Sixteen months into the 2016 Presidential Election, it is clear that both major political parties have become highly divided. In the Republican Party, Donald Trump, a clear outsider in American electoral politics, defeated sixteen opponents during the primary process, many of whom were better connected and better funded by GOP insiders than the eventual nominee himself. On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton narrowly held onto victory against insurgent socialist Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who rhetorically railed against “the establishment” and politics-as-is throughout his campaign.
Both Trump and Sanders received over forty percent of their respective parties’ primary vote. Both candidates detest, and are in-turn detested by, party insiders and establishment politicians. While the two septuagenarian candidates are different in many ways, major policy themes in each of their platforms share two important commonalities which represent the future of American politics: an abhorrence of the establishment, and a dislike of globalist free trade. The new divide in our two-party system will not be along the liberal-conservative spectrum, but rather globalist-protectionist lines.
Recent economic developments, both within the United States and abroad, indicate as much. In the US, the half-century-long flight of low-skill manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries has culminated in today’s anxiety amongst blue collar workers about employment prospects. This loss of manufacturing jobs is a direct result of the post-World War II internationalist order established to promote global peace and stability through trade and conformity to common legal standards where possible. In Europe, strains from the recent influx of refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War have exasperated similar tensions within working classes from Birmingham to Belgrade. The end result in both areas has been a cry to “take our country back,” or “Make America Great Again.” This practically plays out in advocacy for closed borders, protectionist trade policies, and rhetoric bathed in ethnic nationalism.
Of course, economic protectionists are not a monolithic group. The social policies and accompanying rhetoric of progressive protectionists and Tea Party conservatives are quite different. However, it is not a coincidence that both groups dislike establishment politics. The same demographics who have been left out by recent economic developments feel slighted by the political system which promoted them. As if that weren’t enough reason to disdain political insiders, the economic trends described parallel a decades-long period of anti-establishment sentiment following the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal. Narratives have become popular tying necessary attributes of legislative politics, such as compromise and pork-barrel legislation, to methods of corruption and insularity. The end result of this has been a perfect cocktail of political upheaval that we are just beginning to see today.
At least for now, the Democratic Party is in better shape than its conservative counterpart. In a recent polling analysis by FiveThirtyEight, about two-thirds of Sanders supporters have proclaimed support to Clinton compared to just six percent voting for Trump. On the other hand, a plethora of GOP leaders and scholars have declared for Clinton or against Trump. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for President, is polling between seven and nine percent, likely gaining most of his voters from the Republican nominee camp. While the election is closer than it should be, that has more to do with the negative narratives surrounding Hillary Clinton as a candidate rather than the strengths of Donald Trump.
Trump’s candidacy, however, may do long-term damage to the Republican brand, and GOP leaders know it. After Mitt Romney’s loss to President Barack Obama during the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee conducted a study titled the “Growth and Opportunity Project” (dubbed the autopsy report), which sought to ensure the Republican Party remained electorally viable at the presidential level in years to come. Among other points, its main conclusions determined that the party formerly of Lincoln must make inroads among minorities, women, and young people. Trump has done the exact opposite of this. While political polling as of late has been inaccurate to say the least, the Republican nominee polls worse than his predecessor amongst these demographics and others, including even white, non-college educated men.
Though this election will not result in the landslide result that it should, considering Trump’s self-imposed weaknesses achieved by insulting just about everybody and failing to run a traditional campaign by any means, it presents a once in a generation opportunity for the Democratic Party. While economic populism has reared its head in American politics regularly throughout the Republic’s 240-year history, never before has it been so prevalent or widespread. With evidence that a political realignment is impending, and one of the country’s two major parties committing itself to a losing strategy throughout this cycle, it is clear that the Democratic Party has everything it needs to reinvent itself as the party of the 21st Century.
In order to do so effectively, the party needs to do two major things. Firstly, it must retake control of the narrative. Barack Obama was the communicator-in-chief as a candidate for President, but has yielded the bully pulpit to his rivals since the Republican wave of 2010. The focus-group-tested, passionless appeal that the Clinton Campaign pursues is the safe strategy in an election in which the opposing camp dominates the headlines in negative ways. After November, however, a more compelling case must be made. The RNC will rebound at some point as an effective institution. That means the Democrats’ opening to retake control of message boards and punditry is narrow. While it is difficult to determine exactly how this should be achieved, the strengths of Bernie Sanders’ grassroots activism should be combined with the existing strengths of Hillary Clinton’s inside game to promote a message of hope and progress, something that has historically crushed nihilistic and fearful political messaging.
