptions among citizens. One could argue at the current juncture that misperception is a global trend; there is a lot of misunderstanding going on around the globe. Political elites that don’t use other countries as their scape goats would be a starting point in moving the right direction.
Dr. Ozan Örmeci: Could you give us some advice about who to read and follow in order to understand new trends in Turkish-American relations?
Dr. Michael Wuthrich: You definitely want to follow the scholars that are using reliable data and good public opinion population surveys to develop their analysis and conclusions as much as possible. In the realm of foreign policy and international relations, there are a lot of scholars that focus on a country or two and take an “arm-chair” approach to their analysis. It is easy to let one’s own ideologies dictate what a person wants the relationships to be. Therefore, definitely pay attention to the scholars who are doing statistical analysis. Foreign policy and international relations is also not my direct area of focus, so although I care about the topic, and I did my best to try to provide what is an honest response and evaluation of the relationship, you should still take me with a grain of salt. I know scholars like Mehmet Yeğin have a solid understanding of American cultural and political dynamics —i.e. not just the Turkish dynamics— so, this adds a component of depth to the analysis. His studies have often used statistical data to make his points and analysis too. On foreign policy with the West, I like to follow people like Ziya Öniş, Kemal Kirişci, and Birol Yeşilada, but there are many others to read from who would be beneficial to understanding the dynamics. My strongest encouragement would be to advise you to read broadly, not from one perspective, but from a variety of viewpoints. The truth will be somewhere in the middle.
Dr. Ozan Örmeci: Thank you, Michael. It was a great chance for me to be your student and it’s a privilege to interview you.
Dr. Michael Wuthrich: It is a privilege for me, Ozan. Thank you for inviting me to participate.