Birth Pangs of the Seventh Party System

The sun is setting on the Reagan era. In about 50 days we will have an election that will end either with the repudiation of Trumpism, which really is little more than the rump remains of Reaganism, or devolve into a chaotic fight about political legitimacy between an ascending electorate and a receding one. What it will not do is validate the status quo. As the electoral shadows grow long, Donald Trump’s last act will be to try to derail democratic mechanisms to engineer a victory out of a second consecutive popular vote loss – this one looking to be much larger than the last. It doesn’t say much about your political strength when your best hope to stay in power rests with disenfranchising voters and discrediting the results to claim a second-place win for a second time.

Donald Trump owns the remnants of the center-right coalition first assembled by Ronald Reagan. He is the final president of what I have called the Ronald McDonald era, four-decades dominated by conservative Republican presidents and punctuated by Democratic presidents whose more liberal tendencies were curtailed by the prevailing Republican order. The last four years have made it clear that this once dominant coalition has lost its majority appeal. It would be rejected in a fair election, and even with Trump’s efforts at sabotage it may well be rejected anyway.

Like all governing majorities, the Reagan coalition was strongest in the beginning. White voters in the South and California gave Republicans a hammerlock on the Electoral College that handed Reagan and George H. W. Bush three consecutive landslide victories until divisions in the party base allowed Bill Clinton to pick the electoral lock in the 90s. By 2000, when George W. Bush resurrected the coalition without the benefit of a popular vote plurality, the country was already becoming more diverse, and outsized margins with white voters didn’t go as far. When Trump reconstituted the Reagan coalition one last time in 2016 it was a shadow of its once proud self, sputtering to deliver an Electoral College victory in the wake of a popular vote loss of almost three million.

Since Trump’s election, signs of the end of the Reagan era could be seen in the general dysfunction of congressional Republicans and in Trump’s chronic inability to claim majority support for his administration. The global pandemic has revealed what’s left of the coalition to be rigid in its beliefs and incapable of addressing the social and economic hardships of our time. Donald Trump’s laissez-faire claim that the coronavirus “is what it is” and his accompanying dictate to just live with it rings hollow for those suffering under the weight of the crisis, even as it aligns with the “government is the problem” mindset that has driven American politics for the past forty years. The haplessness of a Republican senate paralyzed by the task of fashioning meaningful economic relief speaks to their unwillingness to use government power to help those who are not at the top of the economic ladder, from whom economic benefits are supposed to trickle down. Likewise, the way Trump leans into racial animosity to foment division is grotesquely derivative of the hallmark wars on drugs and crime that define the Reagan era. The broader public is resoundingly rejecting all of it, just saying no to the dominant political philosophy of the last four decades.

Political history gives us clues about what’s likely to happen next. American politics has been characterized by long stretches of stable party competition punctuated by tumultuous moments of realignment, when the coalitions supporting the parties shatter and regroup to form new alliances. We find ourselves in such a moment right now. Realignments take place when party coalitions are unable to address acute issues that weren’t paramount when the coalitions originally formed. In other words, realignments are a way for the political process to replenish itself when the established order becomes unable to manage changing conditions.

A new political order – or what political scientists would call a new party system – is the stable politics waiting for us on the other side of the realignment. Students of political parties generally agree that there have been six party systems since 1800, each lasting about two generations. In every system a dominant party drove the agenda and won most national elections. But scholars disagree on whether the transitions between systems take place gradually or suddenly. In fact, each realigning era has been distinct. For better or worse, the present moment has echoes of three of them. The first offers a word of caution. The second offers reason for hope. The third is disconcerting.

In key respects, 2020 is reminiscent of the last realignment we experienced in 1980. Then, a nascent coalition emerged gradually over many years, as constituent groups once loyal to the New Deal – most notably white southerners – peeled away from the Democratic Party. Richard Nixon’s narrow 1968 victory foreshadowed a majority conservative coalition, much like Obama’s 2008 victory foreshadowed today’s emerging majority, but it didn’t come to fruition until Ronald Reagan’s unambiguous defeat of Jimmy Carter in 1980 – and, even then, Republicans wouldn’t realize a House majority until fourteen years later.

