The Europeanization of U.S. Politics Continues
It took 20 years to count the votes, but Pat Buchanan won. The 1990s presidential hopeful preached a populist message considered extreme at the time, but it certainly would resonate today. It isn’t all that surprising this has happened. The fiscally moderate, quasi-isolationist/realist, economically nationalist strand of conservatism has been a staple of the Republican Party at least since Richard Nixon’s time, and probably earlier than that. Of late, it has gained strength. As I wrote in early 2012:
While I find it highly unlikely that he’ll be the nominee this time out, there’s a good chance that the Republican coalition will fundamentally change in the next 20 years and move toward [Rick] Santorum’s style of politics. Twice in a row now, the party has toyed with nominating a candidate who combined social conservatism with economic populism; Santorum’s speech last night was essentially a northern version of a speech Mike Huckabee could have delivered in 2008.
We’ve already seen white working-class voters move toward the Republican Party over the past several decades -- a shift perhaps epitomized by the GOP’s special election victory in New York’s 9th Congressional District. If a more credible Santorum/Huckabee candidate could emerge, the party would reciprocate by moving toward these voters. This would have major implications for our political dynamic, and could deal the Democrats a serious blow in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.
To be sure, there are obvious differences. This, too, is unsurprising; there were differences even between FDR and Harry Truman, but the continuity is obvious. Donald Trump—now the presumptive Republican nominee—lacks the staunch social conservatism of a Huckabee or a Buchanan, although I’d argue that he exhibits a traditionalism that resonates with many of the same voters. But the similarities are too numerous to ignore: Both candidates ran on anti-immigration and skepticism of trade deals, both proposed building a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, both ran (in Trump’s case, briefly) for the Reform Party nomination in 2000, both opposed foreign adventurism, both were dogged by accusations of racism.
Perhaps most importantly, this is not an exclusively American phenomenon. Parties on the center-right in Europe have increasingly been dogged by parties that are also skeptical of trade, immigration, and globalization. We’ve seen this with the rise of the National Front in France, the Fidesz Party in Hungary, the Freedom Party in Austria, among others.
It isn’t just the Republicans who are increasingly radicalized, however. Bernie Sanders, who most regarded as an afterthought, and who would be the story of this election but for Trump’s rise, has received 43 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary (which isn’t entirely fair, since many of his demographically favorable states held low-turnout caucuses). Sanders is, of course, a self-described Democratic socialist, who promises massive tax hikes along with a substantial expansion of the social safety net. Perhaps most strikingly, his support is overwhelmingly concentrated among younger voters, where he won upwards of 80 percent of the vote. The Clinton coalition is dying off, while the Sanders coalition will continue to grow.
Both of these transformations owe much to the same root cause: the failure of elites to appreciate the damage wrought by globalization and technology, and their inability to understand that a great many people do not share their value systems. That’s not to say that globalization is a net-negative; I believe the opposite, strongly. What it is to say is that, at least in the short run, it produces winners and losers, and that the rapidity of social changes causes many traditionalist citizens to retrench and resist those changes.
You can see the problem with the solutions offered in Hillary Clinton’s promise to retrain coal miners as she shifts us from a fossil economy; this may sound great to a think tank analyst, but a coal miner sees his life fundamentally altered in ways that may not be for the best. This tendency becomes more marked as elites retreat into gated communities or carefully policed enclaves in cities, stop interacting with people who disagree with them on cultural issues, lose their ability to empathize, and see disagreement transform to disdain.
I’ve underestimated Trump since January (I was more bullish on him than most until that point), and I think it would be a mistake to write him off completely for the general election. While I think the media will turn on him, and his persona will ultimately not wear well, he’s facing an opponent who is not, to put it mildly, a particularly deft politician. Moreover, the political science is reasonably compelling that elections are mostly driven by things like the economy and incumbent job approval; my Senate model suggests that the more controversial Senate candidates of the past few years, like Ken Buck, Christine O’Donnell, or Richard Mourdock, probably only cost their party two or three points (four or six, net). That’s not nothing, but it isn’t enough to guarantee a loss.
If there’s cause for concern, whether from a National Front-type Republican Party or a Syriza-style Democratic one (and to be clear, given the nature of our political system, both parties will likely remain more moderate than their European counterparts), it probably comes in 2020. Given the length of the business cycle, the probability of a recession during the next four years is extremely high, and many people have not recovered from the last one. The results of that could be catastrophic, depending on the severity of the downturn, and could convince more voters to try something radically different. A Supreme Court with a swing vote justice who is no longer a culturally cosmopolitan Republican who is reluctant, but willing, to utilize his power to push social change could continue the alienation of traditionalists from mainstream dialogue.
If I seem down, I am. I’m genuinely concerned about the direction both parties are headed. Much Tea Party rhetoric has been, to my mind, irresponsible, but it comes complete with a healthy dose of accurate critique. The same is true of the Sanders/netroots critique of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council wing of the Democratic Party. I think the leadership of both parties, and of our civic institutions in general, have about four years to figure things out. Or else we may look back fondly upon the ugliness of this cycle.