The GOP has become the party of populism. Now the Democrats have to build a new party of multicultural cosmopolitanism.
- By Lee DrutmanLee Drutman is a senior fellow in the program on political reform at the New America Foundation.
By the numbers, the 2016 election was not very different from the 2012 election or the 2008 election. Donald Trump won because he did slightly better in a few key states than Mitt Romney did. The map changed slightly. But as with previous elections, there were few swing voters. The election was decided primarily by disappointing turnout among core Democratic constituencies.
But by the substance, the 2016 election was very different. Donald Trump romped through the primaries, breaking with conservative orthodoxy. He ran as a very different type of Republican. He was ardently nationalist, promising to rip up trade deals, make America more isolationist, and start imposing tariffs to protect American manufacturing. He promised to tighten borders, reduce immigration, and protect Social Security. His core voters were downscale whites, voters who a generation ago had been Democrats but moved over into the Republican camp for cultural and identity reasons.
Now the big question is whether he will try to reshape the Republican Party along these lines. If he does, American politics will be in for some significant changes. The Republican Party will look different in substance. And the Democratic Party will, too, in response. This seems like a very likely scenario.
In understanding why Trump is going to remake the Republican Party, note that his candidacy and his core movement were based around challenging the party establishment. Throughout the campaign, he has welcomed a steady stream of fights with establishment party leaders, most prominently Paul Ryan. Trump is not a man who forgives grudges. He’s a man who punishes his enemies. He’s a man who above all wants to win.
Now he is about to be president. He will never be in a stronger position to be the transformative figure he clearly sees himself as. Here, it’s worth paying attention to what he has been saying.
Look at the top priority in his stated plan for his first 100 days in office: “FIRST, propose a Constitutional Amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress.” This is not an olive branch. It’s a shot across the bow. Not surprisingly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tersely responded: “It will not be on the agenda in the Senate.”
Or look at the proposal Trump gave prime real estate to in his acceptance speech. A major infrastructure rebuilding program: “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none, and we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”
Again, McConnell noted a big infrastructure bill was not his top priority. After all, it sounds suspiciously like President Barack Obama’s stimulus that McConnell and his fellow Republicans once opposed so adamantly as reckless spending.
Interestingly, Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has been enthusiastic about Trump’s infrastructure bill, moreso than Republicans. In a statement, she said: “As President-elect Trump indicated last night, investing in infrastructure is an important priority of his. We can work together to quickly pass a robust infrastructure jobs bill.”
And remember that it was Democrats, not Republicans, who were most opposed to granting Obama fast-track authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Note that the first item on Trump’s list of “seven actions to protect American workers” is renegotiating or withdrawing from NAFTA, and the second is withdrawing from the TPP.
It’s also worth noting that Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has been aggressive in going after China for currency manipulation, also a Trump priority (No. 3 on his list of “actions to protect American workers”).
Obviously, there’s much that Democrats disagree with Trump on. But typically, incoming presidents focus first on the issues where there is unity within their party, in order to capitalize on the momentum of their victory and rack up their achievements. By contrast, Trump has prioritized issues that divide his party and, together with his strident tone on social issues, make him sound more like a Southern Democrat from around the time most of his voters think America was great.
Party systems in the United States are inherently unstable. Because it is a two-party system, the party that wins is the party that builds the biggest coalition. But the bigger the coalition, the more unstable it is.
As the political scientists Gary Miller and Norman Schofield have astutely noted: “Successful American parties must be coalitions of enemies. A party gets to be a majority party by forming fragile ties across wide and deep differences in one dimension or the other. Maintaining such diverse majority coalitions is necessarily an enormous struggle against strong centrifugal forces.”
Or as political scientists Edward G. Carmines and James A. Stimson similarly put it: “By their very nature, all party alignments contain the seeds of their own destruction.”
The United States has had six party systems in its history. By party system, I mean relatively stable coalitions that relitigate the same set of issue battles. Each, until now, has lasted for at most 36 years. That seems to be about as long as a coalition of enemies can stick together, before some issue divides them.
The first system lasted from roughly 1792 to 1824 (32 years), the next from 1828 to 1856 (28 years), one from about 1860 to 1896 (36 years), another from about 1896 to 1932 (36 years), and another from about 1932 to 1968 (36 years). The current alignment came out of the 1968 election and has been pretty consistent since about 1980, when the Reagan coalition really solidified.
The Reagan coalition was built around a mix of traditionally upper-class, economically conservative voters, very religious “values voters,” and “Reagan Democrats,” which became the nickname for the disaffected working-class whites whose aversion to the Democratic Party’s condescending elitism and racial liberalism overwhelmed their hope that government could somehow help them out. What these voters had in common was that they felt the Democratic Party didn’t represent them. The enemy of their enemy was their friend.
For decades, these different voters came together around a shared “conservative” ideology of “limited government.” For the traditionally Republican economic conservatives, this meant low taxes and low regulation. For newer converts to the Republican coalition, limited government primarily meant not taking their money so that poor black people could get a generous welfare check. Anti-communism and a strong America abroad were powerful cementing forces.
But as time went on, cracks emerged. The Soviet Union collapsed, the Iraq War turned sour, jobs went overseas in old-line manufacturing regions, and then the economy cratered.
