Analysis Top Story

Realignment Less Likely Than Republican Split

Before the two major parties in the United States can realign, the Republicans need to split up.

Republican National Convention Tampa Florida
Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, August 30, 2012 (Think Out Loud)

Donald Trump’s seemingly unstoppable march to the Republican Party’s presidential nomination could be the harbinger of a political realignment in the United States.

Lee Drutman argues at Vox that the Republicans are split between a growing nationalist-populist wing and a pragmatic, pro-business wing. The latter is often called the “establishment” and has prevailed in every presidential contest since Barry Goldwater won the nomination in 1964.

This year could be its undoing.


Drutman senses a parallel division on the left, between a pro-corporate, socially liberal faction represented by Hillary Clinton and a far-left, antibusiness wing that is now rallying around Bernie Sanders.

As Drutman sees it, the more centrist, cosmopolitan, mostly urban and liberal elements in both parties should ultimately converge into a new Democratic Party. The Republicans would then become the party of suburban and rural nationalist populism.

He is not the only one making this prediction. Michael Lind might have been there first when he argued much the same in Breakthrough Journal in 2014.

Both would admit it’s still a faraway prospect. And before it comes to that, a schism on the right — as we described a few days ago — may be necessary.

Back to basics

In 1995, Dean Acheson, who was Harry Truman’s secretary of state, argued in A Democrat Looks at His Party that the Republicans of his time were the party of business and the powerful and the Democrats the party of everybody else. Republicans were a “single-interest party,” Acheson wrote; Democrats a “many-interest” one.

That second part hasn’t changed. Matt Grossmann and David A. Hopkins, two political scientists, wrote in The Washington Post last year that the Republican Party is best understood as the agent of the conservative movement. Republican voters are united by their devotion to limited government and “consistently seek a more conservative and uncompromising party,” they argued.

Democrats, by contrast, are largely attracted to the party for reasons of group interest or identity rather than a devotion to the principles of liberalism. Hence Democratic leaders face a strong incentive to govern pragmatically in order to deliver concrete programs and benefits to their partisan constituencies. Single interest versus many interests.

Party of the fearful

But the Democratic Party is no longer just the party of the powerless and the unsuccessful.

When the parties last realigned in the 1960s and 70s as a result of the Democrats’ support for civil rights, the seeds of the current crisis on the right were sown. Disaffected Southern whites moved into the Republican Party and began spoiling its enterprising, can-do mentality.

Brad DeLong recently argued that by the time Bill Clinton claimed the “winners” label for the Democrats in the 1990s (“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow!”) and won over those fairly well-off middle-class voters who had supported Ronald Reagan just a few years earlier, the Republicans had been transformed “from the party of those confident who feel they have a lot to gain into the party of those scared who feel that they had something to lose.”

Whether they fear civil rights that would take their race privilege and assorted economic advantages, feminism that would take their gender privilege and assorted economic advantages, social democracy with its progressive taxes that would eat away at their wealth, new technologies or new people or simply change itself […] they all fear and they all ally together.

Add to that an inflated fear of terrorism and George W. Bush’s two election victories in the last decade make sense — as the last breath of an America that has seen the twenty-first century and would rather go back.

Donald Trump does one better. Sure, he promises to “make America great again,” but his message is not really one of optimism or success. This website has argued that Trump appeals to white, working-class voters who have been on the losing side of every major argument in the last twenty years, from the culture wars about feminism and gay rights to free trade and globalization.

Barack Obama’s election in 2008 encapsulated the demise of the America they knew: a black president elected to end a war and provide universal health insurance would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

We have also argued that mainstream Republicans have been complicit in Trump’s rise. They encouraged the anti-Obama sentiment for their own short-term political gain and have now lost control of the monster it created.

Letting go

The straightforward thing to do would be for sensible Republican voters to switch to the Democrats.

The Democrats could then truly become the party of the middle class: internationalist, outward-looking, relaxed about changing demographics and social norms.

Some reactionary Democrats would defect to the Republican Party which ends up becoming what Acheson said the Democrats were half a century ago: the party of the left behind. Except it would look more like the nationalist parties of Europe: an anti-immigrant, inward-looking Front américain.

The problem is that many sensible Republicans aren’t relaxed about changing social norms and have for years voted against Democratic tax-and-spend policies.

Some of them may hold their noses and vote for Hillary Clinton in November; in a highly polarized America, where party affiliation has become a defining factor in many people’s sense of identity, switching to the other side is a daunting prospect.

It will take more than two or three presidential election defeats to change minds. The Trump revolt needs to run its course so the #NeverTrump Republicans can say they didn’t abandon their party but the party abandoned them.

Until then, they are in for a kind of political upheaval that America hasn’t seen in decades.