Tuesday, April 12, 2016

What Rough Beast Slouches Toward Cleveland To Be Born?

(Title inspired by Yeats and this tweet from the incomparable Sarah Kendzior.)

I have never lived through a presidential election this volatile and unpredictable. At the start of the year, against my better judgment I made some predictions, one of which was that Trump would have dropped out at sometime in March, and also that Rubio would eventually get the nomination. I was drastically wrong on both counts, but mostly because I was working from false pretenses, which is the usual reason why predictions fail.  I assumed that the fundamentals of our post-Watergate political system were still functioning. They are not.

Since about the mid-1970s both parties have had a pretty established structure. Around that time the old Democratic party of union halls, ward bosses, and blue dog Democrats was fading away. New Democrats like Gary Hart in the Senate and Bill Clinton in the Arkansas governor’s mansion pointed to a new technocratic party elite rarely beholden to the grievances of the rank and file. With the decline of labor’s power and the death of the old urban machines, the party became an agglomeration of interest groups with a heterodox ideological environment.

The Republicans were becoming an unquestionably conservative party, its liberal elements purged out. It was a party that had grabbed Christian and Southern conservatives, running on a platform of aggressive foreign policy, smaller government, and values issues. While a fractious base often lashed out, the party elite’s hold was never seriously challenged.

This year, that has all changed. The parties look weak, their power shaken and their respective bases calling the tune. The high levels of support for Sanders reflect a Democratic party that is becoming much more ideologically cohesive, having finally shed the blue dogs. After years of Clintonian New Democrat compromise, the Obama years have given progressives a measure of confidence, and less patience for triangulation.  The technocrats might not be displaced this year, but I think that the party activists are not going to go back asleep. Sanders' campaign has brought talk of redistribution out in the open, and reclaimed social democracy.

Things are more extreme on the Republican side. The iron triangle of interventionism, supply side economics, and Bible thumping is in danger of being broken by a populist nationalism that wants to preserve the welfare state for white people and has zero interest in a robust foreign policy beyond carpet bombing, while being relatively indifferent to abortion and gay rights. Pat Buchanan stirred up the entho-nationalism elements in the Republican party back in 1992, but also wedded it to the culture wars, something Trump has not done.

On that point, times have changed. As America has become remarkably less religiously observant over the last two decades, the Religious Right threatens to be more a millstone rather than a catalyst for the GOP. Recent events in North Carolina are a pretty good example of how following the whims of the Bible thumpers is now carrying real consequences. An even bigger change threatens the harmony of the Republican Party, though: the 40 year erosion of the middle class. (This has also been, I think, a big factor in Democrats supporting more openly redistributionist policies.) Supply side economics have been a tremendous failure, something that I think a lot of middle and working class Republicans know in their hearts to be true. The Paul Ryan types can prattle all they want about capital gains taxes and the inheritance tax, but your average Republican could give a fuck about that. In fact, they want secure retirements and a better life for their kids and grandkids.  People like Ryan don't really have a whole lot to offer them.

This all makes me wonder what will happen in Cleveland, and more broadly to the GOP. The wealthy donors hold an insane amount of power, but at the end of the day, they have not been able to stop the insurgency. (Just look at the spectacle of Jeb Bush's $100 million going up in smoke.) Trump is too feckless to play the game of delegate assemblage, and so may well go down in flames like the Cuyahoga River. There will be other Trumps, however, who will have a similar appeal, and maybe a bit more organization and grit. The Republicans are increasingly looking like three parties: a small group of economic libertarians, a large group of populist nationalists, and a sizable but shrinking cadre of religious zealots. Business as usual in that party will not survive the year. 

The political structure of the past forty years, which may well be crumbling, rested on a kind of new consensus that accepted the validity of neoliberal economics. (Hence Bill Clinton deregulating banks and cutting welfare despite being a "liberal.") Now that those policies have assisted in the destruction of the broad middle class, the parties that promoted them are being shaken to their foundations. I don't know how much discontinuity our two party system will allow for, but I do think that things won't be the same after this year.

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