Saturday, June 15, 2019

The New Party Configuration


For the symposium on Sanford Levinson and Jack M. Balkin, Democracy and Dysfunction (University of Chicago Press, 2019).

In my last two posts, I explained why we are likely to see a new constitutional regime with the Democrats as the dominant party. I argued that asymmetric polarization and demographic trends have made it difficult for the Republican Party to reproduce itself in the next generation of voters.

To understand what the politics of the next several decades will look like, it is important to recognize how the slow changes in the composition of the two major parties have reshaped (1) their demographics, (2) the issues on which they face off against each other, and (3) the issues that internally divide them.  The two parties today are very different from the ones that existed at the close of the New Deal/Civil Rights regime in the late 1970s.

To explain the new party configuration, I will draw on a 2016 article by Julia Azari and Marc Hetherington. They point out that the electoral maps of recent elections look much like the electoral map in 1896, but with the parties reversed. In a pair of articles published in 2003 and 2008, Gary Miller and Norman Schofield have also emphasized the analogy to 1896, and they have offered a theory of why the party coalitions have evolved in the way they did. The discussion that follows builds on all of these scholars' work.

In 1896 the parties were opposed on issues of social identity (race being the most important) and internally divided on questions of class and economic inequality. Ever since Reconstruction, the Democratic and Republican parties had fought about issues produced by the Civil War, while suppressing growing differences within each party over how to deal with rapid economic, social, and technological change, and the economic inequality that resulted.  Following the 1896 election, these internal fissures became increasingly pronounced, and the parties slowly began to evolve, with many immigrants and urban workers joining rural voters in the Democratic Party. This created the possibility of a new coalition organized around the regulation of business and the protection of labor. By FDR's election in 1932, the parties now faced off on issues of class and economic inequality, while both parties were internally divided on social issues, and—especially for the Democrats—race. Republicans—the party of Lincoln—were still considered the more egalitarian party on racial issues for some time. Democrats, by contrast, had to continually manage the tension between their Southern wing, which was committed to Jim Crow and White Supremacy, and their Northern liberal wing, which was friendlier to black civil rights.

This process of party evolution continued throughout the New Deal/Civil Rights Regime. The presidential wing of the Democratic Party favored racial liberalism. Eventually this alienated many Southern whites, as well as many working class white ethnics in the North and West, the so-called Nixon Democrats and Reagan Democrats. Republicans gladly welcomed these disaffected Democrats into the party. Republican politicians eventually realized that they could simultaneously expand their coalition and destroy the New Deal coalition by emphasizing race and culture war issues that appealed to white working class voters.

During the Reagan regime, the party successfully neutered organized labor, which had been a key Democratic constituency. Perhaps equally important, the Republican Party adopted a strategy of political polarization to gain majority status. Republican politicians successfully used cultural and racial wedge issues to turn the South Republican and to cater to evangelical Christians and other working class whites.

But this strategy of cultural polarization had unintended consequences. Many college-educated Republican voters, including Northeastern moderates, suburbanites, and professionals, became increasingly disaffected and became Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents. Meanwhile, national Democratic Party leaders, including Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, actively sought support from businesses and professionals, especially in the financial and technology sectors. This reshuffling of allegiances slowly transformed the Democratic coalition. The Democrats regained their competitiveness nationally, but the New Deal coalition was not coming back.

The Republican strategy of political polarization and culture war, and the Democrats’ appeal to socially liberal college graduates and professionals, eventually changed the composition of both parties. Before the Reagan regime began, each party was organized around issue of class and economic power. Today, at the close of the Reagan regime, each party is organized around issues of identity and status.  Republicans have long accused Democrats of engaging in identity politics—that is, catering to the interests of women, homosexuals, and minorities. But the contemporary Republican Party is no less organized around identity—in this case, white and Christian identity.   Under the Tea Party and Donald Trump, party activists have perfected the party’s politics of rage and grievance—the Republican version of identity politics.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the parties are once again opposed to each other on issues of identity (race, ethnicity, religion, social liberalism) and internally divided on issues of class and economic inequality.  This continuous rotation of positions has produced the reverse of the 1896 election that Azari, Hetherington, Miller, and Schofield noted.

As before, the arrangement is not perfectly symmetrical. The Democrats—the Party of FDR— continue to favor egalitarian economic and social policies. The Democratic "brand" is economically liberal, and the Republican "brand" is economically conservative. But the presidential wing of the Democratic party—Obama and the Clintons—welcomed socially liberal college-educated professionals and neo-liberals into their party. They sought contributions from wealthy corporate donors.

Meanwhile, organized labor, debilitated in the Reagan regime, became a less powerful factor in Democratic politics than it had been in the heyday of the New Deal coalition. Ironically, Republicans helped transform the Democratic Party by doing everything in their power to destroy and defund unions, leading Democrats to look elsewhere for new voters. Democrats became increasingly a coalition of educated cosmopolitans, women, minorities, and white working class voters who still remained in the party. The influx of new voters led the Democrats to a pro-immigration stance.  Meanwhile, the Republicans have become a coalition of corporate and business interests, evangelical Christians, and socially conservative working class whites. Their new voters have led the Republican party, which was once quite pro-immigration, to become increasingly hostile to immigration.

Although the parties are now squared off on issues of culture and identity, both parties are likely to witness internal fights over economic justice and class issues. The expression of these conflicts about economic justice, however, will be different in both parties.

First, class conflicts will play out differently in each party because each party has different ideas about identity and race.  As we saw with Obamacare and its Medicaid expansion, Republicans will find it difficult to support economically egalitarian reforms that get coded as benefiting racial minorities. Instead, Republican reformers will be drawn to economic reforms that they can successfully label as “family-friendly” and cannot be racialized by reform opponents.

Second, conflicts over class will play out differently in each party because the two parties’ “brands” are different.  The Democrats are far more egalitarian on multiple dimensions and generally support increasing national power, while the Republican "brand" remains economically conservative, small-government and orientated toward states.

This new party configuration is important for two reasons. First, it limits the kind and degree of transformative change that is possible in the near future. Second, it creates the seeds of depolarization. I’ll discuss these issues in my next two installments.

Posts in this series:

1. Escaping Dysfunction
2. Cycle of Presidents or Cycle of Regimes?
3. How Polarization Leads to Disjunction-- There Must be Fifty Ways to Leave Your Party
4. The New Party Configuration
5. The Limits of a Cosmopolitan Party
6. How Constitutional Rot Ends

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