The Great Realignment

While the Republican candidates for the presidency in 2012 were still battling in the primaries, Mr Obama singled out front-runner (and eventual nominee) Mitt Romney to compare educations. Two degrees from Harvard instead of one? “Snob” Mr Obama joked.

It’s looking more and more like a Trump-Clinton race. What I can’t get over is the fact that of the two parties’ candidates, the one most hostile to the Neoliberal paradigm, and most well-positioned as an outsider candidate threatening the status quo, will be the Republican candidate.Wow.

The populist candidate will be the Republican rather than the Democrat.

Think about how extraordinary that is. The Republicans have historically self-identified as “conservative” and been viewed through the twentieth century as the party of sober, responsible upper-class managerial elites dedicated to holding back the radical leftist tide which would lead to what they perceived as “mob rule.” The Democrats, in contrast, were seen as the party of the working man, the little guy, defending unions and fighting against the powerful insiders for working-class benefits like better pay, better working conditions, and social programs to combat poverty and promote equality. Republicans were the responsible middle-managers, businessmen and CEO’s; the Democrats were the wild-eyed proletarian radicals fighting oppression, sticking flowers in gun barrels and protesting against the “man.” Republicans were white-collar accountants who wanted balanced budgets and leave-it-alone capitalism; Democrats were blue-collar populists who wanted the government to take on injustice.

At least, that’s how it used to be. In fact, many people still think it is that way. Either that, or they spin the narrative that both parties have become “equally extreme” toward divergent ends of an arbitrary political spectrum of opinion (as defined by the opinion-makers themselves).

The Republicans will be fielding the outsider candidate opposed to free trade, globalism, militarism, and loose immigration policies, while the Democrats will be fielding a soundly Neoliberal candidate in favor of all those things, surrounded by Neocon foreign policy advisors, and whose major appeal is feminist identity politics and “experience.”

How did this happen?

It’s a major historical realignment, the third of three that have happened over the postwar period. Hence it’s a very big deal.

In a world of Trumpism and Clintonism, Democrats would become the party of globalist-minded elites, both economic and cultural, while Republicans would become the party of the working class. Democrats would win backing from those who support expanded trade and immigration, while Republicans would win the support of those who prefer less of both. Erstwhile neocons would go over to Democrats (as they are already promising to do), while doves and isolationists would stick with Republicans. Democrats would remain culturally liberal, while Republicans would remain culturally conservative.

The combination of super-rich Democrats and poor Democrats would exacerbate internal party tensions, but the party would probably resort to forms of appeasement that are already in use. To their rich constituents, Democrats offer more trade, more immigration, and general globalism. To their non-rich constituents, they offer the promise of social justice, which critics might call identity politics. That’s one reason why Democrats have devoted so much attention to issues such as transgender rights, sexual assault on campus, racial disparities in criminal justice, and immigration reform. The causes may be worthy—and they attract sincere advocates—but politically they’re also useful. They don’t bother rich people.

Why Democrats are Becoming the Party of the 1 Percent (Vanity Fair)

The first of these realignments I detailed over a recent series of posts. As African-Americans found their sharecropping jobs automated out of existence across the Deep South, they uprooted themselves and migrated en masse to the Industrial cities of the Atlantic Seaboard, Ohio Valley, Great Lakes, and Southern California. Arriving virtually penniless, they sought work in America’s booming industrial economy during the “all hands on deck” phase of postwar capitalism. As the factory jobs were first suburbanized, then automated and offshored out of existence over the succeeding thirty years, this population became a perennial urban underclass, increasingly reliant on government welfare checks and food stamps to survive as work dried up and vanished (and totally ignored by the mainstream media and academics, as I argued in those posts).

This trend coincided with the construction of the Interstate Highway System and the rise of the automobile. Public transportation was de-funded to keep blacks trapped in urban ghettos, while whites got in their cars and fled to white separatist enclaves in the cornfields and marshlands surrounding the cities, forming a parallel society where jobs were still abundant and incomes were still rising. At the same time, as America deindustrialized and air conditioning became standard, many major corporations relocated to the low-tax and low-regulation, non-unionized states of the South and Sunbelt, causing a major population shift away from the older, industrial regions of the country. The migration from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt caused shrinking populations and declining fortunes in the older, industrial areas of the North and East where most blacks now lived, further exacerbating white/black racial tensions.The political union of fleeing suburban whites with their socially-conservative backwoods rural cousins was animated primarily by a shared hatred of urban blacks and, due to social engineering, the federal government. This became the guiding philosophy of the “new” Republican party. Republicans ran as outsiders spinning a tale of Americans’ own government being some sort of outside, alien force that they promised to “wreak havoc” upon and “make squeal” like a pig.

When they got there, of course, nothing of the sort happened. Legislatively what occurred was a rollback of taxes on the richest Americans and a shredding of the social safety net. Anti-tax fervor translated into big tax cuts for the rich and a lack of oversight for cooperate malfeasance and open season for tax avoidance. Avoiding “inference” meant letting corporations do as they wished to workers. Stripping workers of union protections caused rising profits and out-of-control inequality.

The Democrats, for their part, continued to press for issues of racial equality and justice, further alienating downscale whites. Democrats became the party of “big government” – a government dedicated to large-scale social engineering in the interests of pursuing equality for people most whites regarded as their natural inferiors. Government became a dirty word, and taxes were seen as stealing from industrious white labor to fund the indigence of an urban, black underclass. The Republicans became the “white party” and Democrats the “black party.”

