Why The Future Could Look Like Last Night

Over the weekend in the New York Times, the always interesting Michael Lind argued that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton represent the future of their respective parties. (This was, of course, before both candidates’ impressive wins last night.) For Lind, Trump is not just a populist aberration on the right, and the challenge Hillary is receiving from Sanders—despite all those young people feeling the Bern—does not portend the future of liberalism. Instead, the ascendancy of both Trump and Clinton points to what he calls a “policy realignment,” or “the adjustment of what each party stands for to its existing voter base.”

Here’s how Lind describes the “existing voter base” for each party now, in 2016:

Today’s Democratic base is, to simplify somewhat, an alliance of Northern, Midwestern and West Coast whites from the old Rockefeller Republican tradition with blacks and Latinos. To give one telling example, former Senator Jim Webb, the candidate who most fully represented the white Southern working-class base of the F.D.R.-to-L.B.J. Democrats, abandoned his campaign after receiving little support in a party that bears ever less resemblance to the New Deal Democrats.

For their part, the Republicans of 2016 rely for their votes on the Southern white and Northern white working-class constituencies that were once the mainstays of the other party.

This state of affairs, as Lind goes on to explain, is the result of a partisan realignment that started in the 1960s: the old party coalitions broke-up, and a “reshuffling of voter blocs among the two parties” began. What he calls Wallace Democrats—socially conservative and economically populist—moved to the Republican Party, and moderate, business-friendly Rockefeller Republicans drifted toward the Democrats.

This basic story, of course, is not exactly new. But Lind suggests that we’ve misunderstood it. We too often assume this realignment had settled into durable pattern with the “Reagan revolution” and its aftermath. We overemphasize how much the Reagan presidency marked a new ideological era, one in which modern conservatives came to dominate the Republican Party, with Democrats becoming the defenders of economic and social liberalism. Whereas before these changes both parties had conservative and liberal wings, now there was a conservative party and a liberal one.

All this is not quite right for Lind. Instead, he views Reagan as a transitional figure—and, importantly, Bill Clinton too.

What Lind means is that Reagan’s Republican Party actually was an unstable mix of old-fangled business conservatives and populist ex-Democrats, and not really held together by shared adherence to conservative doctrine. Reagan had to downplay his past denunciations of Social Security and Medicare, for example, to secure the support of these new, downscale Republican voters—even if his personal commitments, as well as his tax and immigration policies, leaned toward the GOP’s traditional “Chamber of Commerce boosterism.” This coalition also managed to work, for awhile, because of the religious right’s strength: tax cuts and deregulation were tolerated in exchange for making promises to social conservatives.

A similar dynamic prevailed when Bill Clinton led the Democratic Party in the 1990s. The electoral math of the day still obliged him to win over at least some working-class whites when he ran for president, distancing himself from, as Lind describes it, “the liberal left on the military, policing, the death penalty, censorship and other issues”—even as the party increasingly was dominated by “the so-called rising American electorate of minorities, single women, and progressives.”

In other words, both Reagan and Clinton had to maneuver within the context of an unfinished partisan realignment. Reagan had to adjust to the large influx of working class whites to the Republican Party; Clinton had to court them before they would abandon the Democrats almost entirely.

Today that partisan realignment is basically complete, and the 2016 primaries constitute a reckoning with these demographic facts—that is, the “policy realignment” described above. The usual GOP policy agenda—what Lind calls a “relic of the late 20th century, when the country-club wing of the party was much more important than the country-and-western wing”—holds no appeal to the Wallace Democrats who make up the Republican base. They want illegal immigration curtailed, Muslims banned, and economic protectionism. Thus, the rise of Trump. As for the Democrats, their “synthesis of pro-business, finance-friendly economics with social and racial liberalism no longer needs to be diluted” with explicit appeals to working class white voters. Thus, Hillary Clinton’s near-certain nomination—and, as Lind sharply points out, the reason she's so often had to distance herself from her husband's record. 

Lind’s argument is distressingly plausible. “Distressing,” at least for me, because a Democratic Party that amounts to identity politics plus a moderate economic platform careful to not upset Wall Street and Silicon Valley holds little appeal. And also because it cedes almost all the populist anger in the country to the right—a situation no one should relish.

Still, I’m not quite convinced. Most of all, this is because Lind seems to assume—though he never explicitly states this—that our economy will be stable enough in the coming years to not fundamentally disrupt the course he predicts. The financial crisis of 2007-08 is not even mentioned in his essay. Surely another major recession, or worse, could make Hillary’s moderate, finance-friendly progressivism vulnerable to being challenged. And I would go even further: the economic frustrations of many Americans will continue to deepen even if no such recession comes. The growing inequality that marks our society will not simply reverse itself, and economists like Thomas Piketty give us reason to understand it as a part of entrenched, longterm trends. Another economist, James K. Galbraith, has persuasively argued that what Americans for decades took to be “normal”—more or less continuous economic growth that led to widely-shared prosperity—is at an end. If he’s right, the resulting economic discontent could upend the prevailing political coalitions and policy alignments Lind describes.

Lind might also be underestimating the importance of what Bernie Sanders’s campaign represents. The overwhelming support the socialist candidate receives from the young surely has been one of the most notable features of this primary season. His aggressive focus on class, inequality, the fraud and greed of our major financial institutions, and achieving a single payer health care system has pulled Hillary Clinton to the left. Whether or not his insurgent campaign becomes a full-fledged, organized movement beyond this election cycle, Sanders has stretched what seems possible in American politics.  

And among Republicans, I wonder how many times they will lose the presidency before adapting and adjusting. A party based on white identity politics only faces diminishing returns in multicultural America. As the United States becomes a majority-minority country, the pressure on Republicans to reach out to new and different constituencies will grow. It could happen fast enough to render Lind’s analysis true only in the shortest of terms.

Even if he’s wrong, though, Lind’s essay deserves serious consideration. I hope to write more about these matters in the months ahead, as the meaning of this primary seasons become clearer, and we move to the party conventions this summer.

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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