New Deal Republicans?

Luke Phillips


Now here’s a thought. What if Michael Lind is right and the Democrats are now the party of Hillary Clinton, and the Republicans are the party of Donald Trump? That is, the Democrats are the elitist, financialist party of Wall Street and Hollywood and Silicon Valley, while the Republicans are the populist party of the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt and the Deep South?

Donald Trump’s handy destruction of the GOP Establishment seems to confirm that the “slave lord” (that’s a joke I’ll explain later) neoliberal Republican Establishment is dead for good, while the neoliberal Democratic Establishment has handily marginalized the Sanders-Warren populist left wing Dems. I hope the racist passions Trump has aroused cool down soon enough, but post-2016, something’s clear about the GOP- its voters will no longer respond to the current libertarian-neoliberal-Friedmanite donor class. They will no longer be moved by appeals to higher legal immigration and more trade deals and tax cuts for the rich and cuts to entitlement programs. (We need to approach those issues very, very carefully- but a rebranding must come first.)

Enter a newly-progressive Republican Party. Unite the populist Tea-Party-Trumpists with the quasi-socialist Sandersistas, both of whom oppose trade, support more government involvement in the economy in areas like infrastructure and entitlements, don’t particularly like Wall Street, and want to protect American industries and industrial workers in any way possible.

Oh, but the social issues. Sandersistas will never stand by racists and Tea-Partiers will never stand by gay rights advocates, right?

Well, I guess we’ll have to see. One thing’s for sure, though- it’s happened before.

Around the turn of the 20th Century, the Progressives in the Northeast railed against the (Wall Street) Establishment for various reasons, while the Western and Southern Populists did so for other reasons. The Progressives followed Teddy Roosevelt, while the Populists followed William Jennings Bryan. Both had their distinct ideological traditions and policy platforms, but they generally shared a hatred of the East Coast Establishment of the then-dominant Republican Party.

After the contested election of 1912, Woodrow Wilson (a Southern Populist Democrat with Northern Progressive Republican instincts and not much love for the Establishment Republicans) entered the Oval Office and laid out a complex agenda. It included financial policies that ultimately created the decentralized Federal Reserve, industrial regulation policies that sought to break apart rather than simply regulate big businesses, and progressive policies that protected consumers and workers. In short, President Wilson combined the interests of Populists and Progressives and welded them into a new anti-elite policy and political agenda.

Over a decade after Wilson left the Oval Office, a man who worked for him- Mr. Franklin Delano Roosevelt- used Wilson’s agenda, alongside some inspirations from Teddy Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan, in an experimental fashion while reacting to the Great Depression and designing the New Deal state from the Presidency. Beyond merely using Populist and Progressive means, though, FDR managed to weld former Populists in the South and West with Progressives in the Northeast into an anti-establishment political coalition. (The Republicans of the time remained the party of the business establishment.)

In other words, FDR got Klansmen and Socialists to vote for the same policies, no matter how much they distrusted each other and despised each other’s social views. Opposition to a greater enemy made friends of foes.

Jump back to 2016 and beyond. See any parallels?

The Democratic Party, as Joel Kotkin has argued well, is the main plutocratic party these days- and many Republicans (perhaps myself included) will likely flee to a centralizing big-government/neoliberal economics party for social issues reasons, and find that their economic interests align well with those of Clinton’s Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood friends. It’s already happening, as various outlets are now reporting.

So some enterprising Republican political entrepreneur who can stomach the combined grossness of socialism and populism might be able to stitch together an anti-establishment “NEW New Deal Coalition” out of the most swashbucklingly motley crew imaginable. It’s still possible- an economically populist, socially liberal Republican Party. Find the support, and it could happen. (Should it happen? That’s a question worth debating. But I think if we’re going to find the political power to oppose the Clintonite Democrat Establishment, it may be the only way.)

Perhaps something more stomachable would be to make the core of this coalition NOT the Trumpenproletariat, NOR the Sandersistas, but the ascendant middle class of Sun Belt state suburban peripheries, along with reformist Blue State Republicans. Pick these socially reasonable people as the leaders, keep the Trump and Sanders guys in line with patronage politics- maybe there’s something there. We’ll have to see.

Oh, and the “slave lord” GOP libertarian-neoliberal establishment. That’s a reference to Colin Woodard’s term and David Hackett Fischer’s work. The Koch donor class of the GOP propounds the same anti-government ideology that deep Southern slave lords once did, albeit for different reasons. But it’s a cool name to call your enemies.


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