Gerald Seib, one of the nation’s best political reporters and analysts, wrote in The Wall Street Journal last week that this year’s presidential election signals the destruction of the two voter coalitions that have bracketed our national debates for decades.
On the right, Seib said, the triumph of Donald Trump signals the end of the Reagan coalition. On the left, Bernie Sanders has ended the Bill Clinton coalition, not only through his personal popularity but because he has forced Hillary Clinton to abandon some of her husband’s key economic positions.
Seib argues, and I agree with him, that despite their differences, Reagan and Bill Clinton were essentially centrists. They shared broad agreement over what had been the fundamentals of every capitalist democracy: open markets, free trade, support for reasonable immigration policies, rule of law, tolerance and compromise. Both embraced liberalized trade and decreased government interference in the economy.
It’s hard to remember that not so long ago the national consensus was such a given that presidential debates were more about implementation details than anything else. The biggest policy disagreement in 2000 was whether we should, as Al Gore said, hang on to our budget surplus to shore up Social Security or, as George W. Bush argued, we should cut taxes.
The period between the beginning of Reagan’s presidency and the end of Clinton’s was the era of democratic capitalism triumphant. Communism was dead. Nations as varied as China and South Africa were embarked on their own journeys to economic liberalization.
It turned out that the seeds of our current discontent were sown in that time of triumph. The end of Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union unleashed dormant tribal passions that the great powers had suppressed. First, the Balkans blew up. Then, it seemed, everywhere else blew up.
After Sept. 11 and the financial panic of 2008, after a decade of wage stagnation and surging income inequality, Americans began to question whether we had the answers after all. Now, some angry, frightened and alienated voters are demanding the certitude of demagogues and the satisfaction that comes with blaming someone else for our troubles.
Today, members of both of our major political parties are galloping to the fringe, and members of both are showing a revolting tolerance for intolerance.
Thought police on the left and the right work to deny free speech and free press rights to people with whom they disagree. Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice declined an invitation to speak at Rutgers University after some students objected to hearing from someone whose role in the Iraq War they didn’t like.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder canceled a speech to an Oklahoma City police academy graduation ceremony when local Republicans threatened to disrupt the event with protests over Holder’s handling of police-involved shootings. Trump has barred some reporters he doesn’t like from campaign events. University of Missouri protesters against police violence on black citizens threatened a student news reporter with violence when he tried to cover their event.
All of the leading presidential candidates have disavowed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, negotiated during the Obama administration and once strongly supported by Hillary Clinton and several of the now-dispatched GOP contenders. This is a reversal of decades of agreement that free trade, on balance, improves the nation’s economy and enhances global stability.
Trump and Sanders have gained considerable traction through demonization. Trump demonizes Mexicans and Muslims. Sanders demonizes the wealthy.
Both parties’ devotion to orthodoxy makes it hard to conceive of a Republican who would fight for tax increases on the wealthy or a Democrat who would oppose abortion on demand.
There are now rumblings that a third party ought to be organized. One theory is that if the Republican establishment is able to thwart Trump’s nomination at an open convention, the New York billionaire will establish his own party and take his angry supporters with him.
It could happen, but as we watch the national parties drift to the extremes, it is the political center that is in need of a home. There is still abundant evidence that Reaganite-Clintonite tolerance and economic liberalism do the best job of governing a free society, however imperfect the people who govern those societies turn out to be. In times like these, advocating for the center would be an act of courage.