In other words, Southern whites who wanted to keep Jim Crow intact had plenty of reasons to steadily desert the Democratic Party and join the GOP starting around World War II. By the early 60s they were primed and ready to begin a massive exodus from the increasingly black-friendly Democratic Party, and exit they did. Barry Goldwater, the 1964 GOP nominee, refused to support the Civil Rights Act that year, and influential conservative thinkers like William F. Buckley were decidedly unfriendly toward black equality. This made the Republican Party more and more appealing to Southern white racists, and by 1968 Richard Nixon decided to explicitly reach out to them with a campaign based on states’ rights and “law and order.” Over the next two decades, the Democratic Party became ever less tolerant of racist sentiment and the exodus continued. By 1994, when Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich won a landslide victory in the midterm elections, the transition of the white South from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican was basically complete.

Why Did Democrats Lose the White South? (Kevin Drum)

Here’s a good recounting of the history:

…The new middle-­class utopia did, of course, exclude most nonwhite Americans. Although average incomes for nonwhites increased at about the same rate as incomes for whites in the postwar years, in 1959 the black poverty rate was still 56 percent, and blacks on average earned 53 percent what whites did. What could be said for the midcentury middle class, though, is that it generally worked astonishingly well for those who were lucky enough to be part of it — particularly for blue-­collar workers. Probably no one in American history has achieved prosperity with the velocity of the men who grew up destitute in the Depression and, by their 30s, had factory jobs that paid (in 2016 dollars) upward of $50,000 a year.

The white- and blue-­collar middle classes each tended to vote Democratic, which made sense: The new middle class’s good fortune was the combined product of the New Deal, postwar Keynesian economic policy, the G.I. Bill, organized labor and government-­backed mortgages. But in retrospect, the Democrats’ hold on the white middle class was balanced precariously on the racial status quo — which, by the mid-­1960s, was breaking apart. George Wallace, the segregationist Democratic governor of Alabama who ran for president in 1964 in protest of Lyndon B. Johnson’s turn toward civil rights, performed well not just in the South but also in white blue-­collar enclaves in the few Northern states where he was on the primary ballot. When he ran again as an independent in 1968, the members of the United Auto Workers Union local at the General Motors plant in Flint, Mich., voted to endorse him.

By 1984, the extent of the damage to the Democrats’ postwar coalition had become clear. That spring, Ronald Reagan’s campaign aired its “Morning in America” ad, a Vaseline-­lensed montage of overwhelmingly white suburban prosperity. Walter Mondale — the son of a small-­town Minnesota minister whose politics radiated an austere, Scandinavian morality — spent the last days of his campaign unfurling increasingly dire pictures of urban and rural poverty and beseeching people to vote for an “America of fairness.” Speaking bitterly of Reagan’s commercial, he told a crowd at a church in Cleveland: “It’s all picket fences and puppy dogs. No one’s hurting. No one’s alone. No one’s hungry. No one’s unemployed. No one gets old. Everybody’s happy.” But Americans liked the picket fences and puppy dogs. Reagan swept every state in the country save Minnesota and the District of Columbia.

Not long afterward, Stanley Greenberg, a 40-­year-­old Yale political scientist who moonlighted as a political pollster, was contacted by a group of Democratic Party and union officials in Michigan. They asked him to help explain what had happened that November in Macomb County outside Detroit. In 1960, Macomb voted for John F. Kennedy by a larger margin than any suburban county in the country. In 1984, it voted for Reagan by a margin of 33 percentage points. “The sense was that if we could figure out what happened in Macomb County, Democrats would go a long way toward righting the ship,” Rick Wiener, the chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party at the time, told me recently.

In one sense, what had happened was obvious. The postwar suburbs in general had been a racial fortress, their homogeneity enforced by a web of government policies and unofficial restrictions making it difficult for nonwhites to own property in them, and few more so than Detroit’s. The white ex-­Democrats whom Greenberg’s team interviewed, he later wrote, “expressed a profound distaste for black Americans, a sentiment that pervaded almost everything they thought about government and politics. Blacks constituted the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything that had gone wrong in their lives; not being black was what constituted being middle class.”

Still, Greenberg noted, Macomb voters had not defected en masse from the Democratic Party until after years of worsening economic circumstances — and until they perceived the Democrats as not only having taken up the banner of the urban poor and nonwhites but also having abandoned the white middle class. “These voters wondered why they weren’t the central drama of the Democratic Party,” Greenberg wrote. Greenberg suggested that Democrats offer a kind of grand bargain to the white middle-­class voters he called “Reagan Democrats”: The Democrats would reinstate the middle class as the gravitational center of the party’s economic policy if those voters accepted an expanded definition of who was included in the middle class.

Among the Democrats who took Greenberg’s advice was Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who used the Macomb study as the playbook for his 1992 presidential campaign, which he built around the theme of “the forgotten middle class…”

Is the U.S. Ready for Post Middle-Class Politics? (New York Times)

The thing is, Bill Clinton pioneered the tactic of paying lip service to the “forgotten middle class,” while pursuing thoroughly Neoliberal policies that eviscerated said class.

“The era of big government is over” proclaimed Bill Clinton to cheering applause from both parties during his State of the Union address. Instead, we’d all become little J.P. Morgans, investing all the hard-earned cash from our tax cuts because “we know how to spend our own money better than the government.” Rather than guaranteed pensions and Social Security, we would save for our own retirement by investing our money in 401K’s and Roth IRA’s. Instead of the government subsidizing affordable quality education at state colleges, those budgets would be slashed and we’d instead save for our own education with tax-deferred 529 savings plans (too bad if your parents weren’t rich enough to do this), or head to the numerous for-profit colleges springing up everywhere. Instead of universal health care systems like Medicare/VA, we’d save up to fund our own medical procedures using HSA’s–health savings accounts (somehow knowing what our future medical expenses will be). Instead of reliable government services, we’d be offered “public-private partnerships,” with “efficient” private companies awarded exclusive government contracts. Monopolies were now seen as providing value and being the natural reward for efficiency.

