In the first Republican primary debate, moderators asked the candidates present whether they would ultimately support the party’s nominee for president. The unusual query was designed to assuage fears that one aspirant, Donald J. Trump, would seek a chaos-inducing independent bid for the White House. Trump’s answer was, of course, unsatisfactory.
A year later, however, Trump was not scheming a third-party ascendency, but rather accepting the Republican presidential nomination. Commentators pointed to the businessman’s flawed competition and celebrity status to justify the advent of his movement. Yet as the 2016 race comes to a close, Trump’s meteoric ascendency appears not an outlier, but instead a manifestation of ideological and demographic shifts that could produce a fundamental partisan realignment.
Traditionally, the Republican base, comprised of pro-business moderates and rural whites, advocates social and fiscal conservatism, free trade, secure borders, and a hawkish foreign policy. Conversely, Democrats draw support from coastal elites, urban minorities, and unionized blue-collar workers who promote social liberalism, active fiscal policy, loosened immigration standards, trade limitations, and restrained global interventionism.
2016, however, tells a different story. Conflicting sharply with many of the aforementioned precepts, Trump has embraced an ambitious spending agenda and has no plans to cut Medicare or social security. He is furthermore vehemently opposed to unrestrained global commerce, proposing a 45% tariff on Chinese goods. And despite the former reality TV star’s heightened rhetoric on security, Trump has scorned traditional alliances and embraced neoconservative nemesis Vladimir Putin.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton also strays from the party line in several noteworthy instances. Notwithstanding her recent about-face on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the former Secretary of State longs for a “hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders.” Moreover, Clinton’s foreign policy surprisingly mirrors not the liberal internationalism of her husband, but the assertive militarism of his successor.
On trade and foreign affairs, Trump therefore resembles a conventional Democrat and Clinton a Republican. But are divergences between candidate and creed enough to dislodge longstanding party foundations? 2016, in which the economy, terrorism, and foreign policy constitute the paramount voter issues, posits an affirmative hypothesis.
Demographic trends appear to reflect the candidates’ ideological shifts. Trump’s coalition is not the typical Republican Wall Street and Bible Belt alliance, but rather includes white blue-collar workers in historically Democratic Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Clinton, on the other hand, has struggled to appeal to the white working class, losing key industrial states Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan to Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) during the primary. Instead, she has forged close ties with Wall Street and drawn praise from the neoconservative Rushmore of Kagan and Wolfowitz. Elements of her support base –corporate executives and security hawks- thus resemble the Romney coalition far more than that of Barack Obama.
If Republicans continue to adopt Democrat characteristics and vice versa, what would a future partisan landscape resemble? Let’s envision the formation of two newly incepted political identities, the Internationalists and the Nationalists. Clintonian Democrats, or Internationalists, would be united by their global orientation, advocating free trade, increased immigration opportunities, and exceptionalist diplomatic and military leadership. It would be a party of the financial and intellectual elite, and would conjoin the center-left and center-right by adopting broadly accepted social and environmental stances combined with pro-business fiscal conservatism. And despite the party’s historical liberalism, Internationalists might deem entitlement cuts necessary to the achievement of more pressing objectives.
Nationalists, or rebranded Trumpian Republicans, would contrastingly postulate globalization to be destroying the fabric of American society. A populist union of rural conservatives alongside blue-collar workers, they would preach staunch isolationism through an “America First” agenda emphasizing border security, manufacturing revitalization, and governmental investment in job creation. A convergence of rural Evangelism and urban Catholicism could also maintain the party’s social conservative roots while instilling a commitment to welfare potentially rivaling that of progressive Internationalists.
It would be rash to expect the aforementioned partnerships to develop rapidly, as political realignment is a chaotic, drawn-out process. Additionally, this forecast admittedly leaves numerous questions unanswered. To which of these parties would disaffected urban minorities turn, the elite establishment or a group that embraced the alt-right? Where would moderate conservatives like Rubio or Kasich fall in this spectrum? The extent of partisan loyalty likewise remains debatable; could rank-and-file Republicans abandon RNC resources, and could former Sanders adherents stomach admitting affinity for the GOP?
2016 has demonstrated, however, that when confronted with populist inclinations towards isolationism and anti-intellectualism, the interests of centrists on the left and right converge in an unprecedented manner. At the same time, the electoral significance of Trump’s constituency cannot be denied, particularly if future candidates emerge bearing his ideological tenets but lacking his crude demeanor. Indeed, a recent Bloomberg poll showed fifty-one percent of Republicans believe Trump to represent their view of the party, in contrast to only thirty-three saying the same of Paul Ryan.
Ultimately, politics is predicated on opportunity, and as seen in Clinton’s outreach to moderate Republicans and Trump’s to former Sanders supporters, candidates are already targeting new constituencies. So while 2016 could be an aberration, the present system of partisan categorization appears on an irreversible trajectory towards a reconfigured future equilibrium.
Matthew Gregory is a senior in the School of Foreign Service and the former President of the Georgetown University College Democrats.