Lasting Damage

Longtime readers of Wolves and Sheep know that I keep returning to the theme of partisan realignment, because I believe this moment of political instability shares characteristics with other realigning periods in American politics, most recently the transition between New Deal liberalism and Reagan conservatism. The potential for party realignment was a theme of my last two books on the emergence and maturation of an online progressive movement, and although I didn’t set out to write a trilogy, I am in the early stages of work on a co-authored project that will consider four possible ways the Trump reaction might realign our politics.

A little over a year ago, I wrote that Donald Trump had shattered the center-right Reagan coalition and turned the Republican Party into a vehicle to advance a reactionary vision of America at odds with the rest of the country, rendering establishment conservatives homeless and threatening the party’s longterm viability. Evidence of the strain in Republican circles was evident before Election Day, as prominent conservatives urged voters to reject their erstwhile party for the sake of democracy. The election itself gave us clear evidence of the party’s dilemma. In my last post, I discussed the short-term warning signs for Republicans who enter the 2020 cycle facing an angry electorate that just overwhelmed a supposedly impenetrable gerrymander to kick Republicans out of the House of Representatives, and that’s poised to finish the job if nothing significant changes in two years. But the party’s problems go deeper than the next election. We should consider the possibility that the trauma of the Trump era will forge a lasting change in the coalitions that shape our politics.

I’m looking specifically at the movement that took place among educated voters, especially suburban women who played such a large role in flipping the House. Their negative reaction to Donald Trump is visceral, and for the moment he has pushed them to support Democrats in overwhelming numbers. This gives Democrats an opening to make a pitch for their permanent allegiance by delivering on an agenda of health and economic security and cultural inclusiveness. The suburbs were a mainstay of Republican electoral success during two generations of Republican ascendancy dating back to Richard Nixon. Should suburban women move permanently into the Democrat’s column, as they did this year, they could be the final piece of a majority Democratic coalition in a new political alignment.

There are parallels here to the development of the Republican coalition in the years between Nixon’s aborted administration and the emergence of Ronald Reagan. I have written about the similarities between our political moment and the late 1970s, when Jimmy Carter—another unlikely president—seemingly came out of nowhere, defeated a field of well-established candidates on the promise that he alone could fix Washington after the trauma of Watergate (his campaign slogan, without irony, was “why not the best?”), but was frustrated at almost every turn by a party dependent on a shrinking share of the electorate and at war with itself. Like Donald Trump, who temporarily reconstituted the white electorate that had enabled his Republican predecessors to triumph from the 70s through the turn of the century, Carter was narrowly elected by reassembling a coalition that had already outlasted its “sell by” date—the New Deal union of urban liberals and southern conservatives. But he couldn’t hold it. Carter swept the South on his way to victory in 1976. Four frustrating years later, he carried only his native Georgia. In the interim, white evangelicals defected en masse to the Republican Party, giving them the final piece they needed to form an enduring electoral coalition.

Married educated white suburban women could be that missing piece for the Democratic Party, joining a large but (before this year) unevenly motivated coalition of young people, voters of color and single women in a new political alignment. This is really the most consequential result of the 2018 midterms. Once white southern evangelicals joined economic conservatives and Cold Warriors under the Republican umbrella, the numbers were there to move our politics permanently to the right. It happened at a time when, like now, the public was deeply angry at Washington and the coalition that had been the majority for so long was unraveling.

Democrats need to be strategic about addressing the concerns of their would-be long-term partners. The way they run the House, who they nominate for president, and how they campaign in 2020 will go a long way toward determining if they can become the dominant party in a new political era. In my next post, I will speculate about the pitfalls and opportunities they face.