In 1948, the southern Dixiecrats walked out of the Democratic National Convention following the adoption of a civil rights plank in the party platform, and the nomination of Harry Truman for the presidency. The loss of the Solid South, which had provided the support for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, would follow roughly two decades later. The southern realignment followed a classic divide in left wing American politics between labor and social progressivism.
While the modern Democratic Party has encompassed both of these forces, and today, the split is less apparent—even nonexistent for many millennials—it is playing out in the presidential primary race between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Clinton has wrapped herself in the mantle of social liberalism while largely ignoring economic progressivism, and Sanders has embraced both with a heavy emphasis on the latter.
The classic fault lines may soon re-emerge in their full glory as Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump edge closer to winning their respective nominations. A recent survey found that 33 percent of Sanders’ supporters will not vote for Clinton in a general election—and many would defect to Trump—which means we may see something similar to the realignment of the South: the realignment of economic progressives.
Realignments, or voter shifts that change the political landscape, occur when there is a general discontent among the population that is unaddressed. The last realignment was the southern switch from blue to red, and now we’re on the cusp of another. The biggest issues of the day is the corrupting influence of money in politics and our rigged economy; they were the basis for the astro-turf Tea Party as well as the grassroots Occupy Movement.
Hillary Clinton is only starting to adopt the rhetoric of the new progressive movement, and it is clear to many that it is not where her heart is. Considering how much Citizens United and private election funding has helped her towards securing the nomination (83 percent of the former Secretary’s campaign funding comes from large donors, and her campaign coordinates directly with a superPAC that raises money from Wall Street and big industry), it is unlikely this talk is sincere—meaning that if Clinton wins, the Democratic Party will not adequately address today’s biggest issues.
At the same time, there is no question the Republican Party is undergoing a change. In recent years it has been taken over by the far right, which Donald Trump capitalized on by campaigning on a radically bigoted platform. However, as William Greider of The Nation points out in a fantastic article titled “How Donald Trump Could Beat Hillary Clinton,” his message may change for the general election. He could defeat the former Secretary by running to her right socially, but her left economically.
Though his current platform is typically Republican, featuring tax cuts at the top, deregulation, and hard lines on immigration and foreign policy, Mr. Trump has already indicated an affection for the economic populist rhetoric Bernie Sanders has espoused—himself talking about taxing “hedge fund guys” their fair share, allowing the government to negotiate drug prices with private companies, not taking money from corporate interests (though he is a corporate interest), and railing against bad free trade agreements.
If Trump capitalizes on Bernie’s progressive movement more than Clinton does, he could successfully pick up those voters Clinton would lose. In the process, he could save the Republican Party by transforming it. Trump is better positioned to accomplish this feat considering his outsider status, and how much Hillary has turned Bernie’s voters off with her record, her ties to big business, her reliance on Wall Street, the DNC, and the media in this primary, and her patronizing rhetoric aimed at millennials.
In this scenario, the Democratic Party would become a union of corporate interests and holdout single-issue social progressives, while the GOP would become the party of Bernie Sanders supporters, blue collar Americans, and the racist Tea Party. Over time, the Tea Party would likely fade into the fringe.
This is a kind of Bizarro reality I find myself writing about—one that I would have never even considered if you told me about it a year ago. In November 2012, I predicted a realignment that would take on a less dramatic appearance—and that prediction could still hold true. However, with the rise of the political outsiders and the unique demand for change on the left (following Occupy), on the right (following the presidency of America’s first black president), and all over America due to the economic recession, we may see a complete change in both parties.
Of course, there are other possibilities too. American politics is anything but static. If Clinton and Trump win their nominations, a lot could happen. There’s a possibility that Trump’s extreme rhetoric and inexperience will frighten enough Sanders supporters to vote Democratic down the line to propel Hillary to victory in November.
In that scenario, the big hold up is 2020—a Census year with a high chance of Supreme Court turnover. Democrats must win, but the deck is stacked against them. The last time we had two consecutive two-term presidents from the same party was Madison to Monroe. In other words, it has never happened in our modern party system. A presidential loss in four years does not bode well for the Democrats’ prospects in state elections or Congress. However, this too could change if Bernie’s supporters hold Clinton’s feet to the fire, elect progressives like Tim Canova to Congress, and she responds well to the political pressure.
And then, there’s still the chance that Sanders will win the nomination. No matter what happens, one thing is clear: progressives will determine the future of America’s political parties. They just have to own the moment.