A Bernie Sanders supporter reached out to me a while back, suggesting that he’d be interested in joining a Progressive Republican movement. His exact quote was “Progressives have been stuck with the Democrats, and would like more options.”
Wouldn’t that be something! A Hillary nomination for the Democrats and a mass defection of Bernie Sanders supporters to…. The Republican Party?
Well, it’s not going to happen any time soon, a) because the Progressive Republican League is currently nowhere near influential enough, and b) because the rest of the Republican Party, even in blue Massachusetts and California, is nowhere near progressive enough on economic and government issues to appeal to Sandersistas. That’s fine. But… but what if it were?
As Michael Lind has demonstrated, the Democratic Party of 2016 has been more influenced by the Neoliberal Reformation of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s than by the New Deal tradition. (It’s also carried with it the worst excesses of the Great Society social engineering tradition and the Naderite regulatory tradition, and its backing by trial lawyers and public-sector unions, along with Wall Street and Silicon Valley, makes the Democrats of today a party of both neoliberal plutocrats and stewards of the administrative leviathan.) That’s true for both centrist Democrats like Bill Clinton and culturally liberal Democrats like Barack Obama. The fact of the matter is, the center of gravity in the Democratic Establishment of today is far to the right of the Democratic Party of 80 years ago. Democrats are Neoliberals in economics and social policy.
And who better exemplifies that relative moderation than Hillary Clinton herself, Democratic frontrunner, once and future candidate? Who else is more backed by corporate, financial, entertainment, and tech interests? Who can we better trust to run the country as it’s been governed for the last quarter-century than the former First Lady herself?
That’s why the Sanders “movement” has had such momentum- it’s been reacting to a centrist-neoliberal establishment offering next to nothing to people further left economically. Of course, the Sanders “movement” is not really a movement in the traditional sense, as a piece at Slate argued recently– it doesn’t have a network of think tanks, PACs, advocacy 501c4s, etc., beyond the Progressive Campaign Change Committee and other groups. Like Howard Dean in 2004, it will whither away after Sanders loses the nominating contest. The voters will still be important, but they’ll have no political infrastructure to organize themselves. Sandersistas, then, are better viewed as heirs of Occupy Wall Street than as harbingers of future progressivism- disorganized protestors with a good storyline but very little political capital.
This opens up a fantastic opportunity for any Progressive Republicans willing to take it up. I’ve already written that Republicans should take at least a couple policy stances from Bernie- support for progressive taxation and income redistribution, support for massive public works and relative trade protectionism, support for financial re-regulation and the return of Glass-Steagall, support for campaign finance reform, and others- because these stances were all once adopted by that great hero of the Republican Party, President Theodore Roosevelt, and are relevant in the world of 2016. And moreover, these positions are not being advocated by frontrunner Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment.
Interestingly enough, there is a Republican presidential candidate who crusades against Wall Street, attacks the political class for not supporting campaign finance reform, and promises a program of nationalist economics. His name is Donald Trump. And he has forever changed the Republican Party’s tone and orthodoxy.
Don’t get me wrong- I hope the anti-immigrant nativism and “moral majority” appeals to coded racism recede, replaced by a politics of racial harmony and national unity. But Trump’s hard policy positions- government reform, instituting a veritably nationalist American System of Economics- look suspiciously “Progressive,” rather than right-wing populist. Indeed, Michael Lind argued in the New York Times the other day that “Trumpism” or white working class populism will increasingly dominate the Republican Party in future years, regardless of what happens in November, while “Clintonism” or neoliberal upper-class elitism will increasingly dominate the Democratic Party.
“…Donald Trump has mounted and ridden the horse of conservative populism, but it was already out of the barn. Before Mr. Trump, similar populist themes were sounded by Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Patrick Buchanan. For a while, the strength of the religious right allowed elite Republicans to trade tax cuts for the rich for support for banning abortion and gay marriage. But as religious conservatism declines, a kind of European-style national populism is rising, for which protectionism and immigration restriction are central issues, not peripheral concerns.
Long before Mr. Trump threw his hat into the ring in 2015, the economic libertarians who are overrepresented in the donor class and Republican think tanks and magazines were losing to the populists. Opposition to illegal immigration went from being a fringe issue associated with Patrick Buchanan in the 1990s to a central test of whether one was a “true conservative” or a Republican in Name Only. In 2007 and again in 2013, the opposition of populist Republicans thwarted so-called comprehensive immigration reform in Congress….
The pro-Sanders left objects to the solicitude of the Democratic Party for Wall Street and Silicon Valley, the sources of much of its funding. But it is safe to assume that most progressives, when confronted with conservative candidates, will prefer incremental, finance-friendly Clintonism over the right-wing alternative. Moreover, the ability or even willingness of Mr. Sanders to help down-ballot or state candidates is doubtful. The next generation of Democrats are figures like Julian and Joaquin Castro and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who are much more in the mold of the Clintons and Mr. Obama than of the maverick outsider Bernie Sanders…
…For all of these reasons, it is likely that the future of the Democrats will be Clintonism — Hillary Clintonism, that is, a slightly more progressive version of neoliberalism freed of the strategic concessions to white working-class voters associated with Bill Clintonism. On the other side of the aisle, it is probably only a matter of time before the conflict between elite libertarianism and the populism of the voters in the Republican Party is resolved more or less in favor of the voters, by a new orthodoxy that moves left on entitlements and right on immigration, while eschewing Mr. Trump’s inflammatory approach.”
I don’t know that Trump’s going to win the nomination or election. But what if someone in 2020 who has spoken well of Trump and somewhat follows his economic and social policy platforms, who is socially much more liberal- someone like Chris Christie or Jon Huntsman- runs for the Presidency? What will their attacks on the Clinton machine look like?
It certainly won’t be the standard denunciations of Obamacare. More likely than not, such a candidate would oppose Hillary Clinton for promoting free trade and increased rates of legal immigration, for seeking to reduce entitlement spending, for not being bold enough in infrastructure and industrial policy, for destroying working-class jobs through climate change policy- in other words, what a more conservative Bernie Sanders or a more liberal Donald Trump would say.
Does this require the complete jettisoning of everything the Republican Party and conservative movement has stood for in the last twenty years, if not the last seventy years?
More or less, yes.
But stranger things have happened. Here’s to a culturally conservative, social progressive, economically activist, administratively reformist, post-Reaganite Republican Party. I think it’ll happen. To the Bernie Sanders supporter who reached out to me- you’ll have a home.