With all the money saved from paring back “bloated” government, we’d be able to spend our tax windfalls purchasing only what we needed from the “free” market (except most of the tax cuts went to the wealthiest 10 percent, while the price of everything else went through the roof). In order to ensure that investors were free to get us the greatest returns possible on our wonderful new investment vehicles, Clinton happily abolished many of the “burdensome” regulations on Wall Street (with plenty of Republican help).

To lure back the aggrieved whites who had abandoned the party, Clinton promised much more of a meritocracy, in other words, no more government putting its finger on the scales to help undeserving blacks. No more social engineering – leave it to the Market. Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it” – music to whites’ ears, for whom welfare had become the primary role of the Federal government and the ultimate source of the monster deficits they were told to fear by Republicans (despite never exceeding 2 percent of overall government expenditures). And “lock em up and throw away the key” became the watchword to deal with urban black poverty, as jails became the de-facto metal health centers and make-work programs for African-American ghettos. Incarceration rates skyrocketed as Democrats promised to “clean up” inner-cities and make them more business-friendly with things such as “three-strikes” laws.

But the biggest change may have been the full-throttled embrace of free trade deals, putting America’s working class in direct, head-to-head competition with the world’s poorest workers, including a Chinese workforce whose size dwarfed that of the entire United States population and who were often less than one generation removed from a pig farm, along with another equally large mass of Indian workers, in this case often well-educated and English-speaking. NAFTA cut twice – sending factories over the border into Mexico to become maquiladoras, and sending millions of economic refugees fleeing the beanfields north to look for unskilled work pitting them directly against downscale whites and blacks. Unions were portrayed as relics of a bygone age – when any job can be sent overseas with a few mouse clicks, it didn’t pay to coddle unions anymore, anyway. The real money was not in workers, but startups; not in unions, but in Wall Street and financial deals. American workers would just have to get ever-more education and get “worker retraining” in order to compete for the “jobs of the future,” or else join the low-paying Wal-Mart economy. It turned out however, that the jobs of the future didn’t exist, except for the children of the already wealthy Ivy-league educated upper 20 percent.

As I described earlier, the previously prosperous suburban and rural whites, who thought they could escape the fate of the black underclass who had been decimated by automation, had a rather rude awakening in the period of 1992-2008. They were hit by NAFTA and other trade deals, China joining the WTO, and the financialization and asset stripping of the productive economy by Wall Street thanks to deregulation. Yet, even as they continued to vote Republican because of racial solidarity and issues like gun control and fetus fetishism, they found themselves getting poorer and poorer and poorer, and more and more in debt. The religious fundamentalists who voted Republican found that a lot of lip service was paid to being a “Christian nation,” but nothing really changed legislatively except maybe the occasional plaque with the Ten Commandments carved on it and the occasional prayer breakfast. Although party leaders felt they could safely rely on hot-button social issues and religion to make the increasingly impoverished white lumpenproletariat support issues like tax cuts for the wealthy and economic deregulation forever, it turned out that the party’s new base consisted of many radical “true believers” who in turn changed the nature of the party to which they now pledged allegiance. The Party increasingly resembled not the original East-Coast managerial elites, but the radically anticommunist John Birch Society and the nationalistic European ultra-right parties. The break had started.

As working-class whites abandoned the Democratic Party due to white racial grievance. The Democratic party in turn abandoned them. Affluent, socially-liberal, educated whites who had access to plenty of social and financial capital, and who didn’t have to compete with blacks or Mexicans for jobs, increasingly became mortified by the Republican party’s pandering to the ignorance and racism of the lower-classes: the coded dog-whistles, the crudeness of language, the intolerant religious fundamentalism, the know-nothingism, the hostility to science such as climate change and Darwinian evolution, the hatred of “intellectuals,” the authoritarianism, the militarism, the simplistic flag-waving jingoism. In reality, this was simply the Republican party reflecting who the members of the party now were – the vast intercoastal peasantry just a few generations removed from driving a tractor for a living whose parents had toiled away in the factories and provided the cannon fodder for Pax Americana. Their racism, xenophobia, chauvinism, ignorance, aggressive militarism, and bellicose religiosity now shaped and animated the party, to the abhorrence of the “cultured” WASP elites and intellectuals who had heretofore made up the party’s high commissars and apparatchiks. The “adults” had seemingly lost control. Where could they go?

Well, increasingly they went to the Democratic party, that’s where. And, as one would expect, they changed the character of that organization as well.

The Democrats increasingly became the party of the” cognitive elite,” the educated bicoastal elites who formed the nation’s white-collar corporate technocrats, scientists and middle managers, as opposed to the “big mule” used-car salesmen of the Heartland with their oversized belt-buckes, bolo ties, church potlucks and NASCAR rallies. These were the people who were the beneficiaries of cheap iPhones from China and cheap nannies from Honduras, but didn’t have to worry about a Chinese or Mexican worker taking their job, since they probably had gotten it through social connections anyway. These were people for whom there was never even a question of getting a master’s degree, only in what field. These were the people for whom their college choices weren’t whether to go, or how they were going to pay for it, but Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford. These people  almost never set foot outside of a cosmopolitan urban area, college town or bedroom community. Their lives are so far removed from those of most Americans as to be beyond comprehension; to them it really IS flyover country. Such people are committed to the idea a society of unremitting competition where the cream naturally rise to the top. They are obsessed with the idea of meritocracy, and see themselves as the natural winners based on their superior intellects and enlightened, cosmopolitan view of the world.

This caused the transformation of the Democratic Party into one increasingly aligned with the Davos crowd, or more accurately, with the twenty percent of affluent corporate technocrats, assorted intellectuals and celebrities, and “creative class” folks with large amounts of dynastic wealth and social and political capital whose jobs were not in the line of fire from immediate offshoring or automation, both urban and suburban:

In the 1980s, voters in the top ranks of the income ladder lined up in favor of Republican presidential candidates by 2-1. In 1988, for example, George H.W. Bush crushed Michael Dukakis among voters making $100,000 or more by an impressive 34 points, 67-33.

