Brontosaurus

The Obligatory "The Emerging Political Realignment" Post

Earlier this year, a powerful and rich corporation threatened significant sanctions against a state in order to pressure that state to change its laws. Despite the law having strong support in the state legislature, the threat was effective and the legislature capitulated. The Governor (a member of the other party than the legislative majority) declared the repeal a victory, as did activists nationwide. The state was North Carolina, the corporation the NCAA, and the law the controversial "bathroom bill" that required North Carolinians to use the public restroom designated for the sex written on their birth certificate.

At the same time, the reduced Republican majorities in the House and Senate (despite taking the White House, Republicans lost two Senate seats and eight House seats) found itself unable -- so far -- to make good on their one consistent campaign promise over the past several years, to repeal the Affordable Care Act, largely because their caucus was split between a faction that viewed immediate and complete repeal as necessary and a faction that viewed it as odious (along with a faction that considered it procedurally impossible). The plan itself had been written 20 years earlier by a Republican think-tank, and was heavily criticized by many progressive Democrats because it used market mechanisms to price insurance and did not at all touch health care provisioning itself [1].

In retrospect, the independence of the Presidency from the Legislature seems to guarantee the formation of implicit coalitions in the form of two (and only two) parties rather than the explicit multiparty coalitions more commonly seen in Westminster systems. Since (short of impeachment) the Legislature cannot simply end a Presidential administration in the US, smaller parties have no protections, so instead factions coalesce into administratively unified parties, while still maintaining their particular interests. The behavior of American parties since the founding seems to confirm that this is some sort of equilibrium: as soon as Washington, with his famous personal antipathy for parties, was out of government, the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans formed quickly and behaved as recognizable national parties (modulo a few duels). As the Democratic-Republican party ate more and more interest groups, the Federalists starved, and the Whigs cleaved off from the Democratic-Republican (now simply "Democratic") party, originally over the question of Presidential and Legislative powers. The Whigs and Democrats both split over slavery and reformed as the Democrats and Republicans, the parties (though, importantly, not the coalitions) we still have today.

After the Civil War, the Democratic Party was a smoldering heap of ruin nationally, and its only coherent position was an opposition to Reconstruction. When this was ended, as the 30 pieces of silver for Hayes's 1876 election, the Democratic party embedded itself in the South for the next hundred years. Christopher Ladd has written an excellent set of pieces for Forbes (all listed in his blog I just linked) about the importance of the Democratic party's losing southern whites over the past 40 years. A brief precis might be:

  1. America was founded as a Caribbean slave plantation economy embedded within an enlightenment Republic
  2. The South has never had the multiparty tradition the rest of the country has: one party always dominates the region completely
  3. White southerners vote as a bloc to defend white supremacy above all other considerations
  4. The Republican party did not "win over the South"; rather it was essentially eaten by an influx of Southern whites it was not prepared for
  5. The Southern "party" is flexible on ideology so long as whites are not seen to be losing ground to blacks
  6. Neither the Democratic nor Republican party are inherently acceptable to the Southern party

Let me explain that last one: the Southern party is what might be called "Christian Democrats" in Europe. They want an expensive welfare state (and oppose Republican attempts to destroy that in general) but oppose any extension of that welfare state to non-whites (and so oppose Democratic attempst to extend benefits to nonwhites).

None of what I've been saying so far is particularly relevant to Trump, whose victory was sui generis and did not particularly hinge on the Southern party (and in fact he did worse in the South than some recent GOP candidates). But it is very relevant to Congressional partisan politics at this moment. The Freedom Caucus, for instance, is actually lighter on the ground in the South than it is in the mid-Atlantic or the West: the Southern agenda is not a libertarian one.

The Republican party 40 years ago was the aspirational party: the party that wore a jacket and tie to dinner; the party you hoped one day to make enough money to fit in with (even if you swore you would never become one). The town's two car dealership owners were probably Republicans, as were most of their friends at the town's shitty country club (but, growing up in that town, you didn't realize it was shitty, or that the car dealership owners weren't particularly rich by national standards, just by your town's standards).

[1] That's not entirely true; the ACA increased the funding of the Federally Qualified Health Clinic system, which is a significant change in healthcare provisioning, if on a limited scale.


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