The Hard Path (3 of 5)

In my previous post, I compared the political climate to an intense storm and suggested that it has been building for years. The frontal boundary is the place where the portion of the electorate that supported Hillary Clinton is pushing against the portion that supported Donald Trump. The Clinton electorate—young, multicultural, progressive and connected to the 21st century economy—has been building in size and political influence. The Trump electorate—white, older, conservative and connected to the 20th century economy—is shrinking in size and losing its political and cultural dominance. The Obama administration marked a noteworthy shift away from the rightward impulses of the Reagan coalition but it was held in check by the resiliency of a political system not quite weak enough to be repudiated and by a progressive coalition not quite strong enough to do the repudiating.

In this respect, the Obama administration resembles Richard Nixon’s attempt to move the country away from the New Deal. Just as Nixon’s rightward lean drew resistance from the press, the bureaucracy and an opposition legislature, Obama was squeezed by the Democratic Party’s allegiance to monied interests and the Republican Party’s institutional ability to resist his more liberal impulses. Like Nixon, Obama spoke to future leaders who might eventually change the country’s direction should they figure out a way to expand their coalition, as Reagan would several years later. And like Nixon, Obama was correctly viewed as a threat to the status quo and generated intense resistance from the other side. So while Obama was unable to establish a lasting progressive governing coalition, he did advance the interests and sensibilities of the emerging electorate, generating resistance from corners of the population where those interests are not shared. This contributed to the reaction that was Trump’s election.

Our political moment is precarious because both groups can claim a large number of adherents but neither has been able to establish a functioning majority. Our political disputes are intense because each group fears the loss of something fundamental if the other succeeds. This is intensified by the (correct) perception by the right that they are losing influence and by the (equally correct) perception by the left that demographic and generational change is broadening their base, though perhaps not as quickly as many believed. So as progressives push forward they fuel the kind of reaction from the right that found expression in the election results. Had the election gone the other way, the pushback would have been no less dramatic.

That the right is waging a defensive battle to protect its shrinking turf should be a pretty good indication of which direction this conflict is heading in the long term. Donald Trump’s governing vision looks backward. How would he make America great again? By building walls, deporting Mexicans, banning Muslims from entering the country and repealing Obamacare—effectively negating and delegitimizing the Obama coalition. This is why Trump’s campaign was reactionary and not conservative, and why blue America is so terrified. It is the agenda of a group that needs to disenfranchise to retain its hold on power.

I had hoped we could make it through this unsettling period with less disruption, but as the campaign progressed it appeared unlikely that an easy path would present itself. Even with a Bernie-endorsed platform, the Democratic Party is not yet ready to forge a governing majority with policies that could speak to the progressive instincts of Millennial voters and to that share of the white working class motivated by economic angst. Even if it was, only in the days following release of the Access Hollywood video did it appear that the electorate might hand Democrats a congressional majority. And even if they had, it would have been resisted by the considerable portion of the country that saw Hillary Clinton as an existential threat. Resistance was being threatened by followers of a candidate who was not sure he would concede and continued legislative paralysis would be like high heat under a boiling pot.

But so is an administration that promises to govern for a minority fragment of a divided country. Obama was perceived by his opponents as a divisive figure because his unity rhetoric sounded to those who did not share his coalition’s image of the future as a wish to unite America on his terms. In Donald Trump, it appears we may not even get the rhetoric. A divided country led by a belligerent president will severely test a Republican coalition that was falling apart before the election and now has to govern as the storm front moves in. I’ll have more on the challenges they face in my next post. My final post in this series will discuss what I think progressives should do to take advantage.