Move forward to 2008 and 2012. In 2008, voters from families making $100,000 to $200,000 split their votes 51-48 in favor of John McCain, while those making in excess of $200,000 cast a slight 52-46 majority for Barack Obama.

In other words, Democrats are now competitive among the top 20 percent. This has changed the economic makeup of the Democratic Party and is certain to intensify tensions between the traditional downscale wing and the emergent upscale wing.

The “truly advantaged” wing of the Democratic Party — a phrase coined in this newspaper by Robert Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard — has provided the Democratic Party with crucial margins of victory where its candidates have prevailed. These upscale Democrats have helped fill the gap left by the departure of white working class voters to the Republican Party.

At the same time, the priorities of the truly advantaged wing — voters with annual incomes in the top quintile, who now make up an estimated 26 percent of the Democratic general election vote — are focused on social and environmental issues: the protection and advancement of women’s rights, reproductive rights, gay and transgender rights and climate change, and less on redistributive economic issues.

The tension within the current Democratic coalition is exemplified in, of all places, a 2012 poll of students and faculty at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, a prestigious private boarding school founded in 1781. As Democrats have entered the ranks of the top quintile, their children have effectively realigned the student bodies of prep schools in New England and other northeastern states.

The Exeter survey found decisive majority support in the student body for Obama over Mitt Romney, but the more interesting finding was that among Exeter students old enough to vote, nine out of 10 identified themselves as liberal on social issues.

In the case of economic policy, however, these students were split, 30 percent conservative, 33 percent liberal and the rest moderate or unwilling to say.

“Morally, I am a Democrat,” one of the participants commented, “but my wallet says I am a Republican.”

A Democrat whose wallet tells him he is a Republican is unlikely to be a strong ally of less well-off Democrats in pressing for tax hikes on the rich, increased spending on the safety net or a much higher minimum wage.

How the Other Fifth Lives (New York Times)

“Morally, I am a Democrat, but my wallet says I am a Republican.” “The [social] causes may be worthy, but politically they’re also useful; they don’t bother rich people…” And therein you have the change.

Identity politics took the place of actually helping America’s burgeoning poor, because that might inconvenience the salary class who were the beneficiaries of the rising stock market prices, tax-deferred investment vehicles, and globalization. Increasingly, their needs were reflected in the Democratic party’s legislative agenda. If the Republicans were the party of socially-conservative, religious whites, the Democrats would be the party them and of various excluded minorities–racial minorities, gays, transgendered, feminists, etc. The social-justice agenda took the place of economic populism.

We often hear about the political muscle of the ultrarich. Billionaires like the libertarians Charles and David Koch and Tom Steyer, the California environmentalist who’s been waging a one-man jihad against the Keystone XL pipeline, have become bogeymen for the left and right respectively. The influence of these machers is considerable, no doubt. Yet the upper middle class collectively wields far more influence. These are households with enough money to make modest political contributions, enough time to email their elected officials and to sign petitions, and enough influence to sway their neighbors. Upper-middle-class Americans vote at substantially higher rates than those less well-off, and though their turnout levels aren’t quite as high as those even richer than they are, there are far more upper-middle-class people than there are rich people. One can easily turn the Kochs or the Steyers of the world into a big fat political target. It’s harder to do the same to the lawyers, doctors, and management consultants who populate the tonier precincts of our cities and suburbs.

Another thing that separates the upper middle class from the truly wealthy is that even though they’re comfortable, they’re less able to take the threat of tax increases or benefit cuts in stride. Take away the mortgage interest deduction from a Koch brother and he’ll barely notice. Take it away from a two-earner couple living in an expensive suburb and you’ll have a fight on your hands. So the upper middle class often uses its political muscle to foil the fondest wishes of egalitarian liberals. This week offered a particularly vivid reminder of how that works. In the windup to his State of the Union address, Barack Obama released a proposal to curb the tax benefits associated with 529 college savings plans, which primarily benefit upper-middle-class families, to help finance the expansion of a separate tax credit that would primarily benefit lower-middle- and middle-middle-class families. Only 3 percent of households actually make use of these accounts, and 70 percent of the tax benefits go to households earning more than $200,000, so you can see why Obama might have thought no one would get too worked up about the proposal. If anything, he might have thought, and hoped, that his critics would get more exercised about his call for big capital gains tax increases, which would have allowed him to play the part of Robin Hood—a role Obama loves to play.

That’s not quite how things turned out. From the get-go, the 529 plan, like the capital gains tax-hike plan, was totally politically unrealistic, as Republicans in Congress were never going to sign on. But within days of the State of the Union, the Obama administration was forced to reverse course and abandon its plan to make 529 plans less generous. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who represents San Francisco, and House Budget Committee ranking Democrat Chris Van Hollen, who represents the wealthy Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., were the key drivers of the decision, according to a report by Rachael Bade and Allie Grasgreen in Politico. My guess is that both Pelosi and Van Hollen saw firsthand the fury of upper-middle-income voters who sensed that Obama, normally a paragon of upper-middle-class virtues, was daring to mess with one of their precious tax breaks. Paul Waldman, writing for the Washington Post, had it right when he observed that “the 529 proposal was targeted at what may be the single most dangerous constituency to anger: the upper middle class.”

The Upper Middle Class Is Ruining America (Slate)

And in turn, the party lost its commitment to the wage class, and instead decided that “nothing could be done” about globalism; there were just natural winners and losers, and that’s that. They felt bad about losers (“I feel your pain…”), but, “nothing could be done.” Globalism was just a force of nature, like an earthquake or drought. Instead of dealing with economic inequality, Democrats pushed an agenda of social equality which was just about making sure that minorities has just as much of a shot at getting into the upper-class cognitive elite as anyone else, and that insensitivity was banished from the college campuses that the rural white working classes could no longer afford to send their kinds to.

