2016 and the Future of American Politics


Does the 2016 election reveal the shape of the Democratic and Republican parties to come?

As Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump prepare for the final heat of the 2016 campaign, political prognosticators are already assessing whether this election will result in a “realignment,” crystallizing a new set of party coalitions that will determine the shape of American politics for a generation to come. These accounts are dominated by the narrative of the “emerging Democratic majority”: the Obama-Clinton coalition, uniting voters of color (especially the fast-growing Hispanic community), young people, and college-educated professionals, will benefit from changing demographics to turn Arizona, Texas, and Georgia blue, guaranteeing continued Electoral College supremacy and restored Congressional majorities. Meanwhile, despite benefitting in the short term from an influx of disillusioned working-class whites, the Republican Party will be relegated to minority status by mid-century.

Although certainly appealing to Democrats—and compelling to the many Republicans, including party chairman Reince Priebus, who have urged the party to build bridges to Hispanic voters—this forecast has several limitations. First, it is unclear whether groups that currently lean Democratic will remain so (in particular, voters of Asian and Latin American descent may grow more conservative over the course of the twenty-first century). But perhaps more importantly, the makeup of the party coalitions is only part of the story. An equally vital question is what, precisely, the twenty-first century Democratic and Republican parties will stand for.

At first glance, the answer seems obvious. The dominant narrative of the last four decades has been one of deepening partisan polarization: the Democrats lost their conservative Southern wing in the wake of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s, evolving into a liberal party, while the Republicans, prodded by an influx of Southern whites, began a steady march to the right. Today, Democratic progressivism and Republican conservatism have become seemingly inextricable parts of the parties’ respective identities.

Yet the two parties were not created equal. In their new book Asymmetric Politics, political scientists Matt Grossman and Dave Hopkins point out that the Democratic Party of the early twentieth century was a broad coalition composed of various economic and social groups from agrarian farmers to urban immigrants, which out of necessity focused on addressing each bloc’s concrete needs rather than constructing an overall ideological program. Conversely, the more demographically homogeneous Republicans structured their party around shared loyalty to a set of common values.

Even now, while Republicans consider themselves to be conservatives first and foremost, Democratic identifiers and activists are far more likely to characterize their party’s goals in terms of protecting various disadvantaged groups (workers, African Americans, women, LGBTQ citizens, Latinx and Asian Americans, etc.) than they are to conceptualize them as a “liberal” or “progressive” agenda. The rise of the Tea Party movement and recent string of primary challenges to Republican representatives and senators deemed insufficiently conservative vividly illustrate that Republicans remain far more concerned with ideological purity than their Democratic counterparts.

To complicate matters, the 2016 election has scrambled that dynamic on both sides of the aisle. The Republican base turned aside countless candidates with impeccable conservative credentials in favor of Trump, whose only fixed policy convictions seem to center on distaste for all things foreign. For their part, the Democrats weathered the insurgent candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders, who sought to paint Clinton as a progressive in name only, relentlessly attacking her on countless issues. Now, Trumpism—hostility to immigration, trade, and America’s international commitments—threatens to challenge traditional Republican conservatism, while the Sanders movement seems to indicate that the Democrats are moving away from their coalitional roots and towards defining themselves as a true liberal party.

Although Trump-inspired primary challenges to establishment Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senators John McCain and Marco Rubio have fallen short, it would be incorrect to assume that Trump’s message has limited policy resonance. Consider Representative Dave Brat, an economics professor who felled then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014 by capitalizing on anger over illegal immigration, marking the first time in history a sitting majority leader has lost a primary. Even if Trump is defeated decisively in November, there is precedent for the ideas of a defeated candidate eventually taking over his party. Right-wing Republican Barry Goldwater’s landslide loss to Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 paved the way for a conservative revival in 1966 and, ultimately, Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980. Importantly, however, this takeover relied on something Trump lacks: the army of dedicated activists Goldwater inspired, who set to work nominating and electing conservative candidates in the years following his defeat.

In this respect, it is the Sanders movement—with its strong support among millennials—that holds more long-term promise. The progressives, however, face their own challenges. Democratic leaders stretching back to FDR have sought to purge conservatives and commit the party to a robust social-welfare program, but such attempts have historically been frustrated by both the presence of conservative southern Democrats within the party’s coalition and the “symbolic conservatism” of the American public itself. As Grossman and Hopkins are the latest to recount, as much as Americans may favor specific government policies like Social Security and Medicare, they nevertheless dislike the abstract idea of “big government.” And even with the loss of many right-leaning voters, self-professed moderates and conservatives still comprise a majority of the Democratic Party. Finally, groups that are loyally Democratic may not be receptive to an overt ideological appeal. Sanders’ notably poor showing among African Americans doomed him in the Southern states that sealed Clinton’s victory.

Despite these challenges, the Trump and Sanders movements will not disappear in the near future. Currently, the polls portend a decisive Electoral College victory for Hillary Clinton, narrow Democratic control of the Senate, and a reduced House majority for the Republicans. Such an environment will necessitate moderate deal-making or, alternatively, will guarantee continued partisan gridlock. Either result would likely displease disillusioned Trump supporters and Sanders devotees, leading to a wave of angry primary challenges in 2018 and intensifying a struggle for the souls of the Democratic and Republican parties. In the short run, neither faction appears strong enough to win control of its respective party. Still, after an election cycle as unpredictable as this one, observers of American politics have learned to expect the unexpected.

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