August 16, 2016 | By Richard C. Longworth

Globalization’s Political Earthquake


Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (R) after being introduced by US Senator Elizabeth Warren at a campaign rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S. June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk

Globalization is remaking and reshaping America’s two big political parties. This transformation lies behind the bedlam of this year’s presidential campaign.

For the past half-century, the Democratic and Republican parties have been unified around clear identities. Broadly speaking, the Democrats were liberal, economically and socially, and the Republicans were conservative. The Democrats were the party of big government, the Republicans of big business. Degrees of difference existed within each party, but the most liberal Republican was still more conservative than the most conservative Democrat.

That’s changed. Globalization has split American society into global winners and global losers, the haves and have-nots, global citizens and global left-behinds.

In a coherent politics, there would be a party for each side, a party for the haves and a party for the have-nots. Instead, each party now embraces large constituencies of both winners and losers, and these constituencies are battling for control.

This, more than anything else, explains the chaotic and vitriolic class-based campaign going on now.

The last big realignment of parties took place about 50 years ago. From the New Deal until the mid-1960s, both parties were big tents, sheltering wide varieties of politics and beliefs. Generally, Republicans were more conservative than Democrats, but part of the GOP, such as the so-called Rockefeller Republicans, stood to the left of Democrats, especially those from the Deep South.

That ended in 1965. When President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, he predicted that “we have lost the South for a generation.”

Actually, it’s been two generations. The Democrats, freed of the racist drag of the anti-integration South, became more liberal across the board, especially on racial, minority, and cultural issues. The Republicans regrouped around a Southern, business, and rural base and became ever more conservative.

Now that tidy two-party alignment has split four ways. Both parties are discovering constituents they never knew they had.

Until now, the leadership of both parties accepted the changes wrought by globalization. The Republicans wanted balanced budgets and lower taxes, while the Democrats wanted more economic stimulus and worker protection. But both recognized that the industrial economy had morphed into the global economy. Both endorsed the engines of that economy, such as free trade. Both parties have been run by a traditional elite, symbolized by the Bushes and the Clintons.

Suddenly this summer, both parties have learned that many of their voters don’t buy into this new economy at all. At the same time, an army of alienated non-voters are saying that they want a place where their voice can be heard.  

The Republican Party has already been captured by this revolt of the have-nots. For years, the GOP lured voters with a quasi-populist appeal to gun owners, evangelicals, and anti-abortion activists, but big business actually called the shots. Along came Donald Trump, with his purely populist appeal, and the party’s base fell into his pocket.

The Democratic establishment fought off the Bernie Sanders insurgency. But the Democrats have long claimed to speak for the working people of America, and those workers are threatening to jump ship. So are legions of young people, many left-leaning, who feel the Democratic Party doesn’t reflect their idealism.

In short, neither party speaks any more for many of its voters. Both are coalitions of a pro-globalization leadership and an anti-globalization membership. Neither is aligned with the perceived interests of the people it claims to represent. There are big issues out there, but neither party is able to meet them.

Americans are not alone in this dilemma. The same political pressures exist in many countries, most vividly in post-Brexit Britain. The leadership of both the Conservative and Labour parties endorsed continued British membership in the European Union. The voters of both parties rejected it and voted to leave.

John Lanchester wrote in the London Review of Books that “the configuration of the parties doesn’t match the issues which need to be resolved. To simplify, the Tories are a coalition of nationalists, who voted out, and business interests, who voted in; Labour is a coalition of urban liberals, who voted in, and the working class, who voted out.”

The Tory leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, resigned. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, may soon be gone.

Across the Atlantic, the same shambles rule the two big American parties.   

The Republicans are in total disarray. The party leadership has been made to look like fools, and the party itself is being led over a cliff by a charlatan with no qualification other than a gift for turning disgust into votes. Four years from now, the GOP may no longer exist.

The Democrats are surviving but partly because the alternative is Trump. So far, it can unite against The Donald. But even if it wins this election, can it unite any longer for anything else?

The Democratic Party may become a city-based coalition led by a well-educated, well-heeled urban elite, tuned to and backed by minority voters. The Republican Party may become a coalition between poorer and less-educated voters, mostly white, rural, and suburban, with a southern and western base. Or it could become just a pro-business party, while the remnants of the Trump campaign split into a new, populist, and xenophobic party.

Globalization is here to stay but its impact on millions – perhaps a majority – of Americans deserves a national debate. We can’t retreat into a fortress America, but we can’t ignore the fact that so many voters want just that.

In a democracy, this debate takes place in the political arena and is guided by the major parties speaking from a clear political and ideological base. Neither party has that base any more.

Both the Republicans and Democrats were shaped by the last great economic upheaval, the industrial revolution. The titanic battles of that era – over race, taxes, unions, trade – were framed and fought by the two parties. Over the years, these debates and these issues made the parties what they were.

This summer of our discontent is only the first act in an epochal political transformation. 

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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.

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