Lee Drutman views the world partisanly, through red-tinted Progressive lenses, and his screed features all the usual sanctimonious liberal stereotypes (We Republicans are just a bunch of nasty racists), but I thought there was an interesting grain of truth, underneath all the cant, in all this, specifically in the technical analysis of the party sociology that led to Donald Trump’s victory in the Republican primaries.
Our story effectively begins in 1932, when Democrats formed a majority coalition that included Northern liberals and Southern conservatives. The Great Depression had made economics the fundamental dividing line of conflict. And with Republican President Herbert Hoover getting the blame for the collapse, Democrats were on the winning side of the issue.
Now, if the median voter theorem explained the world, Republicans would have simply become the party of the New Deal as well â€” as some would say Eisenhower attempted to do. But Eisenhower’s New Dealâ€“light Republicanism angered the activists and economic elites in the Republican Party, who still wanted to undo the New Deal and who were sure that if they really truly opposed the New Deal, public opinion would miraculously move to their side.
When the far-right economic conservative Goldwater lost in 1964, however, it became clear Republicans couldn’t win purely on limited government as a defense of liberty. They would have to attach limited government to a winning position on some other issue that would split the Democratic Party…
Like all majorities, the Democratic majority from 1932 to 1964 contained within it the seeds of its own destruction â€” in particular, an internal conflict between Northern liberals and Southern conservatives over the issue of civil rights. Eventually, Northern liberals became the majority faction within the Democratic Party and exerted pressure, and Democrats passed a series of civil rights bills into law.
And with that, the Democrats effectively lost their winning political hand for the sake of moral principle. The civil rights laws created a backlash among Southern white Democratic conservatives and Northern working-class whites who were most directly affected by urban riots, and housing and school desegregation.
This gave Republicans the cross-cutting issue with a clear majority they needed: race and identity. With Nixon’s strategic guidance, Republicans went full steam ahead in making it the central dividing line in American politics.
They were certainly aided in this effort by Democrats, who struggled to speak to the urban unrest that drove many former Democrats to the Republican Party, or to acknowledge some of their own hubris in the power of a government run by Ivy League intellectuals to solve deep social problems. Democrats also nominated George McGovern to be their standard-bearer in 1972, whose label as the effete candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion” stuck, and also stuck with Democrats.
Moreover, as the economy stagnated in the 1970s, and businesses choked on a slew of new regulations and inflation increased, Democrats’ traditional advantages on economic issues also waned.
With Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, Republicans solidified a winning coalition that successfully strengthened the appeal of “limited government” beyond economic conservatism, where it had traditionally lived. “Limited government” now also meant not meddling in the private lives of citizens to enforce some elitist Ivy League intellectual’s idea of racial justice, and not asking middle-class taxpayers to pay welfare support for poor black people. …
But like all winning political coalitions, this, too was full of internal contradictions. In particular, many of the economic conservatives (who tended to be more libertarian and thus more culturally cosmopolitan) and many of the cultural conservatives (who tended to be former New Deal Democrats and thus very supportive of universal entitlements like Social Security) didn’t have a ton in common, other than feeling like they didn’t have a home in the Democratic Party (though for different reasons). …
[Subsequently] Republicans and Democrats essentially underwent a four-decade exchange program. Democrats sent Republicans their non-college-educated, culturally conservative white voters, mostly in declining rural and exurban areas, who had once been the core of the New Deal. In return, Democrats got culturally liberal wealthy professionals, largely in prosperous urban and suburban areas, many of whom were once “Rockefeller Republicans” and had once opposed many elements of the New Deal.
This happened slowly, because partisan loyalties are really sticky and most voters don’t play close attention to issues. (To really understand how sticky partisan identities are, consider that up until 2010, Democrats were a majority in the Alabama state legislature).
It also happened slowly because in the 1990s, Democrats managed to stem some of the flow by taking more conservative stands on race and culture under the leadership of Bill Clinton, who won a bunch of Southern states. But it could only be a temporary hold, especially once Republicans started winning back southern congressional seats and retook the House in 1995. …
For Republicans, this initially looked like a really good deal, more like a two-for-one swap. And it largely was, from the early 1970s until about the mid-2000s.
But the deal had a long-term liability. America was steadily becoming more diverse, and more highly educated. And the younger generation was much more culturally and socially liberal than the previous generation. Republicans might have been converting more Democrats to Republicans than vice versa. But Democrats were making greater gains among new voters, and also doing better and better among increasingly cosmopolitan wealthy Americans. What looked like a losing coalition for Democrats in 1972 would be a winning coalition for Democrats nationally in 2008.
There was also second problem for the Republican elites whose vision of “limited government” was always far more motivated by economic conservatism than by cultural conservatism. By the mid-2000s, they were becoming more and more of a minority within their party as the party had become more dependent on conservative working-class whites to win elections.
