Can the Parties Survive?
A dialogue on the forces threatening to blow apart the Democratic and Republican coalitions
HENRY OLSEN: Going on a year since Donald Trump’s remarkable presidential victory, Republicans and Democrats are still struggling to understand what happened in November 2016 and what it means for the country’s future—and, needless to say, for the future of the two parties. My view is straightforward: Donald Trump is president because he won the group of voters I call “Trump Democrats”—once known as Reagan Democrats. They’re blue-collar—or non-collared—white voters without college degrees. Outside the more culturally conservative South, these voters tend to support Democrats. They anchor many of the counties throughout the Midwest and Appalachia, which, before Trump, Republicans had failed to carry since the Reagan or even Nixon campaigns.
The Trump Democrats fit between the two parties. They don’t generally care about social issues, so they can go either way on abortion, same-sex marriage, or traditional gender roles. They are patriotic and support the military but aren’t hawkish when it comes to fighting overseas. And most important, they believe that the government should play an active but limited role in the economy—a smaller role than what Democrats envision but significantly more involvement than the typical Republican approach would allow.
Though these voters make up a large proportion of the electorate, they’re distributed heavily throughout swing states like Ohio, Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin. In Trump, these voters found a presidential candidate who echoed their concerns—particularly their doubts about immigration and trade, which they see as major drivers of labor competition. They found somebody who loved them, and they loved him back.
THOMAS EDSALL: I agree that Trump’s appeal, especially on immigration, was a major factor in swinging this group of voters to the Republicans after so long. But the Democratic Party’s own changes, in character and composition, were just as crucial. At the policymaking level, the Democratic Party has become much more affluent and cosmopolitan. On average, Democratic voters and voters who lean toward the Democratic Party now have higher levels of education than Republicans, which was not the case throughout the twentieth century. Instead of a class-based party, the Democrats are an alliance, on the one hand, of relatively well-off whites who take liberal stands on social issues, and, on the other hand, of much less well-off minorities. The Democratic base has also become more concentrated in urban centers, while Republicans are relatively more concentrated in exurban and rural areas.
While in general agreement on social and identity issues, the so-called upscale and downscale wings of the Democratic Party are considerably at odds on economic issues calling for redistribution.
All Americans took a big economic hit beginning in 2007, but nonurban areas where Republicans made gains in 2016 have struggled to recover, whereas many of the cities where Democrats do well have come back strong. To a significant degree, the Democratic Party has become the hybrid party of college-educated, culturally liberal elites in an alliance with a majority of African-American voters (roughly 88 percent) and Hispanic voters (66 percent). The Republican Party, at the same time, has become the party of white America—the broadly defined white working and middle class—especially those white voters who perceive themselves as under siege by minorities and immigrants and as disadvantaged in labor markets by globalization and robotization.
OLSEN: Trump’s ability to appeal to these voters earned him a ticket to the White House, but there’s no guarantee that Republicans will retain their support. We essentially have been having a tennis game of realignment for the last decade, with the Democrats and Republicans taking turns double-faulting. They keep taking their eyes off the ball—the ball being this type of middle-of-the-road voter.
For Republicans to keep these voters, they have to include them, as Ronald Reagan urged them to do in his 1977 speech at the Conservative Political Action Committee’s annual meeting. But 40 years later, the Republican Party still has not embraced policies that would directly help working-class voters. The party platform consists entirely of indirect investments in workers, through corporate tax cuts—as opposed to direct investments, through programs like wage subsidies. If Republicans don’t begin to address workers’ needs directly, they won’t earn their commitment in the long term.
EDSALL: Trump did campaign on those ideas, at least more than any previous Republican had. Still, it remains unclear whether he will be able to deliver substantively on his promises—or if he will instead settle for delivering primarily in rhetorical and symbolic terms.
OLSEN: If you’re right, Trump and the Republicans would be squandering a marvelous opportunity—again. Republicans have had several chances over the last 70 years to build a long-term middle- and working-class majority. But each time, they’ve pursued an agenda that works against a key priority of those whose votes they had just won: I’m thinking of the Taft-Hartley Act that weakened unions in 1947 and the Gingrich Revolution in 1994, where Republicans decided to pursue spending cuts by cutting programs that their voters supported. Now the trend could be continuing, with the entitlement reform that Paul Ryan and the Freedom Caucus are pushing.
