At the Democratic Convention this summer, a respected political operative told me that Hillary Clinton would win the election because Democrats have a structural advantage in the Electoral College, enough to make up for whatever weaknesses she had as a candidate. Demography drives this advantage, which remains in place despite the uprising of rural and suburban white voters that changed the electoral math on Tuesday. Democrats are powered by a large and growing coalition of young, female and ethnically diverse voters in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, Pacific Rim and portions of the South and Southwest where the information economy has taken hold. This is the so-called “blue wall” that Donald Trump breached by turning out record numbers of white voters attached to the old demography and the old economy, the voters who supported Trump because he promised to blow up a political system that no longer works for them and, in turn, re-establish their lost place in the economic and social order. They were angry, and they voted in large enough numbers to deny Clinton the Rust Belt states she was depending on to win.
These economic, social and cultural divides are responsible for the zero-sum character of our politics, and turnout differences between the two groups have prevented either side from forging a lasting political coalition. The Democratic coalition powered Obama’s two victories but didn’t show up in the off years, giving Republicans control of congress and a majority of state houses. It was going to take a disruption in this pattern to give one of the parties an opportunity to run the government as they wish. That happened Tuesday.
So does the coming Republican takeover of the White House, House and Senate portend a lasting right-leaning realignment of the parties? I considered just this scenario in my recent book Next Generation Netroots, where I wrote:
How does the right approach governance if it emerges as the dominant voice in a regime supported by a plurality segment of the electorate that does not represent the population at large? Would questions arise about the regime’s legitimacy, and to what degree might this constrain its ability to implement its agenda? In power, would it be able to avoid awakening voters whose disinterest enabled its ascendancy, or could it find a way to win over a larger segment of the electorate? Would it tear itself apart trying to broaden its appeal or trying to broker differences between elites and the rank and file? Radicals generally do not support moderation; would they be able to temper their ideology in order to govern? If not, would their ascendancy be a false start?
I raised these questions in anticipation of a total Republican takeover like the one we are about to see in Washington, and I think they can help guide us as we try to figure out what’s ahead. My conclusion, which I will discuss in the next four posts, is that if our political institutions do not buckle under the weight of the Trump reaction, this phase is more likely to increase the chances for a functioning progressive majority anticipated but not realized in the Obama years than inaugurate a long period of reactionary rule. Sadly, it may turn out be a necessary step to making such an alignment possible.
I am not going to understate the risks this moment presents. Republicans are now positioned to roll back some of Obama’s achievements and assert a radically different posture on the global stage. More alarming is the angry and sometimes violent reaction toward vulnerable groups which will follow Trump to the White House, and the disregard demonstrated by the Republican Party toward democratic institutions. We cannot know how these factors will play out, and my observations will assume the continuation of normal political processes and the resilience of Madisonian democracy. Should these assumptions not hold we will be having a very different discussion.
But great opportunity can present itself during times of great risk, and the incoming administration faces significant political obstacles which collectively point to the possibility and even the likelihood of an unhappy Trump tenure: the divisiveness of a broadly disliked president-elect who ran against the fundamental values of roughly half the country, profound differences between radicals and conservatives who remain housed together in the Republican Party, the emptiness of Trump’s promises to restore economic security to those lagging behind in the modern economy, and the limited appeal of a stale Republican agenda. There is an irony that the Republican Party will be at the peak of its formal power at the same time it is self-destructing. More on that shortly.