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Party Realignment in the Trump Era: Right Populists vs. Progressives

An engineer by education, Fitzgerald is a part-time writer with interests in history, science, politics, geography, literature, and poetry.

Donald Trump campaigning in 2016 at a rally in Arizona. Photograph by Gage Skidmor, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (release to the public domain with some rights reserved for attribution to the photographer).

Donald Trump campaigning in 2016 at a rally in Arizona. Photograph by Gage Skidmor, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (release to the public domain with some rights reserved for attribution to the photographer).

The Sixth Shift

The United States is undergoing a political realignment. There have been at least five realignments in U.S. history, and it is my contention that the 2016 election represents a sixth. A realignment is a shift in political ideology that is funneled into existing parties, changing their dynamic, including policies and priorities, or causing a new party to emerge, representing a new dynamic. In 2016, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States as a Republican. He had previously been a Democrat and supported some liberal values, including abortion.

Now as a Republican, he has embraced many traditionally conservative values but rejected fiscal conservative doctrines, including rolling back the social safety net and free trade. (You can argue how he has governed versus how he ran, but party dynamics can be messy and many fiscal conservatives that Trump had to work within his first two years have now left politics, the party altogether, or have embraced Trump and what he ran on, leaving behind calls for balanced budgets.) He also rejected the neoconservative positions on foreign interventionism—most Bushites are gone or largely marginalized in the Trump administration.

Right Populism Emerges: What Does It Want?

Trump saw a political opportunity and formed a coalition of many previous Democratic voters, who were typically blue-collar working class, concentrated in the Midwest along with longtime Republicans, who felt their priorities were marginalized by Republican elites, and took over the Republican Party. He won the nomination and then the country. You may say: but he barely won! He lost the popular vote! Yes, but he did win the nomination as a newly minted Republican out of a very large field of candidates that represented at least every major facet of the previous Republican Party doctrine.

However, if Trump had lost the general election, he would likely have been seen as an aberration and his coalition again largely ignored by the Republican establishment. But, regardless of how he won, he did win based on the rules of winning the presidency in the United States. His victory cemented the change he represents—at least within one major party.

The Republican Party After Trump's Rise

Trump’s coalition has now largely captured the Republican Party and excised from it the fiscal conservatives and neoconservatives (neocons). I would call this new coalition the Right Populists. While they're made up of many existing Republicans, they now include blue-collar working class voters, many of whom were previously Democratic voters. The old-guard Republicans who cannot stomach Trump or his policies have mostly left the party.

Towards Right Populism

The doctrine of the Right Populists voters is generally nationalistic, viewing globalization negatively, holding conservative social values, are economic populists (i.e. focused on working class concerns as opposed to big business), are anxious about immigration and changing racial demographics, and want to avoid foreign intervention. Of course, many of these views were held by the old Republican Party, except for the economic populism (which aligned more with the old-Democratic Party) and the new aversion to foreign interventions (The Democratic Party also embraced a form of interventionism).

The other significant change is a shift in priority given to many issues like immigration. Of course, this has been a Republican issue for many years, but was generally given a lower priority until Trump (at least in terms of policy, if not necessarily rhetoric). So the core of the Republican Party remains, but with new voters, many of whom were former Democrats, and absent old-elites.

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Democrats Becoming Progressives: The Other Side of the Coin

The Democratic Party has also shifted priorities and doctrine, with the result of pushing out many white working class voters, as working class priorities are no longer party priorities. Instead, the Democrats have focused economic priories towards an urban, college-educated, diverse, and younger population who hold much more culturally liberal values, while many of the working class voters hold much more culturally conservative values.

What Is "Progressive"?

This shift in priorities within the Democratic party is coming from a movement that I will call Progressives. Progressives believe in socialism, identity politics, multiculturalism, and generally liberal cultural values. The Democrats have prioritized minority needs since the Civil Rights Act of 1965; they have since been accused of playing identity politics. The passing of the Civil Rights Act also began the process of shifting southern Democrats to the Republican Party (with a counter-flow of minorities to the Democratic Party). This shift is now complete and has been for some time.

Identity Politics

What has changed within the Democratic Party is that Progressives reject a classical liberal ideology and instead embrace a true identity politics based on categorizing everyone by identity group, classifying certain groups as victims with societal grievances, real or perceived, and other groups as privileged purveyors of power, whether known or unknown by any individual within a particular group. You could say the Progressives have rejected Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision regarding identity (i.e. this should not matter except on moral grounds) and embraced Malcolm X's views. This classification system creates good groups and bad groups. The new ideology is now pushing out some former Democratic Party voters, usually members of a bad group—i.e., white working class. This shift is ongoing.

Embrace of Socialism

The other significant change within the Democratic Party pushed by Progressives is an unabashed embrace of socialism. There can be legitimate debate about exactly what socialism actually means and whether the U.S. has adopted a form of socialism since at least the Roosevelt administration. One can also argue that Right Populist economic views are aligned with some aspects of socialism. However, I argue, to put it simply: Progressives want to minimize, to a great extent, capitalism as a whole (if not out-right eliminate it); while Right Populists want to work within capitalism to minimize the excesses.

The Democratic Party has not completely surrendered to the Progressives as of yet. But, the Progressives are winning. Most of the 2020 Presidential candidates are self-described "progressives", but more importantly, most have embraced Progressive ideology regardless of what they call themselves. It is to be seen whether a true Progressive wins the nomination and then the White House to cement the shift within the Democratic Party. But, even in a loss, the Democrats may have burned the ships behind them, in an attempt to forge a path towards a new coalition.

Implications

Regardless, the shift within the Democratic Party is clearly underway as it has been completed within the Republican Party. You can argue that once Trump is gone, the parties will shift back. But this would mean that Trump loses in 2020 to a likely Progressive Democrat, cementing that party to the Progressives, but with no clear path for the Republicans to win under the old dynamic. Or if Trump wins in 2020, then clearly his coalition will be seen as a winner by Republicans.

The political shift means that 2020 and future elections will take on a different dynamic. Swing states will shift, as will voter patterns. The 2017 tax cut may be the last hurrah of the fiscal conservatives for a while. Foreign affairs will change to become much less involved in world affairs. The so-called culture war continues, but with a new dynamic as many white voters with a less multicultural world-view will feel out of place within the new Progressive-Democratic Party and may start voting more like minorities likely within the Populists-Republican Party (one can argue this has been the case for a while, but if so this trend will only accelerate).

As this plays out, the politics of the old era are over. Of course, the issues people vote on don't go away, but merely transform and adapt along with political parties. The new era is here. A new politics is underway. The shift will have implications for at least a generation. What happens in these next elections will define much of the next century for the United States and the world.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2019 W J Fitzgerald

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