international analysis and commentary

A major political realignment amid the confusion


We are in the midst of a great political party realignment, the sixth in American history. This realignment has been coming for some time, a reflection of forces larger and deeper than any individuals involved in the drama. But Donald Trump’s candidacy has made it explicit, and where it ends up is, in large measure, dependent upon, and epitomized by, the three leading political figures of the day – each of whom could stand in for one of their historical forebears.

Donald Trump as Richard Nixon?

Lyndon Johnson commented upon signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that he had just handed the South to the Republicans, but Richard Nixon recognized the further ability to peel off working class whites nationwide from “the Party of the People” over cultural issues involving race, crime, and security.  This strategy reached its zenith under Ronald Reagan, who added evangelicals to the mix.

By the time of Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the Democratic Party – long the champion of both economic and cultural underdogs – was changing markedly.  Obama famously mused about white working class voters failing to vote for him because they “cling to guns and religion.” The remark was emblematic of Democrats’ loss of contact with such voters.  Instead, the Democratic Party has become – in the Obama campaign’s own phrase – the party of “the Ascendant”: younger, urban, tech-savvy, well-educated, increasingly diverse denizens of the New Economy.

That has left few speaking for the economic interests of those increasingly marginalized by that same New Economy – who are largely white, less-educated, older, and culturally conservative. Country Club Republicans never really found these folks appealing, and, nowadays, neither do Democrats, who suspect they are largely both rubes and racists.  But they are suffering in today’s economy.

Donald Trump has realized Richard Nixon’s vision of making these voters the core of the Republican Party, the culmination of a process long in the works, and the party realignment will look something like today’s polling for years to come: a more upscale Democratic Party more libertarian and less inclined to Big Government solutions than in the past, and a Republican Party more solicitous of Big Government programs to help low- to moderate-income voters than the party’s traditional “conservatism” would ever countenance.

Hillary Clinton as FDR?

As a result, Clinton has the opportunity – and challenge – of reaching out to the new dispossessed and bringing them back into the Democratic fold. Until the Great Depression, Democrats had been a party largely of Southern and other rural interests, of a dying or dead agrarian economy, while Republicans represented the “modern” economy.  That changed with the nomination in 1928 of Alfred E. Smith, who spoke for the cities and their “huddled masses” of immigrant labor.  Smith came up short against Herbert Hoover – but, four years later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt consolidated Smith’s gains, forged today’s Democratic Party, and went on to several record-breaking victories.

Clinton has the chance to do something similar today, with potentially similarly long-lasting results. That is, if she reaches out to disaffected working Americans with an agenda that speaks to their needs. Clinton could argue that, with corporate profits, corporate cash-on-hand, and stock market values at all-time highs, it’s time to raise wages across the board by lifting the wage floor nationally, as many Democrats advocate, to $15 per hour – but she has backed a more modest increase. She could insist that, rather than cutting middleclass entitlements as Republicans want, we ought to fund them by taxing the super-high incomes that alone are now exempted from paying for the country’s retirement and elderly health care systems – but she has ducked the issue when asked during the primaries. Presumably, she is reflecting the Democrats’ three-decades-old fear of being accused of being “liberal” (compounded by her own caution). But when her opponent’s campaign is based on attacking “the elite” and corporations, calling for more government and greater debt, and claiming to speak for oppressed working people, why such timidity to embrace the Democratic heritage afresh?

This failure not only misses the opportunity to ensure Democrats a supermajority for the 21st Century, it may very well cost them this election. Perhaps carrying just the “newly ascendant” will be sufficient to win a slim popular plurality and hold on to an Electoral College majority – and maybe continuing demographic shifts will be sufficient to guarantee Democratic victories into the future. But I wouldn’t want to bet the house on it: it indeed will be hard for Trump to put together an unconventional majority by winning such white, blue-collar states as Pennsylvania and Ohio – but, at the moment, he’s doing so.  Without this newly-aligned Democratic Party regaining (at least some of) precisely the voters Trump has attracted implausibly to his new GOP, this electorate – and future ones – will be very closely, and dangerously, fractured. And that leads us to our final figure.

Barack Obama as James Buchanan?

Obama’s inauguration was greeted with comparisons to Abraham Lincoln. He may someday earn comparisons, instead, to Lincoln’s immediate predecessor, James Buchanan. 

Practically from the moment Obama took office, conservatives – especially in the states of the old Confederacy – have spoken openly and increasingly both of armed rebellion and secession. (The major difference I’ve noticed between liberals and conservatives is that, when they lose an election, the former talk about leaving the country while the latter talk about taking it back by force). If Clinton wins narrowly (as is likely), such tensions will increase; unless some bridge-building is undertaken before then, however, her opponents – who tend to view America as we know it as on the verge of oblivion, anyway – are likely to talk even more of seceding, while Democrats may be increasingly willing to let them. It will be a rude awakening for the fed-hating “red states” when they discover that they’ve been subsidized all these years by the “blue states,” but my guess is that many liberals will be happy to stop paying the bills for public goods that citizens of states like Mississippi or Texas refuse to pay themselves. If Trump wins and carries out his more autocratic threats, liberals might actually come to agree with conservatives about either taking up arms or seceding.

In any event, this all is part and parcel of the larger global realignment in existing nation-states are fraying. People everywhere, including in the US, are instead segregating themselves geographically into globally-connected or disconnected territories of greater coherence and significance than the old-fashioned countries whose borders they both nest within and cross. Despite Obama’s famous declaration that we aren’t red states or blue states, we are likely by midcentury to have broken apart into exactly that – functionally if not formally – unless this extreme division is resolved sometime soon. The main questions are whether this can be headed off now by the “newly ascendant” crafting an agenda for the economically dislocated, as Democrats would have in the past – and, if not, if the resolution comes peacefully or not.

The only statement for which James Buchanan is known was his declaration – for our European readers, the American Civil War equivalent of Louis XV’s “Après moi le déluge”— “I am the last president of the United States!”  This election may determine whether that title ultimately falls to Obama.