More and more, the downscale Republican voters felt they were being betrayed by their party’s elites. Eventually, the only thing that united these factions was the story that America was engaged in a Manichaean struggle between good and evil in which Democrats were definitely on the side of evil.
Now that Republicans control all branches of government, there is no more Obama to organize against. Now that the campaign is over, there is no more “Crooked Hillary” to unify the party around. Now they will have to wrestle with the consequences of their anti-government, anti-Washington rhetoric.
And now that they finally have power, Republicans will have to find a way to reconcile two competing visions for the party: the traditional small-government, free-market, internationalist mode that many in Congress ran on and the new nationalist, populist, isolationist mode that Trump is bringing to town.
In some places these views can be reconciled. But in many places, they cannot. The party will have to decide.
Trump will almost certainly be bringing the fight — and looking at how he won, the electoral map is on his side. Republicans won by taking back old industrial states and winning big among working-class whites. This is now the core voting bloc of the Republican Party.
If Republicans move in a Trumpist direction, what happens to the more upscale cosmopolitan Republicans who would have preferred Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or John Kasich, who promised they would never vote for Trump, but probably did anyway because party loyalty made it too hard for them to envision a Clinton in the White House again? Some of them will revise their beliefs so that they could still feel comfortable as Republicans. Nobody likes cognitive dissonance, and partisanship is almost always stronger than ideology.
But if Trump continues his strong anti-immigration stance, continues to encourage white identity politics, and takes American foreign policy in an isolationist direction (and it’s hard to imagine him doing otherwise), more and more cosmopolitan Republicans are going to feel disenchanted with the Republican Party and start to feel homeless. This may not amount to that many voters. But it amounts to a lot of potential donors.
Democrats will also have many ways to shore up their existing base in the near term. If Republicans toughen law enforcement in ways that disproportionately harm people of color, continue to make it harder to vote for people of color, and take away health insurance from 20 million poor people by repealing Obamacare, Democrats can reasonably bet on tremendous backlash among minority voters who didn’t fully grasp what was potentially at stake for them in this election because they were not inspired by Hillary Clinton and her policy papers.
They can also rely on millennial voters, especially minority millennials, feeling less complacent in future elections. Almost their entire adult lives have been under an Obama presidency, and they took it for granted that America was becoming a more tolerant, inclusive nation. Clinton wasn’t inspiring, but Trump couldn’t really win, could he? Most likely, these voters will feel different after four years of a Trump presidency. These are reasonable assumptions for Democrats to make.
As much as Democrats might talk about winning back working-class whites, the reality is that there’s not much they can do at this point, other than wait for wages to continue to stagnate for rural and exurban whites and hope that perhaps these voters will decide things really are hopeless after four years of a Trump presidency. This might sound cynical, but with Trump as the newly enthroned tribune of the white working class, there aren’t many other realistic options.
Of course, this is risky strategy for Democrats. For one, policy and even economics may not matter as much as emotional valence. Trump voters were excited because somebody finally recognized and acknowledged their plight in a way that felt genuine. Perhaps this is all Trump has to do. As long as he picks fights with the right enemies, he can continue to become the champion of the forgotten man. This may even allow him to bring in some of the (mostly white) Bernie Sanders supporters and help him win alliances with battered industrial unions who are as protectionist as Trump is.
Moreover, to the extent that he can tone down some of the overt racism and attempt to speak directly to African-Americans and Hispanics who also feel like powerful elites in Washington have conspired against them, his message may resonate even more broadly. Again, although Trump may not grasp policy, his campaign is testament to his remarkable understanding of human psychology. People, above all, want to be recognized and acknowledged. They want somebody on their side. And the more Trump picks fights with unpopular Washington “establishment” types, the more he might gain in popularity, regardless of his policy successes.
Democrats also will face internal fights. There will be many in the party who will now be convinced that Sanders would have won, because he tapped into the anger in the country in a real and genuine way. And they’ll want Democrats to move in this direction.
Still, it’s hard to see the Clinton wing of the party giving up power. After all, there will now be new and shiny fundraising opportunities for Democrats to be had among wealthy cosmopolitan business leaders and environmentalists (especially in Silicon Valley) who are terrified by Trump. And it’s hard to see how Democrats distinguish themselves by being Trump-like populists, just without the racism.
This, then, continues to be the Democrats’ coalition moving forward: highly educated professional whites, especially women, and minority voters. This is essentially the Obama coalition, but with more of an emphasis on diversity and tolerance, and even more of a role for wealthy cosmopolitans.
Again, the core story of realignment going forward is not so much a tremendous bloc of voters shifting parties, but rather both parties shifting their substance to become more in line with the sympathizers they now need to excite most.
If Democrats define themselves as the party that is opposed to Republicans (as they must), they will soon find themselves as the party of fiscal responsibility (as opposed to the Republicans, who will again run huge deficits), as the party of international responsibility (as opposed to the more isolationist and nationalist Republicans), and as the party of global business (as opposed to the protectionist Republicans). They will continue to be the party of environmentalism (the stakes of this will get even greater soon) and the party of diversity and tolerance.
This is the realignment that is happening. And with a President Trump, there is now a change agent to accelerate these forces.
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