EDSALL: And yet, while the Republicans struggle to retain working-class voters, the Democrats face their own difficulties in capitalizing on Republican vulnerabilities. Their leaders are torn between prioritizing the interests of the party’s affluent wing and delivering expected benefits to their large minority constituency.
OLSEN: They might be deferential to their affluent voters, but the Democrats remain divided about economic matters in a way that will make it hard for them to expand their coalition. If they really want to embrace their new role as the cosmopolitan party and attract the kind of moderate conservative who voted for, say, John Kasich in the Republican primaries, they’ll have to avoid saying that we should raise taxes on the rich at three levels: an income-tax increase, a capital-gains tax increase, and a new Medicare single-payer tax increase. And they’ll have to quit lambasting people working in industries like financial services.
I think that for Republicans, Governor Scott Walker’s coalition in Wisconsin is the way of the future. The Walker administration has geared its tax cuts toward the middle class. An article of faith among the GOP in Washington is that the way to create growth is rapid and dramatic tax cuts for the most productive citizens—meaning corporations and wealthy people. By contrast, Walker’s income-tax cuts reduce lower-bracket rates by more. He focuses more on property taxes and income taxes. And rather than directly cutting the corporate tax rate, he’s lowered companies’ tax burdens by offering credits for job creation. Do you see anyone on the Democratic side doing this kind of thing?
EDSALL: I’m not optimistic about the Democratic Party. The challenges of holding together a biracial, multiethnic coalition spearheaded by a culturally liberal, relatively affluent white cosmopolitan vanguard are daunting. I’m intrigued by figures like Governor Steve Bullock in Montana, Senator Joe Manchin in West Virginia, and Colorado governor John Hickenlooper. They are sort of Western-style Democrats. These are guys with decided bases of support who have had to make some tough choices. And a lot of them are governors. Being a governor is a much better training ground for the presidency than being a senator. You have to make zero-sum choices. If you’re a senator, you can shoot your mouth off, but governors have a range of life-and-death decisions on their hands.
I don’t see decisive long-term dominance for either party. Trump I see as a fading light. Insofar as the prime Republican selling point in 2016 was the Republican promise to curtail immigration radically, the party may need strong nationalists like Steve Bannon. In terms of restructuring the economy, along lines that Trump promised, a project of such economic and technological complexity may well require the guys from Goldman Sachs. In the end, it can be as hard to manage a center-right as a center-left coalition.
OLSEN: Democrats need to remember that there’s a difference between midterm and presidential elections. Midterms are an opportunity for resistance, which is what Republicans have done successfully in the past few election cycles. So a Democratic strategy of resistance to Trump—compounded by the president’s errors—could give them an enormous opportunity for a wave. It probably wouldn’t show up in the Senate, as many more incumbent Democrats than Republicans are up for election in 2018. But it could show up in the House and in governorship races—especially the latter. The Republicans hold 14 governorships in states that were won by Bill Clinton twice and Obama twice or won by Obama twice and Trump once. That’s where I think you’ll see the Democratic wave, if there is one.
Currently, the Republicans hold the governorship in every state that touches the Great Lakes other than Minnesota; but come 2018, it’s possible that Walker will be the only one to survive, once the others have termed out. Suddenly, the GOP will lose control of the congressional redistricting process, which, on the margins, has helped it retain between 10 and 20 seats.
EDSALL: The danger for the Democrats is that they might bank too much on Republican weakness. This strategy worked for them in 1974, after Watergate, and eventually resulted in Jimmy Carter’s victory in 1976. They did not win on the basis of a changed electorate or a new way of appealing to that electorate; and in pursuing a purely oppositional strategy, they lost their chance to build a broader coalition, which Reagan and the Republicans accomplished, beginning in 1980. The Democrats haven’t seen a change in the composition of the party, whereas the Republican Party, first with Reagan, then with Gingrich, and then with Trump, has been going through a lot of internal compositional changes. The Democratic Party has not been going through this—or the forced intellectual vigor that such change requires. I think that the Democrats have a lot of ground-level work to do—in some cases, painful work—to rebuild their appeal to swing voters.