And while these voters could be convinced to support “limited government” and “free enterprise” as abstract moral principles, they also had no great love for Wall Street, or for corporate CEOs or globalization. More often than not, they were from rural and exurban places that had increasingly become hotbeds of political resentment, places that had been on a steady multi-decade economic decline as more and more talent and capital investment flowed to the largest cities, mostly on the coasts. Their communities were slowly dying, both literally and figuratively.
These voters had no interest in Republican elites’ priorities of voucherizing Medicare or privatizing Social Security. They wanted their entitlements. They wanted government to do more for old people and the middle class. And they were really concerned about immigration. And as Republican elites failed to respond to their concerns, these voters grew more and more frustrated.
Given this dilemma, Republican leadership had essentially two choices. One was to recognize that the Republican Party was becoming the middle-class party, and to offer a set of economic policies targeted to help these increasingly struggling middle-class voters. …
The other choice was to instead continue to push the very economically conservative policies most preferred by the now minority-within-the-party wealthy establishment Republicans by turning “limited government” into a nearly religious crusade, and feeding the overarching argument that the federal budget was nothing but a giant transfer program from strained “maker” middle-class taxpayers (mostly white) to poor “taker” criminal welfare recipients and illegal immigrants (almost entirely black and Hispanic). And, even more apocalyptically, that any expansion of government was akin to socialism and communism and fascism all rolled into one horrible totalitarian nightmare overrun with illegal immigrants, which just happened to be Barack Obama’s secret black Muslim takeover plan for America.
Whether or not Republican leaders actually believed any of this rhetoric is hard to say. But these are the kinds of things Republican voters began to say in the 2010s. And Republican leaders did nothing to stop it. After all, all this rhetoric allowed the party to keep its donor-class activists happy by obscuring these donors’ deeply unpopular policy goals under the guise of something else. …
[O]nce Democrats were freed of their remaining “blue dog” Southern conservatives in Congress after the 2010 midterm landslide, and they felt increasingly confident they could win national elections with the “Obama coalition” of racial minorities and white liberals …, they had fewer reasons to moderate on racial and social issues, as Bill Clinton had needed to in order to win nationally in 1992 and 1996.
It’s no surprise, then, that Democrats have recently taken strong stands on same-sex marriage, have felt more comfortable speaking to the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement, and have even been willing to take more aggressive stands on gun control. And given all this, it’s no wonder that socially conservative whites have become so convinced their country is being taken from them.
Immigration has also contributed. It’s important to understand that between 1990 and 2014, the share of foreign-born citizens in the United States went from 7.9 percent to 13.9 percent â€” a near doubling. The last time the share of foreign-born citizens got this high (about 100 years ago), it provoked enough nativist backlash in the 1920s to largely close the borders for four decades, until 1965.
It appears that the rising tide of immigration has indeed provoked some backlash, and that backlash has been channeled into the Republican Party. …
Now, in retrospect, it becomes increasingly clear how the Republican Party got to a place where it was primed for Trump’s white grievance message. Republicans spent the past half-century winning over socially conservative, non-college-educated whites on issues of race and identity, to the point that these voters became the dominant faction within the party.
Read the whole screed.
Putting it slightly differently from Drutman, I’d say that Barack Obama’s intensification of national racial divisions, his Culture War aggressions, and his artificially-prolonged economic bad times which fell most heavily on middle and working class Americans really did provoke an uprising of major elements of the Republican base and of a great many loosely-affiliated cross-over democrat voters.
This populist insurgency is strongly anti-immigration, (from the Progressive viewpoint) transgressively opposed to governmentally-imposed minority privilege, and –it’s true– frequently lacking in conservative or libertarian principles. The populist wave proved strong enough to gain victory in the primaries, but the sad truth is the democrats misgoverned and awakened the fury of the peasants who came out with pitchforks and torches, discrediting themselves and their movement in the process by selecting a clown for a leader on the basis of a bunch of pernicious slogans and reprehensible political postures.
The poignant irony is that it was precisely the damage to the economy and the national morale inflicted by a Progressive democrat administration that caused the portion of the Republican base that the democrat party alienated and drove over to us to run amok and to effectively democratize the Republican Party, adopting traditional democrat demagogy talking points complaining about free trade, opposing labor competition and the export of jobs, promising to punish corporations, offering special governmental patronage and protection, and urging American retreat from International Leadership. The peasant revolt in the GOP is almost certainly going to result in an absurd and completely undeserved democrat party victory in what on-every-rational-basis ought to have been a landslide Republican year.
Where I grew up, a rational observer might remark that “the democrat party is exactly like the guy who fell into the septic tank and came up with a harp and a piano.” “Piano” being pronounced “PIE-ano.”