Trump Bent the Existing Party System, but Did Not Break It

A “realigning” or “critical” election requires three things. First, the underlying electoral coalitions of the respective parties shift significantly. Secondly, and relatedly, new or previously submerged issues rise to define the parties. Finally, both these changes remain relevant beyond the signature election. That is, the newly constituted coalitions and issues remain stable, continuing to define and identify the parties into the indefinite future.

The 2016 presidential election meets the first and second criteria. The question of 2016 is whether the election represents a deviation from the current party system or whether the 2016 changes will last beyond President Trump (including a second term if he is reelected).

The 2016 election heralded a notable change in the underlying electoral coalitions. Heightened support for Donald Trump among the blue-collar working class whites—traditionally a Democratic constituency—and heightened support for Hillary Clinton among college-educated suburbanites, particularly white women.

Secondly, while illegal immigration existed as an issue prior to 2016, Donald Trump centered his campaign on it as the signature issue. So, too, more broadly, a foreign policy focused more directly on advancing immediate national interests, as opposed to seeking to advance more diffuse or contestable purposes like democracy building. Support and attention for both of these issues existed previously in the Republican Party, but none received the heightened focus Donald Trump provided to them in winning the nomination.

Further, while Hillary Clinton represented the mainest-of-the-Democratic-arty mainstream, Bernie Sanders’ insurgency at least hinted at the popularity of issues advocating increased economic redistribution and government programs. These particularly focused on economic inequality, health care and education. While primary losers do not define critical elections, as I argue below, this aspect of the Democratic coalition can very well influence the stability of the 2016 electoral coalition going forward.

It is the question of the stability of the 2016 electoral coalition and issues going forward that is the main challenge to whether 2016 represented a realigning election.

The answer revolves around the resolution of the issue of Trump versus Trumpism.

President Trump certainly marked the Republican Party with his imprint in 2016. Yet even if President Trump wins reelection, can a Trumpist agenda survive without Trump?

The hard center of Trump’s Republican constituency predated Trump’s candidacy. Think here of Tea Party Republicans, Pat Buchanan’s several runs for the Republican nomination, or Ross Perot’s independent run for the presidency, which doomed the first President Bush to a single term as president. Yet none could capitalize on these and similar issues to lead to a broad and sustained electoral victory.

The vast bulk of the Republican Party dutifully fell in line in support of Trump as the Republican nominee. Nonetheless, it is unclear that Trump’s core supporters have expanded influence to takeover the Republican Party as, say, Reagan conservatives did during and after his successful presidential runs. The handful of “Never Trump”-ers who left the GOP did not lead multitudes with them. This does not mean those who remained are now converted Trumpists.

Further, there remains a question about the stability of the 2016 electoral coalitions, distinctive as they were.

Suburban support for Clinton almost surely does not herald a permanent turn from the Republicans. These are risk-averse voters. Clinton’s mainstreamism attracted these voters from Trump. These risk-averse voters who desire mainly cling to what they have already. One whiff of real “Democratic socialism” will quickly scare these voters back into the Republican fold, even with Donald Trump on the ticket. Counting on the Clinton coalition to remain intact no matter the Democratic nominee would be a huge miscalculation for the Democrats—one many Democrats already seem to have made.

Further, while continued economic prosperity under Trump augurs for retaining a good deal of his working class support, a year and a half is a long time to sustain an economic boom that is already long in the tooth.

More pointed is the issue of manifest policy progress on the issue of illegal immigration. Can Trump maintain his outsized support among the white working classes without enactment of a signature policy on immigration? But even if not, would these voters have anywhere else to go than Trump? Perhaps Democratic economic populism might attract some back, but it is unclear many activists in the Democratic Party want them back even if they wanted to return.

So did the 2016 campaign realign the parties? While Trump certainly bent the pre-existing party system, he did not break it. When he is no longer personally on the ticket, my guess is the pre-existing party system will snap back into place with issues and coalitions little altered.

Reader Discussion

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on April 12, 2019 at 11:02:16 am

There are, for the first time in quite a while, two parties: Trump, and the Unitary Party. It is the Unitary Party, not Trump, playing the part of Lord Protector and shouting at Trump "Depart, we say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!" The realignment Rogers and every other political science professor ought to be thinking and publishing about, day and night, is the fusion of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party into the Unitary Party, which is subordinate to and functions solely as a support system for the Administrative State (which comprises not just the agencies but most of the judiciary). That's a reductio to be sure but not ad absurdum. It isn't clear to me that the substance of Trump can survive outside its aesthetically off-putting form, nor is it clear that any political figure besides the man himself is committed to the substance. And even Trump is a member in good standing of the Unitary Party's Ways and Means and Appropriations Committees. It's a testament to the fiscal unification of of the former two parties that Trump's falling in with them on that score is so unnecessary, so insignificant, to their power that they can oppose and disparage him at every turn.

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on April 12, 2019 at 11:40:46 am

The country faces transformation and realignment (as it has before) and the 2016 election has made idea of transformation and realignment now more salient.

"Realignments are the moments in which we tear an entire old order down and build a fresh new era with new coalitions, new ideologies, and new ideas....America is facing a realignment whether we want one or not."

"The Republican and Democratic parties aren't vehicles for some permanent human division....In reality, American parties are temporary coalitions forged as tools to self-govern our republic at specific moments of crisis. They bind fractious collections of people who disagree about many things but agree on how to solve (from their point of view) the biggest problem (s) of their age. The parties may rally around a unique ideology forged from sometimes clashing principles important to its different factions." Whether the parties snap back into place receives attention here: https://www.the-american-interest.com The End of the New Deal Era - and the Coming Realignment.

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on April 12, 2019 at 12:47:26 pm

Rogers gets one thing right:

Trump is NOT *Trumpism*

BUT OMG, does he get one thing spectacularly wrong:

Take another toke, Rogers. It must be necessary to sustain that peculiar world view.

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on April 13, 2019 at 22:55:44 pm

I tend to see one of the largest issues begin the one that cracked the Solid South’s support for the Democratic Party: Support for minorities vs. resentment by majorities. So I concur with Rogers that the risk-averse, keep-what-I’ve-got voter may favor the Republican Party in future non-Trump elections, or maybe even the next election—though I’m not sure Trump will be able to re-claim the white female college-educated vote.

Hard to know how an economic downturn would affect Trump’s prospects. Arguably, Trump arose from anxiety; an economic downturn might play into his hands.

Likewise, I don’t know that Trump needs to actually achieve anything regarding immigration, legal or otherwise; he just need to signal whose side he’s on. Again, I regard this as an anxiety-driven vote.

But, while there may not be a permanent realignment of existing voting blocks, Rogers neglects one dynamic: Ethnic minorities are a growing share of the electorate; white men without college degrees are a shrinking share. Trump has done a remarkable job appealing to this latter group—but how much more juice can you squeeze from that lemon? Meanwhile Colorado and New Mexico have flipped to the Democratic column, and Arizona just elected a Democratic senator. How much longer until Texas flips?

Republicans have historically won about 30% of the Hispanic vote. Trump’s most lasting legacy may be to cause Hispanics voters to regard the GOP the same way black voters do—an investment that will pay increasing dividends with each passing year.

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