As [Thomas] Frank notes, today some people are living much better than others — and many of those people are not Republicans. Frank delights in skewering the sacred cows of coastal liberalism, including private universities, bike paths, microfinance, the Clinton Foundation, “well-meaning billionaires” and any public policy offering “innovation” or “education” as a solution to inequality. He spends almost an entire chapter mocking the true-blue city of Boston, with its “lab-coat and starched-shirt” economy and its “well-graduated” population of overconfident collegians.

Echoing the historian Lily Geismer, Frank argues that the Democratic Party — once “the Party of the People” — now caters to the interests of a “professional-managerial class” consisting of lawyers, doctors, professors, scientists, programmers, even investment bankers. These affluent city dwellers and suburbanites believe firmly in meritocracy and individual opportunity, but shun the kind of social policies that once gave a real leg up to the working class. In the book, Frank points to the Democrats’ neglect of organized labor and support for Nafta as examples of this sensibility, in which “you get what you deserve, and what you deserve is defined by how you did in school.” In more recent columns, he has linked this neglect to the rise of a figure like Sanders, who says forthrightly what the party leadership might prefer to obscure: Current approaches aren’t working — and unless something dramatic happens, Americans are heading for a society in which a tiny elite controls most of the wealth, ­resources and decision-making power.

The problem, in Frank’s view, is not simply that mainstream Democrats have failed to address growing inequality. Instead, he suggests something more sinister: Today’s leading Democrats actually don’t want to reduce inequality because they believe that inequality is the normal and righteous order of things. As proof, he points to the famously impolitic Larry Summers, whose background as a former president of Harvard, former Treasury secretary and former chief economist of the World Bank embodies all that Frank abhors about modern Democrats. “One of the reasons that inequality has probably gone up in our society is that people are being treated closer to the way that they’re supposed to be treated,” Summers commented early in the Obama administration.

“Remember, as you let that last sentence slide slowly down your throat, that this was a Democrat saying this,” Frank writes. From this mind-set stems everything that the Democrats have done to betray the masses, from Bill Clinton’s crime bill and welfare reform policies to Obama’s failure to rein in Wall Street, according to Frank. No surprise, under the circumstances, that the working class might look elsewhere for satisfying political options.

‘Listen, Liberal’ and ‘The Limousine Liberal’ (New York Times)

This elite is separated by geography as well as class. While previous suburbanization allowed whites to flee from blacks, the new gated exurbs are too exclusive even for white members of the working class, who instead find themselves trapped in “slumburbia” and commuting an hour and a half to work. In the Nineties, elites decided they liked walkable cities and urban amenities since Clinton’s tough crime laws had cleaned up the streets and moved back to the trendy abandoned inner cities. Gentrification soon priced out the working class. Some coastal cities became refuges for a global wealth class who used houses as safe asset storage, driving housing prices to ludicrous heights. It was all part of globalism, about which both parties agreed, as did the economists and media pundits along the Acela corridor and CalTrans route, “nothing could be done:”

For one thing, pundits and politician are unlikely to work in the regions where most Americans live. Cities where prestige industries like media, policy, and tech are centered—New York, Washington DC, San Francisco—have witnessed economic growth along with a skyrocketing cost of living. In fact, the vast majority of American wealth is clustered in a corridor of Northeastern cities stretching from Boston to Washington DC. The rest of the country, particularly most areas of the South and the Midwest, has seen massive job loss, while cost of living remains more affordable. A few southern cities, including Atlanta, Nashville, and Dallas, have boasted post-recession job growth. But even these tend to be are surrounded by rural regions mired in poverty.

In effect, we have two American economies. One is made up of expensive coastal zip codes where the pundits proclaiming “recovery” are surrounded by prosperity. The other is composed of heartland regions where ordinary Americans struggle without jobs. Over 50 million Americans live in what the Economic Innovation Group calls “distressed communities”—zip codes where over 55% of the population is unemployed. Of those distressed communities, over half are in the South, defined generously by the census as the region stretching from Maryland and Delaware to Oklahoma and Texas. The rest tend to live in Midwest rust belt cities that have long suffered from economic decline, like Gary, Indiana and Cleveland, Ohio. It is nearly impossible for Americans of the latter group to move to the cities of the former group—or to work in the industries that shape public perception of how the economy is going.

Geography is Making America’s Uneven Economic Recovery Worse (Quartz)

This affluent twenty percent is increasingly Democratic, and increasingly separated from the rest of the country. For these people–the “salary class,” much of whose wealth comes from investments and who are fully equipped to take advantage of the investment vehicles I named above–the economy truly is doing well. And for those for whom it’s not, the problems is seen as just not getting educated enough, or making poor lifestyle choices:

Too busy attending TED talks and ­vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard, [Thomas] Frank argues, the Democratic elite has abandoned the party’s traditional commitments to the working class. In the process, they have helped to create the political despair and anger at the heart of today’s right-wing insurgencies. They may also have sown the seeds of their own demise. Frank’s recent columns argue that the Bernie Sanders campaign offers not merely a challenge to Hillary Clinton, but a last-ditch chance to save the corrupted soul of the Democratic Party.

[Historian Steve] Fraser agrees with Frank that the Democratic Party can no longer reasonably claim to be the party of the working class or the “little man.” Instead, he argues, the Republican and Democratic parties now represent two different elite constituencies, each with its own culture and interests and modes of thought. Fraser describes today’s Republicans as the party of “family capitalism,” encompassing everyone from the mom-and-pop business owner on up to “entrepreneurial maestros” such as the Koch brothers, Linda McMahon and Donald Trump. The Democrats, by contrast, represent the managerial world spawned by modernity, including the big universities and government bureaucracies as well as “techno frontiersmen” like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. These are two different ways of relating to the world — one cosmopolitan and interconnected, the other patriarchal and hierarchical. Neither one, however, offers much to working-class voters.

