The party sys­tem is bro­ken

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - JONAH GOLDBERG jgold­berg@la­timescolum­nists.com

The Trump base is far big­ger & stronger than ever be­fore,” the pres­i­dent de­clared in a se­ries of tweets Monday morn­ing, and that “will never change.” Many ob­servers were quick to point out that this as­ser­tion isn’t borne out in the polls.

Such nit­pick­ing, how­ever, over­looks an more im­por­tant part of this story. In the 1990s and 2000s, Trump had po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions, but the tra­di­tional twoparty sys­tem and the me­dia land­scape served as an im­pen­e­tra­ble bar­rier. It was the break­down of the old ways that opened a path for some­one in­ter­ested in break­ing it down even more — in part by em­brac­ing a new base of mostly non-col­lege ed­u­cated whites.

Tra­di­tion­ally, Re­pub­li­cans have re­lied on white, mid­dle-class, white-col­lar mar­ried sub­ur­ban­ites. The Amer­i­can Com­mu­ni­ties Project iden­ti­fies 106 “ur­ban sub­urbs” — the rel­a­tively af­flu­ent near-in sub­urbs of ma­jor cities. In 1984, Ron­ald Rea­gan won 92 of them. In 2016, Trump lost 89.

As Politico’s Char­lie Maht­e­sian re­cently chron­i­cled, Re­pub­li­cans have been steadily los­ing mar­ket share in these cru­cial districts and coun­ties for decades, as sub­ur­ban­ites be­come a bit more lib­eral and a lot more hos­tile to Re­pub­li­can pop­ulism on cul­tural is­sues.

Ge­or­gia’s 6th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict il­lus­trates the trend. Mitt Rom­ney car­ried the highly ed­u­cated sub­ur­ban dis­trict by 20 points in 2012. Trump squeaked out a win there by 1 point in 2016. That same year, Re­pub­li­can Rep. Tom Price won re-elec­tion re­ceiv­ing 61.6% of the vote. In the re­cent spe­cial elec­tion to re­place Price — af­ter he was named sec­re­tary of Health and Hu­man Re­sources — Re­pub­li­can Karen Han­del beat Demo­crat Jon Os­soff by less than 3 points.

Just as in­ex­orably, the Democrats have been watch­ing white blue-col­lar work­ers, the heart of the old Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt al­liance, mi­grate to the GOP for some time now. Democrats bet heav­ily on the growth of mi­nori­ties, par­tic­u­larly the black vote, ur­ban lib­er­als, im­mi­grants and mil­len­ni­als. This coali­tion de­liv­ered two his­toric vic­to­ries for Barack Obama.

But op­po­si­tion to Obama ac­cel­er­ated the de­fec­tion of ru­ral, work­ing-class and older whites to the GOP cause, cost­ing Democrats 63 House seats and roughly 1,000 elected of­fices na­tion­wide.

Now both par­ties have sim­i­lar dilem­mas: Their new bases are too small to guar­an­tee elec­toral suc­cess, but too strong to al­low fun­da­men­tal re­think­ing of how the par­ties do busi­ness.

The Demo­cratic base of hard­core lib­er­als and Trump “re­sisters” is not a ma­jor­ity coali­tion. But it is the dom­i­nant ide­o­log­i­cal force within the party (and me­dia) and hence the lead­er­ship is very re­luc­tant to broaden the party’s mes­sage. The new push for zero tol­er­ance of pro-life Democrats is just one ob­vi­ous il­lus­tra­tion of the bind the Democrats are in.

Trump, mean­while, has ded­i­cated the first six months of his pres­i­dency to keep­ing his base happy. That’s in part be­cause he can’t get leg­is­la­tion through Congress, so he tweets red meat to the faith­ful in­stead.

His me­dia cheer­lead­ers in­creas­ingly de­fine con­ser­vatism not as ad­her­ence to any pro­gram, but per­sonal loy­alty to Trump. Hence the ris­ing call from fig­ures such as the re­cently sus­pended Fox News host Eric Bolling to purge the party of “RINOs” (Re­pub­li­cans In Name Only) who are crit­i­cal of the pres­i­dent. If Trump had an ap­proval rat­ing in the high 50s in­stead of the low 30s, fol­low­ing this ad­vice would not threaten the frag­ile GOP ma­jor­ity.

The Democrats have set­tled on eco­nomic pop­ulism as their uni­fy­ing theme not so much be­cause that’s where all the pas­sion is, but be­cause they can’t agree on any other agenda that would en­large their coali­tion. The GOP is shrink­ing its ide­o­log­i­cal com­mit­ments — and ap­peal — and fo­cus­ing in­stead on pop­ulist rage and the pres­i­dent’s cult of per­son­al­ity. Both cour­ses leave vast swaths of the elec­torate up for grabs.

As a re­sult, there’s the po­ten­tial for an open­ing in 2020 for some op­por­tunis­tic fig­ure — Mark Zucker­berg? Michael Bloomberg? — from out­side the be­lea­guered and scle­rotic party sys­tem who could forge a coali­tion from both the tra­di­tional Demo­cratic and Re­pub­li­can col­umns, much as Em­manuel Macron did in France. An in­de­pen­dent can­di­date al­ways seemed like a pipe dream in Amer­ica’s two party-sys­tem. But so did Trump’s can­di­dacy un­til not very long ago.

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