NEW GEOGRAPHY--The Republican Party’s road to the 2018 mid-terms looks increasingly like Pickett’s Charge, the Confederate assault on fixed Union positions that marked the high-water mark for the southern cause. After achieving its greatest domination of elective office in 80 years, the GOP seems likely to get slaughtered.
As at Gettysburg, bad generalship, an unpopular, clumsy Donald Trump, constitutes one cause for the imminent Republican decline. But the officer corps is also failing, as the congressional delegation seems determined to screw its middle class base in favor the remnant of those corporate plutocrats who finance their campaigns and the Goldman Sachs crowd to whom Trump has outsourced his economic policy. Steve Bannon’s support for demagogues like Roy Moore can only further weaken the party’s appeal, rapidly turning much of the business community, out of sheer embarrassment, into de facto Democrats.
Only one thing can save the Republicans from themselves: the Democrats. Although they have shown remarkable unity as part of the anti-Trump resistance, the Democrats themselves suffer deep-seated divisions. Most critically they are moving left at a time when more voters seek something more in the middle. Certainly this progressive tilt has done little to reverse their own declining popularity; public approval of the party has sunk to the lowest levels in a quarter century.
The rise of the radical base
“Who the gods wish to destroy, they first drive mad.” Today this old Greek adage seems particularly applicable to the Democrats. In the past the party produced leaders, and endorsed positions, that appealed across a broad swath of the population. With the Republicans forced to defend Trump, and ally with the marginalized far-right, a more centrist approach seems almost guaranteed to create success, as we saw recently in the Virginia elections.
But, sadly, the much heralded “resistance” to Trump has radicalized the party’s grassroots, giving enhanced power to militant groups like Black Lives Matter, as well as the most extreme green and gender fundamentalists. Clustered increasingly in large urban centers, Democrats are moving more quickly to progressive extremes than the GOP is shifting to the right; the percentage of Democratic voters tilting left since 1994 has grown from 30 percent to 73 percent. Moderates in the party, argues Wall Street investor Steven Ratner, face a “freight train coming at us from the left.”
The centrist approach used in Virginia should show the way, and succeeded largely by winning moderate voters from the affluent D.C. suburbs. But in California or New York rank and file, suburban Democrats have little voice against the organized and strident habitués of the core cities. The various cultural imperatives of the media, the universities, the progressive non-profit and well-funded community groups wash out all other voices.
Positions that threaten a Democratic resurgence
Three critical positions threaten a national Democratic resurgence. The first, and the most divisive, is immigration policy. Most Americans do not embrace the xenophobia of the Trump base, but they also do not favor such things as sanctuary cities, even here in California. They are not likely to celebrate immigrant law-breaking as does state Senate Leader Kevin de León, now challenging the more centrist Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s bid for re-election.
The second vulnerability revolves around a strong move to a single-payer federal system, a position endorsed by increasingly powerful groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and New York’s Working Families Party. To be sure, this may be more attractive to most Americans than GOP attempts to scuttle the current Obamacare system, but it would require a massive tax increase that would alienate moderate, middle-income voters. A plan to impose this system on California was deemed so expensive — essentially more than doubling the state budget — that Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon had to table it to the chagrin of the progressive lobby.
The third, and perhaps most critical, policy area relates more broadly to culture. Just as the antediluvian stances of a Roy Moore may make middle-of-the-road voters gag, many Americans also would have a hard time embracing such things as reparations, race and gender quotas, transgender issues, campus speech codes and even football protests celebrated by progressives. This aversion to identity politics appears particularly true for the middle American voters who swung in 2016 to Trump and the GOP.
Will the Democrats squander a golden opportunity?
These radicalizing trends could prevent Democrats from taking full advantage of Republican dysfunction, and could make red states even redder. Far-left positions could possibly pass as part of an anti-Trump wave, but would likely suffer a similar fate to the rolling disasters that followed the passage of Obamacare. They could be sustained in such places as California or New York City, but would not sell so well in the middle part of the country.
As has long been the case, the long-term winners are those who can appeal to the largely suburban centrist middle class and the large number of self-described independents in the swing states. Trump, and the lunatic fringe of the GOP, have given Democrats a huge opportunity to win over this critical base. They should be careful not to blow it.
(Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com … where this column was originally posted … and a CityWatch contributor. He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book is The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.)