Talking about realignment

Further to Monday’s thoughts about American party politics, I’ve just read a piece from last week in Politico by Michael Lind. It’s well worth a look.

Lind’s claim is that rather than this year’s election marking the beginning of a period of partisan realignment, it actually marks the end of one. Voter allegiance from here on, he thinks, will be more stable for a while, but policy positions will continue shifting to catch up.

Roughly speaking, he thinks the Democrats will become a more free-trade internationalist party, to match their educated middle class electorate, while the Republicans will become more nationalist and dirigiste.

This is not the first time he’s made this argument: for example, here’s a similar effort from April in the New York Times.

Lind, who started out in the 1990s as a neoconservative, now has a reputation as a bit of an eccentric. And you can see why, when you read passages like this:

The rise of populist nationalism on the right is paralleled by the rise of multicultural globalism on the center-left.

For multicultural globalists, national boundaries are increasingly obsolete and perhaps even immoral. According to the emerging progressive orthodoxy, the identities that count are subnational (race, gender, orientation) and supranational (citizenship of the world). While not necessarily representative of Democratic voters, progressive pundits and journalists increasingly speak a dialect of ethical cosmopolitanism or globalism — the idea that it is unjust to discriminate in favor of one’s fellow nationals against citizens of foreign countries.

This difference in worldviews maps neatly into differences in policy. Nationalists support immigration and trade deals only if they improve the living standards of citizens of the nation. For the new, globally minded progressives, the mere well-being of American workers is not a good enough reason to oppose immigration or trade liberalization.

But although this is greatly overstated – whatever some “progressive pundits” might say, there’s no way mainstream centre-left politicians are going to abandon the language of patriotism – I do think there’s a core of truth in it.

Bernie Sanders and his “socialism” may have obscured the extent to which the Democratic Party has become friendly to free market policies. Contrary to what you might expect, it’s now Democrats rather than Republicans who are more likely to support free trade agreements, as a Pew Centre survey (cited by Lind) this year revealed.

I’m not sure that immigration is quite so central as Lind makes out, but it does seem as if the days when it was commonplace to support free movement for goods but not people (or sometimes vice versa) are coming to an end. For Donald Trump, like his ideological allies on the European far right, hostility to immigration and to free trade form a seamless whole; his opponents may be coming around to the same point of view. (Although note that support for free trade is quite compatible with opposition to mercantilist vehicles like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.)

It’s another question whether, as Lind seems to assume, the Trumpite Republican Party will abandon its support for policies that favor Wall Street and other giant corporate interests. Given the historical record of fascism in making its peace with the corporate sector, I think that’s unlikely. Monopoly capitalists are quite capable of throwing free enterprise overboard along with other freedoms, in return for protection of their special privileges.

Meanwhile the Democrats are gravitating more to, in Lind’s somewhat hyperbolic words, an “emerging progressive ideology of post-national cosmopolitanism [that] will fit nicely with urban economies which depend on finance, tech and other industries of global scope.”

Realignment is not a new idea. Twelve years ago, when John Kerry lost narrowly to George Bush junior, I remarked that “The Democrats are becoming more the party of the educated, the secular and the cosmopolitan, while their opponents attract the ignorant, the nativists and the fundamentalists.” Critics pointed out that voting Republican was still positively correlated with wealth and education, but that missed the force of the word “becoming” – I was talking about a trend, not an established fact.

Now one can be much more confident about that trend. Lind’s extrapolation of it into the 2020s and 2030s is certainly speculative, but it no longer seems absurd.

The one major thing that Lind doesn’t really deal with is gender. The Democrats’ relative advantage among female voters is big and getting bigger; the Republicans risk becoming not just “a party of mostly working-class whites,” but a party of working-class white males. And while I think Lind is right to say that Democrats shouldn’t take the continued allegiance of Hispanic voters for granted, the continued desertion of the Republicans by white women would more than make up for any losses on that front.



2 thoughts on “Talking about realignment

  1. I’m not convinced. However much the Democrats have moved to the right on economic issues, the Republicans in turn have drifted further and further right. For instance, New York governor Andrew Cuomo might be emblematic as the prototypical socially liberal, economically rational Democrat. But whilst some consider him to have betrayed working class interests, he’s still a far cry from the anti-tax fundamentalism of Kansas governor Sam Brownback. So what we’ve seen isn’t so much a realignment as a rightward shift in the political centre of gravity.

    In fact I would argue that the Democrats have tacked left a little bit recently. The Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank are classic social democratic responses to market failure. In all likelihood, a Hillary Clinton administration will look more the Obama administration than her husband’s. I don’t think success of Bernie Sanders is an aberration either. I expect the Sanders/Warren faction of the Democrats to become larger and more influential.

    Lind argues that the economic interests of the Republican base will eventually trump the ideological inclinations of Republican office holders. But that ignores the fact that the GOP has become more and more extreme in its anti-government ideology at the same time as its base has become more and more lower class. Whilst the Donald may not completely subscribe to this economic agenda, I just don’t see him or anyone else changing the party in the medium term. It’s too ingrained.


  2. Thanks David. Look, I’m not fully convinced either: I think there’s a real trend there, but just how it will play out in coming years is very hard to pick. I agree that “a rightward shift in the political centre of gravity” is a good description of what’s happened in some respects; on issues like tax and financial regulation that seems to work. On other issues, less so: compared to say 30 years ago, it seem the Republicans are more likely to be anti-immigration and the Democrats pro. Much the same may be happening on trade.

    As to the Republicans’ extreme “anti-government ideology”, I think you’ve got to look at what parties do as well as what they say. The Republicans are very big on cutting taxes for rich people and welfare for poor people (particularly poor non-white people), but I don’t see much enthusiasm in practice for a general downsizing of government. Lind thinks that eventually the rhetoric will come to match the reality on that score, and he may be right.


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