Party Realignment Fantasies
David Brooks thinks American politics "Could get ugly" before the ship gets righted.
Since the collapse of the Whig Party on the eve of the Civil War, the Democratic and Republican parties have completely dominated American politics. That’s mostly because of the structure of our electoral system but also because they’ve generally acted as catch-all parties vying for a majority of the vote rather than ideological parties. Both parties have continually evolved with the political culture of the times and neither have much to do policy-wise with their namesakes of 1960, much less 1860. Occasionally, we experience “realignments,” wherein major voter blocks shift from the party they have traditionally supported to the other in recognition that the other best supports their values or interests.
David Brooks contends that we may be on the verge of such a realignment:
The Republican Party is now a coalition of globalization-loving business executives and globalization-hating white workers. That’s untenable. At its molten core, the Republican Party has become the party of the dispossessed, not the party of cosmopolitan business. The blunderers at the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable bet all their chips on the G.O.P. at the exact instant it stopped being their party.
Now imagine a Republican Party after Donald Trump, led by a younger candidate without his bigotry and culture war tropes. That party will begin to attract disaffected Sanders people who detest the Trans-Pacific Partnership and possibly some minority voters highly suspicious of the political elite.
The Democratic Party is currently a coalition of the upscale urban professionals who make up the ruling class and less-affluent members of minorities who feel betrayed by it. That’s untenable, too. At its molten core the Democratic Party is the party of the coastal professional class, the 2016 presidential ticket of Yale Law and Harvard Law. It’s possible that this year the Democrats will carry every state that touches ocean.
Just as the Trump G.O.P. is crushing the Chamber G.O.P., the Clinton Democrats will eventually repel the Sanders Democrats. Their economic interests are just different. Moreover, their levels of social trust are vastly different.
The problem with this analysis is that there’s nothing new about any of that.
It’s true that the Republican Party’s platform is now much more dominated by the Tea Party wing than the Chamber of Commerce wing. But it was never primarily “the party of cosmopolitan business” in terms of its membership. There simply aren’t enough members of that cohort to comprise a major party. Similarly, while the Democratic Party may be more appealing to “the coastal professional class,” that’s hardly its chief constituency.
In modern American politics, we saw a pretty major realignment with the rise of Franklin Roosevelt, who managed to attract both the white and black working class with his policies to respond to the Great Depression and then cement the coalition with his leadership in World War II. Black voters have been loyal ever since but the white working class began slowly realigning with the Republicans during the civil rights era, accelerating under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who appealed to patriotism and cultural conservatism.
There’s been talk for awhile about a realignment sparked by demographics. We’re fast becoming “majority minority.” Republican appeals to traditional American cultural values are very powerful among older white voters, particularly those losing to globalization and related economic trends, but that’s a declining cohort. The GOP will have to become more appealing to black and Hispanic voters to survive as a major party, but in doing so will have to undergo a transformation so radical that it will be virtually unrecognizable.
Brooks tacitly acknowledges the latter:
This sort of divide is being replicated all around the world. The distinctly American feature is race. If the Republicans can drop the racial wedges — which admittedly may be a big ask — and become more the party designed to succor those who are disaffected from the globalizing information age, then it might win over some minority voters, and the existing party alignments will unravel in short order.
Donald Trump is trying to have it both ways here, simultaneously running as an anti-globalization populist and stroking racial wedges. Pure anti-globalization populism minus racist undertones was Bernie Sanders’ brand. While clearly appealing, it wasn’t enough to secure him the Democratic nomination. Still, that party seems to more natural home for that message than the GOP. Indeed, since Brooks, like me, is a pro-globalization guy who has traditionally aligned with the Republicans, it strikes me as odd that his proposed fix for the party is to make it one neither of us would support.
Polls suggest Democrats will win among college-educated voters and Republicans among whites without college degrees. The social, mental and emotional gap between those two groups is getting wider and wider. That’s the future of American politics. Republicans are town. Democrats are gown. Could get ugly.
It’s already pretty damned ugly. But I suppose it could get worse.
Interestingly, those with a college education—but not postgraduate degrees—were the only educational cohort that Mitt Romney won in 2012. Trump will certainly lose that cohort but may pick up some lower cohorts. I don’t think it’ll be enough to win the election.
Given the systemic advantages alluded to at the outset, the Republican Party will almost certainly survive as a major party. Given that the same party has won the presidency four times in a row only three times and five times in a row only once, it will almost inevitably win back the White House within an electoral cycle or two. But I haven’t the foggiest what that party will look like.