Secondly, and perhaps more controversially, the Democratic Party must reorient its platform positions along the winning side of the newly emerging political fault lines. That is, the Democratic Party should embrace globalism wholeheartedly, with rational policy guidelines to ensure its developments work for all Americans. In both domestic and foreign policy, the party should adopt stances which pursue integration with global partners. By almost any measurable standard, this internationalist trend through the latter-half of the 20th Century has led to moral and economic progress.
Firstly, the elephant in the room should be addressed — that being the displacement of low-skill manufacturing workers within the United States. Since its peak in the early 1970s, the availability of good paying manufacturing jobs for those with a high school diploma or less have decreased immensely. This has, objectively, been at least exasperated by the pursuit of trade deals, both bilateral and multilateral, with nations that have low wage and labor standards, such as China and Mexico. However, the protectionist argument surrounding this issue is faulty.
Protectionists, left and right, claim that, if our nation limits trade and imposes tariffs on foreign goods, high paying jobs will stay here, thus benefitting the economy and individual workers. This argument has several problems. Firstly, the times are different than when our nation’s manufacturing sector peaked in employment. Both Europe and Japan, major industrial actors today, took years to recover from the massive devastation from the Second World War. China was in the midst of a bloody cultural revolution, and third world countries which are major players today economically were impoverished from years of colonialism. Considering these factors, American dominance worldwide in manufacturing was impossible to sustain so long as other players ever rose. Logically, the only way to achieve that level of manufacturing employment would be to suppress other industrial powers.
This is only the first issue with protectionist reasoning. Secondly, the rise of automation throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries is currently in the process of making these particular jobs obsolete within the United States anyway. Industrial managers have every incentive to reduce headcount, as it will save them money in the long-run, increase efficiency and productivity, and eliminate the human error. It doesn’t make sense to try and preserve a profession through policy that employers themselves are in the process of eliminating.
Thirdly, the standard of living for a majority of Americans has vastly increased since the early 1970s. The cost of products for all Americans has decreased, because they emerge from nations with low labor costs. Today, you can walk into a Walmart and furnish your house, buy your groceries and buy your clothing without breaking the bank. While a person with a high school education may no longer have the factory job he or she always desired, he can own a flatscreen TV and an iPhone while feeding his family by other means.
Lastly regarding the Protectionist economic argument, other jobs are actually available for the affected demographic, largely in the service industry. Plumbing, carpentry, heating and cooling installation, and similar services are high-paying, require similar education and skill sets to manufacturing jobs, and are in high (and increasing) demand. Of course, there should be increased investment in job retraining programs to ensure those who need a new job have the capabilities to get one. All in all, the benefits of free trade outweigh the costs.
This change will unfortunately ostracize economically progressive members of the Democratic coalition. It would be offset though by what is gained. Libertarian-minded, moderate, and young Republicans by and large dislike the GOP in its current form, and certainly are dismayed at its pursuit of protectionist ideals. That being said, trade and cooperation are also in line with the Democratic Party’s values as well. Income inequality can and should be addressed, but that will not be achieved by cutting off the most well documented source of wealth in history: trade with other partners. This economic cooperation also promotes political cooperation amongst affected parties; be it workers and employers or different national polities.
Regarding social policy, the Democratic Platform is on the right track. We should continue the pursuit of liberty and justice for ALL Americans, not just white people, or men, or Christians, or the rich. Ultimately, the adoption of a globalist economic stance will take the wind out of the sails of the Republican Party, continually increase the money in the pockets of all Americans, and promote cooperation on the international scale. It is clear that the Democratic Party has the opportunity and means to act. It should do so now, before the Republican establishment reasserts control of its renegade party.
The author’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of all Tangents contributors.
Michael Vadon/Gage Skidmore (respective photo authors), “Trump & Clinton [composite],” March 2, 2016, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY–SA 4.0, accessed September 3, 2016, http://bit.ly/2cozzmb.