‘Listen, Liberal’ and ‘The Limousine Liberal’ (New York Times)

The poor are increasingly powerless, and lack any influence at all. They form a constituency that’s angry and hurting, and ready to try anything to make the pain go away. Hence the rise of Trump and Sanders:

The lack of leverage of those on the bottom rungs can be seen in a recent Pew survey in which dealing with the problems of the poor and needy ranked 10th on a list of public priorities, well behind terrorism, education, Social Security and the deficit. This 10th place ranking is likely to drop further as the gap widens between the bottom and the top fifth of voters in the country.

It turns out that the United States has a double-edged problem — the parallel isolation of the top and bottom fifths of its population. For the top, the separation from the middle and lower classes means less understanding and sympathy for the majority of the electorate, combined with the comfort of living in a cocoon.

For those at the bottom, especially the families who are concentrated in extremely high poverty neighborhoods, isolation means bad schools, high crime, high unemployment and high government dependency.

This split is reflecting the realignment of the parties. As the Democratic party increasingly reflects affluent bicoastal elites, it further alienates working class Heartland Republicans whose jobs are automated and offshored away, and find themselves in low-paying service work. The Democrats are now alienated both culturally, and in terms of economic interests. Meanwhile, the Republicans have transformed that party into what I have previously described as a “right-wing authoritarian movement.”  And one thing all such movements need is a leader. Hence the rise of Trump.

The animating, guiding force of the post-civil rights era Republican party was hatred of blacks, not love of trickle-down economics or offhshoring. That just came along for the ride. Plutocrats cynically used this hatred to get the working class to vote against their own interests, playing them for rubes. And who could blame them? As Thomas Frank opined, hot-button social issues conveniently distracted the peasantry from being gutted like a fish. But the working classes were not as stupid as they appeared. They clearly saw their communities being decimated by globalism. They clearly saw all of the unskilled jobs being taken by immigrants. They clearly saw their paychecks stagnating and their jobs disappearing, while everything was getting more expensive. And they certainly saw the social fallout from those trends in their own lives. Trump was just the first person to harness white working-class rage and resentment to an economic populist agenda.

The revolt of the Republican masses bears out the thesis of Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? Non-college–educated whites have been suffering from an epidemic of false consciousness that took hold during the Reagan Era. While their self-interest aligned with Democratic policies designed to help insulate the vulnerable from economic transition, Republicans managed to persuade working-class voters to support the very policies that were doing them harm. They accomplished this by diverting the attention of less-educated whites with coded racial appeals, emphasizing cultural issues like abortion and gay rights, and stirring resentment against liberal “elites.”

Working-class Republicans are waking up to the reality that their new party doesn’t represent them any more than the Democrats did. On issue after issue, Trump’s supporters are at odds with GOP dogma. They don’t support free trade and globalization. They don’t favor tax cuts for the wealthy, or bailouts for banks, or financial deregulation, or the rollback of consumer protections. They’re against privatizing Social Security, paring back Medicare, and eliminating other government programs that aid the middle class. While they’ve been encouraged to regard Barack Obama as an extraterrestrial, they’re not demanding the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Though nationalistic, their families are the ones that paid the human cost for the neoconservative fantasy of bringing democracy to Iraq.

How the GOP is Losing it’s Grip on Working Class Republicans (Slate)

This ideological disintegration has been years in the making. I believe one fundamental cause is that after winning the allegiance of millions of “Reagan Democrats” — mostly white, blue-collar, and Southern or rural — the party stubbornly declined to take their economic interests into account.

Traditional Republican orthodoxy calls for small government, low taxation, tight money, deregulation, free trade and cost-saving reforms to entitlement programs. If I were independently wealthy, that might seem an agreeable set of policies. Ditto if I were one of the “small-business owners” to whom GOP candidates sing hymns of praise.

But most working-class Republicans are, get ready for it, working-class. They are more Sam’s Club than country club. They don’t own the business, they earn wages or a salary; and trickle-down economics has not been kind to them. Their incomes have been stagnant for a good 20 years, they have seen manufacturing jobs move overseas and job security vanish, they have less in retirement savings and home equity than they had hoped, and they see their young-adult children struggling to get a start in life.

This segment includes military families that have borne the awful weight of more than a decade of war. Repeated deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq have caused tremendous strain; “wounded warriors” have returned bearing grievous physical and psychological scars.

What adjustments did the GOP establishment make for these voters? None. Most of the governors, senators and former somebodies who ran for the presidential nomination, and failed, offered nothing but flag-waving pep talks and demagoguery on social issues — along with promises to stick with trickle-down orthodoxy and intervene in trouble spots around the world. Only Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, who were dismissed as yesterday’s news, seemed to realize that working-class Republicans even existed.

Did Trump cunningly craft a message for these orphaned voters, or did he stumble across his populist appeal by way of beginner’s luck? At this point, it hardly matters. He offers policies, however far-fetched, that address their wants and needs. He rails against the free-trade pacts that he says robbed the nation of manufacturing jobs. He promises not to cut entitlements and often hints at boldly expanding them. He pledges an “America first” foreign policy that withdraws from entanglements and eschews interventions.

Trump also plays on these voters’ insecurities, resentments and fears. He makes Hispanic immigrants and Muslims his scapegoats. He goes beyond attacking President Obama’s policies to also impugn his identity — in effect, portraying the president as the incarnation of demographic change that many white Americans fear. And Trump delegitimizes establishment Republicans by painting them as cogs in a system that is rigged to favor the rich and powerful. (In this, he’s basically right.)

