The 2016 primaries have been a thrilling rollercoaster ride for everyone who's been paying attention. Every round of voting has raised a new set of questions about the outcome of this year's presidential contest. Will the populist demagogue Donald Trump actually succeed in winning the Republican nomination? Is there any way for party elites to stop him? On the Democratic side, might a self-described socialist manage to beat out establishment stalwart Hillary Clinton? How will Bernie Sanders' fervent supporters respond if he fails to secure the nomination?
And yet, despite all the 2016 intrigue, the events of the past several months have been exciting at least as much for what they might portend for the future.
It's possible that all of the drama will come to nothing — that Sanders will lose, give up gracefully, encourage his millions of supporters to rally around Clinton, and succeed in convincing them to do so; and that the eventual GOP nominee will run in the general election and even govern as a standard-issue post-Reagan Republican, promising to cut taxes on the wealthy, talking tough about immigration but not building a wall or deporting 11 million people, maintaining the post-Cold War international order, and railing against (but not doing much about) liberal social-sexual trends.
If all those things happen, and no new populist candidate emerges to challenge the party establishments on either side in 2020, then this crazy primary season will go down as an aberration.
But imagine a different, more destabilizing, and (frankly) more likely scenario — which is that we're living through the early stages of an ideological realignment of America's two major political parties.
If that's the case, events would unfold along something like the following lines: Sanders would lose somewhat less than gracefully and a significant number of progressives and Democratic-leaning independents would choose to stay home in November rather than vote for Hillary Clinton, who would run a general-election campaign of unapologetic neoliberalism. She would campaign in favor of cautious incremental changes to the status quo, free trade, keeping taxes roughly where they are, unabashed social-sexual liberalism, aggressive gun restrictions, and a militarily muscular foreign policy to combat ISIS and reassert America's global leadership after the slightly more restrained approach favored by Barack Obama (especially in the years since Clinton left the State Department). Many progressive Sanders supporters would be so turned off by Clinton's agenda that they would seriously entertain voting for the Republican nominee.
And that man is Donald Trump — the real wild card in the realignment scenario.
Whether a massive realignment actually occurs will depend to a large extent on whether Trump becomes the Republican nominee — and on what version of Donald Trump ends up running in the general election this fall. Is it the Trump who sounds like a standard-issue Republican, especially on tax cuts and the unmitigated "disaster" of the Obama presidency? Or is it the Trump who scrambles the GOP's ideological categories, running to the party's left on government spending and social issues and to its right on immigration and prosecuting the war on terror? If it's the latter Trump who runs in the fall, perhaps doubling down on these off-sides issues to appeal to disgruntled Sanders voters, he'd have a decent shot of sparking a full-fledged realignment, regardless of whether he wins in November.
What would the parties look like once the dust had settled?
The GOP could very well end up as the party of populism and white ethnic nationalism. Among its core policy commitments:
- Stringent limits on immigration, including widespread deportations.
- Protectionist economic policies in which trade agreements are scrapped or reopened for negotiation with an eye to winning more favorable terms for American workers. The party might also work to rein in the freedom of American companies to shift their workforces overseas, and to encourage them to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. This could involve the development of a comprehensive industrial policy for the nation.
- No new tax cuts for anyone, and perhaps modest tax hikes on the wealthy to cover the costs of Social Security, Medicare, and an expanded and reformed version of ObamaCare that would move the country closer to universal health-care coverage (albeit with the benefits enjoyed only by American citizens). I wouldn't be surprised if Trump or some populist successor also came to champion a version of Sanders' proposal to make college (or at least community college) free for all Americans.
- A strong rhetorical defense of family values and religious freedom, but no concrete moves at the level of policy to continue waging the culture war.
- Much more aggressive moves against ISIS and other terrorist groups combined with a dramatic scaling back of America's other overseas obligations, including the closing of military bases in Europe and Asia, and a substantial decrease in financial and military support for NATO.
- Championing of gun rights.
- Opposition to environmental regulations (especially in the energy sector).
Where would this leave the Democrats? Pretty much where they've been since Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992 — as the party of neoliberal internationalism, though now without some of the populist energy that fueled the Sanders insurgency, and with quite a bit more of a willingness to balance progressive goals against the concerns of big business and the imperatives of using American military might to enforce order around the globe. The Democrats would now be the party of Charles Koch, Robert Kagan and the rest of the neocons, bicoastal elites (including the tech sector), libertarians, the most secular Americans, and the African American and Latino communities.
The more purely left-wing faction of the party will surely be disheartened by this prediction and dispute it, wondering why I don't think a realignment will result in a Democratic Party transformed in a more populist direction, leaving the GOP as the party of warmongers and the wealthy. The answer is that this was indeed one possible outcome of this year's tumultuous election cycle — but Bernie Sanders came up short. If he had prevailed while Trump petered out, the populist polarities might have ended up flipped, with left-wing populism provoking an exodus of even more bankers and foreign policy internationalists to the Republican Party.
But as it is, Sanders seems doomed to lose while Trump is on track to win. And that means the realignment is poised to transform the GOP into America's populist party.