Like in 1980, the shape of the emerging coalition had become clear before it was strong enough to claim political power, and may well claim power before it has fully matured. We already know what it will look like. It will be young, multicultural, female, educated, urban and suburban. It will be based in the Sun Belt, on both coasts, and in states of the industrial Midwest like Illinois where coalition members are represented in large enough numbers relative to non-college educated and rural white voters. Significantly, it will be the first majority coalition in a century not dependent on conservative white southerners, leaving open the possibility of genuine racial progress.

Hints of this coalition appeared in 2008 with Obama’s election, which was followed by the Tea Party backlash election of 2010. Our politics have been shaped by that backlash ever since, but it has been driving away suburbanites and in 2018 we saw the addition of educated suburban voters – especially women – to the Democratic coalition. Polling suggests they are poised to vote in even larger numbers for Democrats this year. If they permanently realign as Democrats, there are enough of them to complete the Obama coalition and make it a lasting majority, just like the addition of white southern evangelicals completed the Reagan coalition in 1980. But it will take time before we know if the movement we’re seeing this year is permanent. Caution is indicated because this new alignment is a work in progress.

If it emerges as a governing coalition in November, the Seventh Party System should have the political strength to break the gridlock in Congress and enable a rush of progressive legislation. Priorities that were stymied by the old order can work their way through the legislative process with surprising ease once a new party system is established. How easily and how quickly this happens will depend on the scope of a potential Biden victory and the size of the legislative majorities he can bring with him.

A good reason for optimism about a return to effective governance, which I admit seems thoroughly unrealistic by present standards, is that the times demand it. If our gradually shifting political landscape evokes 1980, the urgency of the moment more closely resembles the realignment of 1932, when FDR vanquished a long-dominant Republican majority following its failure to address a national emergency. An unambiguous Democratic victory up and down the ballot will allow Biden to claim a mandate like Franklin Roosevelt did during a moment of extreme crisis, giving him the standing to roll over the legislative roadblocks that frustrated Clinton and Obama during the Sixth Party System. Ironically, Biden is campaigning to bring America together but the ideal of bipartisanship is almost certain to yield to a partisan push to end gridlock and address the problems gripping the country over the objections of those who will press the case for maintaining Reagan-era politics.

Those objections will be ferocious. Proponents of a threatened order never go quietly, and 2020 is emerging as the loudest realignment in 160 years. Expect the transition to be ugly and bumpy. If there is background music from 1980 and 1932 in this election, there are also cadences from the realignment of 1860, when a once dominant political party and the union it represented disintegrated under the weight of irreconcilable differences. Our burden will be to facilitate the ripening of a coalition that has been building over many years but has not yet reached maturity while managing a series of cascading crises with existential implications during a moment of zero-sum politics pulling us toward division rather than compromise, fueling a life-or-death reaction from those who recognize the country they once knew is about to be permanently reinvented by lasting cultural, social and economic change.

The appeal of a second Trump term – really Trump’s only re-election argument – is as the last remaining obstacle to the full realization of the Seventh Party System. That appeal resonates with enough voters to guarantee 2020 will be a threshold moment regardless of the outcome, especially as Republicans who realize the numbers are against them weigh trading away democracy for the chance to stay in power. It is clear at this point that the alternatives before us are a peaceful if rocky transition to a political arrangement supported by the emerging majority or retreat into a form of authoritarianism that prevents that majority from claiming power by undermining the political system itself.

Ready or not, we have arrived at this dangerous transitional moment. The coalition that has dominated politics for four decades is losing its grip. What makes this election especially perilous is the prospect that they have no intention to let go.