Trump understood the voters the GOP forgot (Washington Post)

As for the Democratic spit, the Democrats had a change to nominate their own alternative candidate in Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders, a populist outsider who would have been a genuine threat to the status quo, was narrowly defeated by the most ultimate of insiders, Hillary Clinton. The good news is that a candidate who on paper looked unelectable – a 72-year-old self-identified socialist born in Brooklyn and serving a tiny east-coast state, has challenged Clinton every step of the way, filling auditoriums to capacity from coast to coast and winning a large number of states outright. Sanders’ successful campaign has presented the most potent challenge to the rightward/Neoliberal drift of the party, and the first serious attempt to realign it to its New Deal roots and reclaim its abandoned working-class populism on economic issues.

Nevertheless, it looks like Sanders will not pass the post, while Trump will. Why? Well, I suspect in part it’s because the obvious frontrunner status of Clinton scared a lot of Democratic challengers off, so it became just a two-person head-to-head race. For the GOP, by contrast, with the sitting vice-president bowing out and no logical successor to Obama, you had the GOP “clown car,” with all sorts of ridiculous candidates splitting the votes multiple ways. Why did Trump emerge victorious? Here’s Paul Krugman:

…why did Mrs. Clinton … go the distance, while the G.O.P. establishment went down to humiliating defeat? … [B]asically it comes down to fundamental differences between the parties and how they serve their supporters.

Both parties make promises to their bases. But while the Democratic establishment more or less tries to make good on those promises, the Republican establishment has essentially been playing bait-and-switch for decades. And voters finally rebelled against the con.

First, about the Democrats: Their party defines itself as the protector of the poor and the middle class, and especially of nonwhite voters. Does it fall short of fulfilling this mission much of the time? Are its leaders sometimes too close to big-money donors? Of course. Still, if you look at the record of the Obama years, you see real action on behalf of the party’s goals…

Things are very different among Republicans. Their party has historically won elections by appealing to racial enmity and cultural anxiety, but its actual policy agenda is dedicated to serving the interests of the 1 percent, above all through tax cuts for the rich — which even Republican voters don’t support, while they truly loathe elite ideas like privatizing Social Security and Medicare.

What Donald Trump has been doing is telling the base that it can order à la carte. He has, in effect, been telling aggrieved white men that they can feed their anger without being forced to swallow supply-side economics, too…

The problem is, Mr. Krugman is the quintessential “new” Democrat: an educated east-coast liberal former Princeton professor, former economic technocrat in the Reagan administration, and now an opinion maker at the pro-Democratic mouthpiece The New York Times. Somehow, I doubt his opinions are much aligned with unemployed workers in small-town North Dakota. Krugman famously defended free trade as the factories were being offshored (as did the Times in general: the primary platform for Thomas “The World is Flat” Friedman). He tirelessly defends the ACA–a giveaway to health care industry designed to fend off single-payer. And he has authored a number of sloppy hatchet-jobs against Bernie Sanders from his post at the Times all during this election season, dismissing Sanders supporters as an unthinking “cult,” portraying his populist economic proposals as “unrealistic,” and repeatedly calling for him to quit the race.

People like Krugman are the new face of the party. Incrementalism. Make deals. Aim low. It’s what Jacobin Magazine calls “fortress liberalism” – protect what remains, don’t think big. In that sense, the Democrats have now become the true “conservative” party.

The Bernie Sanders model of change has all the subtlety of an index finger raised high above a debate podium. Lay out a bold, unapologetic vision of reform that speaks directly to people’s basic needs. Connect that vision to existing popular struggles, while mobilizing a broad and passionate coalition to support it (#NotMeUs). Ride this wave of democratic energy to overwhelm right-wing opposition and enact major structural reforms.

The Hillary Clinton model of change, on the other hand, begins not with policy or people but with a politician. Choose an experienced, practical leader who explicitly rejects unrealistic goals. Rally around that leader’s personal qualifications, while defending past achievements and stressing the value of party loyalty (#ImWithHer). Draw on the leader’s expertise to grind away at Congress and accumulate incremental victories that add up to significant reform.

For most of the Left, Clinton-style “incrementalism” is just a code word to disguise what is effectively a right-wing retrenchment. Nevertheless many self-identified progressives have backed Clinton’s “theory of politics” as the most realistic path to achieve Sanders’s objectives.

“As a temperamentally moderate figure,” the liberal Boston Globe argued, Clinton is best positioned to “take concrete steps to get relevant legislation enacted.”

Other editorial boards, corporate legal bloggers, and billionaires in the back seats of limousines have likewise endorsed the Clinton model as the only serious form of politics in a polarized republic. But they struggle to identify a major progressive victory that Clinton-style incrementalism has won in the past half-century.

Clinton’s eight-year term in the Senate produced bills to regulate video game violence and flag burning, both of which died in committee.

Bill Clinton’s eight-year term in the White House gave us an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit and a small children’s health insurance program — but also NAFTA, the 1994 crime bill, welfare reform, the Defense of Marriage Act, financial deregulation, and a grand bargain to gut Social Security that was only thwarted by a timely sex scandal.

The pragmatic, piecemeal, and irreproachably moderate achievements of Jimmy Carter are still more dispiriting. Even judged by the charitable standards of American liberalism, the forty-year balance sheet of “incremental progress” is decidedly negative.

Beltway pundits scoff at Sanders’s model of change, meanwhile, as if the Vermont senator thinks he can defeat a Republican Congress by getting a few hundred protestors to yell slogans outside Capitol Hill.

