Readers of this site know that political realignment is the overarching framework I use to make sense of our chaotic politics. My fundamental assertion is that the Reagan era is over, the casualty of massive generational change in cultural attitudes and political preferences, but it is not yet clear what will replace it. Prior to the 2016 election, I felt there were four possible directions the country could take, built around different approaches to economic and social justice issues and based loosely on what prominent political figures were offering:
- Neoliberalism: Defined by a devotion to policies that ignore (and promote) economic inequality, this was the prevailing response by Democrats to Reagan conservatism. Pair it with support for social justice policies that acknowledge (but may not take action to address) the concerns of a diversifying America and you have a version of Bill Clinton’s “New Democrats” or Hillary Clinton’s “stronger together” presidential message.
- Right-wing Populism: This was the guiding message of the 2016 Trump campaign. It’s easy to forget that Donald Trump ran for president against the Democratic and Republican parties, advocating both a reactionary nationalism (“Build the wall!”) and a promise to make government work for ordinary people (“Drain the swamp!”), complete with initiatives typically advocated by the left like universal health care and a massive job-creating infrastructure plan.
- Corporate Nationalism: This was the reality of the Trump presidency. Trump brought reactionary nationalism to the White House but ditched the populist economic ideas in favor of tax cuts for corporations and the super-rich. The result is a corporate nationalism which has supplanted conservatism as the prevailing vision of the Republican Party.
- Progressive Populism/Democratic Socialism: This is where the energy has been in the Democratic Party for the past five years. Combining support for diversity with opposition to economic inequality, progressive Democrats promised a break with the policies of neoliberal Democrats and Reagan Republicans. Their ideas propelled Bernie Sanders to surprising success in the 2016 primaries and made Sanders and Elizabeth Warren finalists for the 2020 nomination.
By 2021, these four options had narrowed to two, with right-wing populism discarded and neoliberalism discredited. If there was a window for a realignment behind the populist politics of the right, it was shuttered by Trump’s single-minded support for policies that lined his pockets and, out of laziness or indifference, by his decision to let congressional Republicans set economic policy during his administration. Had Trump decided to make good on his campaign rhetoric and embrace a Sanders-esque economic agenda while indulging his nativist impulses, he would have thoroughly scrambled prevailing party alliances. This might have resulted in political catastrophe, with congressional Republicans unwilling to tolerate Trumpism without the tax cuts. But it also could have nudged Trump’s approval above the 50 percent mark as more people shared in the benefits of the economy without sacrificing the fierce loyalty of Trump’s base to his America-first policies, putting congressional Republicans and Democrats in a political bind. It was a high risk/high reward option, but we will never know if it would have resulted in a realignment or in total collapse of the right because Trump had no intention of pursuing a direction where there was nothing in it for him personally, and in the aftermath of his presidency the political space no longer exists for anyone else to try.
So too is neoliberalism seemingly off the table as a viable option. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat and Joe Biden’s primary campaign struggles as the candidate of the Obama restoration were early clues that the Democratic electorate had soured on an approach that may have made sense at the height of the Reagan era, when Democrats needed a way to win over a center-right electorate and nudge politics to the left, but grew less relevant as the Reagan consensus disappeared. By the time it became evident that Biden was going to be the nominee, he had recast himself as a bridge to an undefined future, tilting away from the neoliberal politics that defined his long career. True to that pivot, as president he has promoted the most progressive domestic agenda in generations in response to the interwoven crises he inherited, seeking to take on economic inequality, global warming and racial injustice while aggressively combatting the pandemic. It may be a bit of a stretch to say that he has morphed into Elizabeth Warren, but only a bit. The future he’s preparing for would make a comfortable home for the progressive politics of democratic socialism.
If this were a normal realigning period, Biden’s progressive vision would be in competition with a bleak and discredited corporate nationalism and would take root over time as the dominant ideology of an emerging political era shaped by liberal Millennials and Generation Z. However, very little is normal about this moment. Republicans have shown no interest in yielding power to the new majority and have been unwilling to do the hard work of reinventing themselves to compete in the marketplace of twenty-first century ideas. They remain devoted to the reactionary politics of corporate nationalism knowing that it appeals to a shrinking numerical minority of racially aggrieved whites and a tiny, wealthy elite, and therefore is not large enough to win electoral majorities.
So Trump and the party he co-opted have become increasingly invested in finding ways to maintain power by hacking away at the pillars of the democratic system. Republicans are now openly committed to disenfranchising opposition voters, and they remain dependent on a former president who encouraged an insurrection to hold on to his office. The final weeks of the last administration leave little doubt that if given a second chance at Trumpism, Republicans would use the levers of federal power to cement lasting minority rule. We have arrived at a place where one of two major political parties is more invested in clinging to power at all costs than in preserving democracy. Their success would mean the republic is no longer resilient enough to handle a natural change in political currents. It would mean realignments of the sort we have seen every two generations or so since 1800 are no longer possible.
It falls to President Biden and the only political party still invested in democratic norms to prevent this from happening. This puts the pressure on Biden to successfully press the electoral advantages of his nascent coalition. Republicans will need to suffer an unambiguous string of losses in the next two or three national elections to recognize that they will not be able to disable the emerging electorate and hold power through extra-democratic means. Only after it is clear that attempts to take power by force will fail can we expect Republicans to consider enduring a wrenching separation with their nativist base and begin the hard work of redefining themselves as a center-right opposition party. Unless and until that happens, we face the stark choice of having a democratic government run by a progressive majority or risk corporate nationalism imposed by autocracy.
By winning the 2020 election, Biden and congressional Democrats have a brief opportunity to point the country in the direction of sustained democracy. But there are giant obstacles in the way of getting there. Fortunately, Biden appears acutely aware of those obstacles and so far has been skillful in his ability to navigate them. There are several milestones the Biden administration needs to achieve in order to put the country in the strongest position to survive the onslaught that is coming from a party that is trapped and desperate, a checklist if you will of policy accomplishments and structural reforms that Biden needs to realize to maximize the likelihood that we will survive this dangerous moment. I’ll address them in my next post.