OLSEN: Republicans had the same problem after 2008, of course. After Obama’s victory and the Democratic wave in the Senate, the GOP had less representation at the national level than at any time since 1978. Then, after they reclaimed the House in 2010, many Republicans thought, “Obama’s an aberration. We can just double down on our anti-governmentism.” Again, their failure to listen to the voters who swept them into office led to a fragile governing mandate.
The GOP in Washington remains unbelievably resistant to the idea that it has to adapt to create a majority. Many Republicans see the Trump victory as an aberration or a rejection of Hillary Clinton, rather than a popular embrace of the heterodox positions that Trump championed during the election. Like the Democrats in 2009, GOP leaders seem to think: “We’ve got an unusual majority, so let’s take the opportunity to push our old agenda through.” That kind of blindness to the things that got them elected has set them up for a potentially rude awakening in 2018, when they’ll miss a chance to increase their majority in the Senate, and may get walloped in the House.
Republicans have to develop a better sense of their constituents’ actual needs, and they really need to prioritize a message to their youngest constituents. The majority of young Americans are people of color, did not graduate from college, and are likely underemployed or in stagnant positions. You need a more nationalist economic agenda, one less focused on cutting taxes for the well-to-do and more designed to provide help for people struggling to do better. If Republicans do that, they will do better among young Hispanic voters, who may be trying, for example, to go to community college.
If Republicans run on this kind of Rudy Giuliani–style Republicanism, economically vulnerable young voters of all backgrounds will find them more attractive. The same approach might make them less appealing to the college-educated young people in professional industries because the rhetoric would be culturally conservative and the tax policy would be geared toward families and middle-earners. But that upper-class slice of young voters doesn’t present the best shot for GOP growth in the near term.
EDSALL: I agree with you about the political importance for both Republicans and Democrats of appealing to people of color, Hispanic voters, people struggling to do better, and economically vulnerable young voters of all backgrounds. Another point: people often raise the possibility of a third-party candidate who could bridge the gap that we’re talking about—appealing to cultural liberals and middle-class voters who stand to benefit from pro-industry policies. But I think that gaining traction from outside the two-party structure remains daunting. A third-party candidate would need to start with $1 billion just to get off the ground. So you have to start with a billionaire. And they tend to be individuals and not party people—like a Ross Perot. They’re not coherent in the sense of knowing how they want to allocate resources. As for a “centrist” third-party candidate, the trouble is that such a position is so bland that it won’t appeal to anyone. We have a very polarized electorate. Michael Bloomberg, for example, could say, “I’m going to represent reasonable, thoughtful solutions.” People just drop off to sleep. And then you have the challenges in getting on the ballot everywhere, and where do you campaign? You’re no longer targeting the 15 battleground states; you might be all over the map. Our whole structure is geared to two parties.
OLSEN: That’s right. Third-party candidates usually run into that wall. Sometimes they attract a committed following, but it’s always far short of a majority. Trump did something different: he took a minority of voters and created a plurality within the Republican Party, launched a hostile takeover, and then used the party’s institutional machinery to launch an attack on the other party. That cannot readily be duplicated.
A true third-party candidate would have almost no chance of being elected absent the sort of economic downturn that we hope not to see. If we had a massive economic depression, for instance, and voters saw both parties as irresponsible or out of touch, one could imagine it happening. But there’s no sign that that’s where we’re heading.
For now, the two parties and the coalitions that they’re appealing to are largely set in place. A Republican presidential candidate who tried to gain the votes of more moderate, upper-class voters would have to position himself in a way that might risk losing the support of other voters. Why? Because the sort of independent voters who backed moderate conservatives like Charlie Baker in Massachusetts would never vote for a pro-life candidate, while to hold on to the Southern evangelicals, the moderate Republican nominee would have to pretend, at least, to be pro-life.
You have to play in a way that retains your base while attracting just enough new voters to gain a majority. Eventually, after exhausting every alternative, one of the two parties will coalesce around a platform that looks like the Scott Walker policy model, but on a national level. That’s how I see it. It’s up to Republican leaders to secure their political majority and governing mandate.
Top Photo: Republicans nominated a disrupter, and won. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
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