I was pleased to see the New York Times finally acknowledging something I’ve been saying since November of 2012: we are in the middle of a realignment. That said, I cannot believe how wrong they got it. The article by Michael Lind, titled “Trumpism and Clintonism Are the Future,” is light on historical analysis and rife with premature conclusions.
I have written several pieces about the realignment and the form it could take, but for this article, I am focusing on what I think is the most likely scenario, in order to rebut Lind. Let’s take it piece by piece.
The crux of Lind’s argument is that, while in the past we have seen “partisan realignments,” 2016 represents a “policy realignment” wherein Trump and Clinton are changing what their respective parties represent in terms of policy. Such a distinction is arbitrary. According to political scientist Walter Dean Burnham, realignments occur roughly every 36 years, when there is a pivotal issue that one or both parties are not representing. Whatever political party captures the frame regarding that issue, will become the dominant party—but no matter what happens, the platforms of the parties will inevitably shift. We saw this trend with the realignment of the south.
The GOP capitalized on the southern resentment following Civil Rights, and realigned the region. That changed the platforms represented by both parties—as well as their make up. This shift started with Goldwater, and concluded under Reagan.
But Lind does not recognize Reagan as a realigning figure in American history. Instead, he considers the Teflon President a mere placeholder. He insists that because Reagan was relatively liberal compared to his rhetoric and the modern GOP, that he was a transitional figure. That’s an interesting thought, but it isn’t accurate.
If we consider Franklin D. Roosevelt to be a realigning president, Reagan falls in the appropriate time frame for a realignment cycle. Realigning presidents are also those who change the narrative. And that’s what Reagan did. Sweeping government action became “fiscally irresponsible,” and an intrusion on states’ rights. He tied Milton Friedman’s laissez-faire economic policies to the rhetoric of the social conservatives, which defined our modern parties.
While Reagan did not, himself, do all he promised, he paved the way for future leaders to do it — as FDR had done for social progressivism. Compared to Johnson, FDR was relatively conservative, especially in terms of social policy. Realigning presidents are always less ideologically extreme than those who follow them. Polarization follows realignments and is a slow process that eventually causes the pendulum to shift the other way.
That’s exactly what we’re seeing today: the Reagan narrative has been popular for so long — thanks to both the GOP and the New Democrats like Bill Clinton, who embraced it — that the Republicans have moved to their extreme. After roughly 40 years of trickle-down economics, and market-based court decisions, our government has become an oligarchy. Our leaders respond and are beholden to the wealthy; too often they fail to act in the best interests of ordinary people. Americans have caught on, and they are demanding change. Ultimately, one of the major parties will capture the frame by addressing the issue, and will emerge as dominant.
Lind does not recognize this shift. He attributes our realignment to social policies — that the main difference in this primary is not between Sanders and Clinton, but between Bill Clinton in the 90’s and Hillary Clinton now. He considers the coalition in the modern Democratic Party between social progressives and business to be permanent. As such, he argues that Hillary Clinton is the standard bearer for modern progressivism. Lind does not see a significant place for Bernie’s economic progressivism in the party.
How does he explain Bernie’s appeal? He attributes it to Clinton’s lack of charisma.
Lind has missed something crucial: the reason the country is realigning. Americans know the system is rigged. The alliance between our government and big business has come under the microscope. Transactional politics have had their day.
This shift has been a long time in the making. It started with teacher protests in Wisconsin in 2011, and soon evolved into the Occupy Movement. Then the 2012 election saw Elizabeth Warren’s rise to the Senate, and Obama beat a candidate who was a caricature of a Wall Street oligarch: Mitt Romney. Now, Bernie Sanders is presenting the formerly ‘inevitable’ Hillary Clinton with a very real challenge.
Americans are sick of struggling while the rich get richer, and have all the political influence. They’re sick of an unresponsive government that fails to address their suffering. The people are flocking to economic populism on both sides because the oligarchy is meta-issue. Americans are demanding change from their government that they know transactional government cannot deliver.
This is why the establishment candidates are struggling while outsiders are surging.
Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are the candidates who represent a real departure from the corrupt, transactional establishment politics of the last 30 years. Neither coordinates with a super PAC or is beholden to special interests. Both talk about wealth inequality, bad trade deals, and holding those responsible accountable — which includes many of the same people. Both the GOP establishment like Paul Ryan, and the Democratic establishment like Hillary Clinton, have adopted some of the populist economic rhetoric of these outsider candidates. And that is telling.
It is also telling that, as time goes on, Clinton’s popularity declines, while Sanders’ increases steadily. At this point, if Clinton wins it will be because of how prepared she was at the start of the primary, and the fact that Clinton tailored her campaign strategy to the current process. But the polls make it clear: if the primary were held later in a single day of voting in the summer, Sanders would win in a landslide.
The final evidence that economic populism is making a resurgence that will reshape politics is the fact that young people prefer Bernie who is voicing unapologetic, full-throated economic progressivism like we haven’t seen in nearly four decades, by historic margins. To Lind’s theory that social issues are defining our political shift on the left, it is worth noting that both Democratic candidates are espousing socially progressive platforms. The real difference between Clinton and Sanders is their approach to the oligarchy.
Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone put it best: young people have seen the limits of transactional politics; they’ve seen that politicians who promise change while taking the money, mostly just take the money. The internet has blown the lid off the back door dealings, and sacrifices made by the political establishment for the wealthy. For this reason, politics will never be the same.
A final point to Lind’s overall thesis that Berniecrats are not the future of the Democratic Party, I offer the following:
Though a significant number of Sanders supporters will not vote for Clinton (33 percent), that does not mean those voters are going to abandon the party system — it just means they won’t support one candidate. Bernie’s progressives are running for Congress on the Democratic ticket in large numbers — people like Zephyr Teachout of New York, Tim Canova of Florida, John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, and many more. These people will do to the Democratic Party what the Tea Party did to the GOP: primary out establishment candidates in safe districts, and change the face of American politics.
Ultimately, we will see who defines American progressivism, but my money is on Bernie.