The biggest realignment of political parties in living memory was negative – fleeing a party that was no longer tolerable for one that catered to their fears. This was the South (and the white supremacy vote in general) fleeing the post-Civil Rights Act Democrats over time for the Republicans. It happened over time largely because incumbency protected old line Democrats like Ernest Hollings, who white South Carolinians trusted on racial issues even as they distrusted his party, until those incumbents either switched parties or died or aged out. These politicians also benefited from the ticket-splitting that, as Boo notes, has become less common as pre-CRA legacy pols at every level, and the voters that support them, have died out.
Something similar in reverse is shaping up now – not because of Donald Trump, but because of his supporters. Two generations of Republican voters have been marinated in an extreme worldview, increasingly one that is untethered from reality. They’re not going away if Trump loses. At every point so far where they could have pulled themselves back after a setback – the 2006 midterms and the 2008 and 2012 presidential years – they have instead chosen to double down on their radicalism, blaming their failure on a lack of ideological purity by their standard-bearers.
In 2012, a base that almost by definition respects authority chose to turn on their own leadership – which, with their famous post-election autopsy, finally did recognize the hole they’d dug themselves – rather than moderate. Ever since they’ve been purging their ranks of any leadership – Boehner, Cantor, on down – that dares to compromise or deal with the enemy, in particular for legislative jobs that by their nature require compromise and dealing with the other party. Hence the cliche that conservatism cannot fail, only be failed.
At what point do “movement conservatives” moderate their extremism? So far their only response to repudiation at the polls has been to double down. Until proven otherwise, they’ll keep doing that, even as their party becomes totally irrelevant as a result (c.f. the GOP in California, which held statewide office within the last decade but couldn’t even get a candidate past the top-two primary for US Senator this year). Trump is a symptom rather than the cause of a long-term realignment. At least in the short-term, there’s zero evidence old-line Republican elites can take back their party from the Krazees. That’s why the smarter ones are starting to not just come out for HRC, but leave the Republican Party entirely. They know it’s not going to get better any time soon.
That means a totally intransigent caucus in Congress for a President Clinton, and, in all likelihood, another dangerous demagogue in 2020. Mike Pence, and people like him, are a bigger long-term policy threat than the Trumps of the world because of their more cohesive agenda – but the base is increasingly unlikely to vote for anyone tainted by the experience of having actually held a job in government before at any level. A religious grifter like a white Ben Carson, or a celebrity grifter like Trump, seem much more likely to be the future direction of who the base will get behind.
“I didn’t leave my party; my party left me” is how the old cliche goes. We’re seeing this now on the Republican side. I think we’ll also see a less significant but still sizable increase in defections on the Democratic left as the party absorbs Republican defections. Leaders like Hillary Clinton will be inclined to cater to those former Republicans, not only because their own ideology is closer but because their votes are more mathematically important than those of people on the left who have nowhere serious to go. Staying home hurts a politician; voting for their opponent hurts twice as much.
It’ll be hard to balance appealing to former Republicans with the increasing power and militancy of the Democrats’ own younger, more multicultural base. Obama was a master at it. Clinton has yet to show she has anywhere near Obama’s political chops on that score. If ever the two-party system is to be seriously challenged in this country – and the odds are heavily stacked against it – this next decade would be the time.
The Republican base is going to stay Krazee, the defections are going to continue and accelerate, and that’s going to trigger a bunch of other changes as well. I’d love to be able to say this is a good thing, and certainly keeping the Krazees as far away from positions of power as possible is a paramount need. This country needs two rational political parties. Right now, when it comes to existential crises like climate change, we barely have one. And an awful lot can go very, very badly wrong in a number of ways in this situation.
Even assuming Trump goes away – and he’s exactly the type who would try to foment civil war before he’d acknowledge that he’d lost – his voters are symptoms of a global threat that’s going to get worse, not better. With the geographic and economic displacement now being driven by technology and, increasingly, climate change, white privilege is going to be under assault as never before. A lot of white people are going to be unhappy with that. Can they drag human civilization, or human existence, down with them? Of course they can.