They naturally fail to mention that as a matter of historical record, the Sanders model happened to produce Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Against Fortress Liberalism (Jacobin)

So you had two Frankenstein coalitions just ready to fracture. The Republicans were the party of robber-baron plutocrats allied with trailer-park retirees in Medicare scooters and white supremacists and other militant radicals of various stripes (Christian reconstructionists, sovereign citizens, oath keepers, militias, etc.). The Democrats united upwardly-mobile, college-educated, socially-liberal urban workers with African-Americans and other assorted minorities terrified by GOP racism. The Republicans scared off socially-liberal businessmen and intellectuals who fled to the Democrats, and the Democrats’ increasingly business-friendly policies led to the revolt of Sanders’ supporters–the working-class core of the party who had not fled to Republicans, but who wanted a more populist agenda that actually helped the working classes rather than just promote a vague concept of “social justice.” The contradictions of The Republican Party’s embrace of downscale flyover-county whites, and the Democratic party’s coddling of wealthy, educated east-coast elites is now completing the transformation begun years ago. All bets are off. Which party repents the working class and which the donor class is no longer clear-cut.

I’ve often described today’s political climate as the Democrats being the pre-Reagan Republican party, and the Republicans as the John Birch Society. It’s worth noting that one of the key differences between the GOP mainstream and the JBS was opposition to globalism, immigration, free trade deals. So Trumpism should not come as such a surprise.

…if Michael Lind is right, Trumpism and Clintonism are America’s future. Lind’s point, which he made last Sunday in The New York Times, is that Trumpism—friendly to entitlements, unfriendly to expanded trade and high immigration—will be the platform of the Republican Party in the years going forward. Clintonism—friendly both to business and to social and racial liberalism—will cobble together numerous interest groups and ditch the white working class. Which might be fair enough, but Lind didn’t mention rich people. Where will they go?


The Democratic Party has not been a total slouch, offering policies friendly to health-care executives, entertainment moguls, and tech titans. In fact, financial support for Democrats among the 1 percent of the 1 percent has risen dramatically, more than trebling since 1980. Traditionally, though, the Republican Party has been seen as the better friend to the wealthy, offering lower taxes, fewer business regulations, generous defense contracts, increased global trade, high immigration, and resistance to organized labor. It’s been the buddy of homebuilders, oil barons, defense contractors, and other influential business leaders.

Trumpism changes the equation. If homebuilders face workplace crackdowns on illegal hiring, their costs go up. If defense contractors see a reduced U.S. military presence in Asia and Europe, their income goes down. If companies that rely on outsourcing or on intellectual property rights see their business model upended by discontinued trade agreements, they face a crisis. Sure, many rich people hate Obamacare, but how big a deal is it compared to other things they want: more immigration, sustained and expanding trade, continued defense commitments? Clintonism, by comparison, starts to look much more appealing.

All good, say some Democrats. The more people that Trumpism scares away, the broader and more powerful the liberal-left coalition will be. But nobody offers their support without expecting something in return. It’s not dispassionate analysis that causes Chuck Schumer to waffle on the carried-interest tax loophole, Hillary Clinton to argue for raising the cap on H-1B visas, or Maria Cantwell to rally support for the Export-Import Bank. The more rich people that a party attracts, the more that the party must do to stay attractive.

The more that Democrats write off the white working class, which has been experiencing a drastic decline in living standards, the harder it is for them to call themselves a party of the little guy. The more that the rich can frame various business practices as blows to privilege or oppression—predatory lending as a way to expand minority home ownership, outsourcing as a way to uplift the world’s poor, etc.—the more they get a pass from Democrats on practices that hurt poorer Americans. Worst of all, the more that interest groups within the Democratic Party quarrel among themselves, the more they rely upon loathing of a common enemy, Republicans, in order to stay united…

Things get darker still, for, if the G.O.P. becomes ever whiter, failing to peel away working-class voters of other races, then partisan conflict could look more and more like racial conflict. That is the nightmare. Our politics are bad enough when voters are mobilized mainly by culture-war issues, such as abortion, because compromise is often impossible. But when voters are mobilized by issues of identity, something most people can’t change, then nothing works. It’s just war.

Why Democrats are Becoming the Party of the 1 Percent (Vanity Fair)

And another great realignment is on:

The Bernie Sanders voters who would choose Trump over Clinton (Guardian)

Now That Trump Is The Nominee, These Republicans Say They’re Voting For Hillary (Think Progress)

Clinton’s big money supporters are trying to kill single payer in Colorado. Her possible VP pick has “a more nuanced position on abortion than many liberals.” John McCain’s right-hand man declared, literally, “I’m with her.” And the Jewish socialist from Brooklyn just won the Indiana primary.

All the rest is commentary.

What did we learn today? (Corey Robin)

5 thoughts on “The Great Realignment

  1. An excellent analysis of the political chaos of the day. I think, however, that there is a distinct difference between the older white male Trump supporter and the young white male Bernie supporter. One wants to make America great “again” – to return to an America of his youth that no longer exists. The other is a member of a generation that is literally experiencing an economic depression and who has known no other world. Due to the extreme changes wreaked upon our world by technology (up to 70 percent of existing jobs will be displaced by automation) we have a choice between fascism and social democracy. I hope we make the right choice.

  2. Labels of ‘left’ and ‘right’ need to be retired! The question is this: is the role of government to distribute wealth, or is the world inherently fair? Initially the Left represented a middle class opposed to wealth accumulation by a monarchy. Then the Labour movement arose to oppose wealth accumulation by the nouveaux riches. In the UK, Mr. Blair persuaded the nation that whatever was in the interest of business was in the interest of the workers, and the Labour movement disintegrated. The field was open for a third party to become the party of wealth distribution, and they made an utter hash of it. Who knows what will happen next?

  3. There is no sustainable way for the American working class to be paid more than the global wage for semi-skilled labor. What can be done is drive down the cost structure. The European peasantry does well because their cost structure is so much lower than that of Americans. $7/hour is good money when rent is $200/month, medical and child care and education are all almost free and you can walk to work. Spend your money on food and gadgets rather than rent, healthcare, education and transportation.

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