NEW GEOGRAPHY--For progressives, the gloating is about to begin. The Washington Monthly proclaims that we are on the cusp of a “second progressive era,” where the technocratic “new class” overcomes a Republican Party reduced to “know-nothing madness.”
To be sure, Trump himself proved a mean-spirited and ultimately ineffective political vessel. But the forces that he aroused will outlive him and could get stronger in the future. In this respect Trump may reprise the role played another intemperate figure, the late Senator Barry Goldwater. Like Trump, Goldwater openly spurned political consensus, opposing everything from civil rights and Medicare to détente. His defeat led to huge losses at the congressional level, as could indeed occur this year as well.
Goldwater might have failed in 1964, but his defeat did not augur a second New Deal, as some, including President Lyndon Johnson, may have hoped. Instead, his campaign set the stage for something of a right-wing resurgence that defined American politics until the election of President Obama. Pushing the deep South into the GOP, Goldwater created the “Southern strategy” that in 1968 helped elect Richard Nixon; this was followed in 1980 by the victory of Goldwater acolyte Ronald Reagan.
History could repeat itself after this fall’s disaster. People who wrote off the GOP in 1964 soon became victims of their own hubris, believing they could extend the welfare state and the federal government without limits and, as it turned out, without broad popular support. In this notion they were sustained by the even then liberally oriented media and a wide section of the “respectable” business community.
Three decades later a similar constellation of forces —- Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street—have locked in behind Hillary Clinton. But it is the transformation of the media itself both more ideologically uniform and concentrated more than ever on the true-blue coasts, that threatens to exacerbate Progressive Triumphalism. In this election, notes Carl Cannon, no Trump fan himself, coverage has become so utterly partisan that “the 2016 election will be remembered as one in which much of the mainstream media all but admitted aligning itself with the Democratic Party.”
Progressive Triumphalism may lead the Clintonites to believe her election represented not just a rejection of the unique horribleness of Trump, but proof of wide support for their favored progressive agenda. Yet in reality, modern progressivism faces significant cultural, geographic, economic and demographic headwinds that will not ease once the New York poseur dispatched.
Successful modern Democratic candidates, including President Obama and former President Clinton, generally avoid openly embracing an ever bigger federal government. Obama, of course, proved a centralizer par excellence, but he did it stealthily and, for the most part, without the approval of Congress. This allowed him to take some bold actions, but limited the ability to “transform” the country into some variant of European welfare, crony capitalist state.
Hillary Clinton lacks both Obama’s rhetorical skills and her erstwhile husband’s political ones. Her entire approach in the campaign has been based on creating an ever more intrusive and ever larger federal government. Even during Bill Clinton’s reign, she was known to be the most enthusiastic supporter of governmental regulation, and it’s unlikely that, approaching 70, she will change her approach. It seems almost certain, for example, that she will push HUD and the EPA to reshape local communities in ways pleasing to the bureaucracy.
Yet most Americans do not seem to want a bigger state to interfere with their daily life. A solid majority—some 54 percent—recently told Gallup they favor a less intrusive federal government, compared to only 41 percent who want a more activist Washington. The federal government is now regarded by half of all Americans, according to another poll by Gallup, as “an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.” In 2003 only 30 percent of Americans felt that way.
Nor is this trend likely to fade with time. Millennials may be liberal on issues like immigration and gay marriage, but are not generally fans of centralization, fewer than one-third favor federal solutions over locally based ones.
Due largely to Trump’s awful persona, Hillary likely will get some wins in “flyover country,” the vast territory that stretches from the Appalachians to the coastal ranges. In certain areas with strong sense of traditional morality, such as in Germanic Wisconsin and parts of Michigan, notes Mike Barone, Trump’s lewdness and celebrity-mania proved in the primaries incompatible with even conservative small town and rural sensibilities, more so in fact than in the cosmopolitan cores, where sexual obsessions are more celebrated than denounced.
Yet Trump’s strongest states, with some exceptions, remain in the country’s mid-section; he still clings to leads in most of the Intermountain West, Texas, the mid-south and the Great Plains. He is still killing it in West Virginia. This edge extends beyond a preponderance of “deplorables” and what Bubba himself has referred to as “your standard redneck.”
Exacerbating this cultural and class discussion is the growing division between the coastal and interior economies. Essentially, as I have argued elsewhere, the country is split fundamentally by how regions makes money. The heartland regions generally thrive by producing and transporting “stuff”—food, energy, manufactured goods —while the Democrats do best where the economy revolves around images, media, financial engineering and tourism.
Energy is the issue that most separates the heartland from the coasts. The increasingly radical calls for “decarbonization” by leading Democrats spell the loss of jobs throughout the heartland, either directly by attacking fossil fuels or by boosting energy costs. Since 2010, the energy boom has helped create hundreds of thousands of jobs throughout the heartland, many of them in manufacturing. At the same time, most big city Democratic strongholds continued to deindustrialize and shed factory employment. No surprise then that the increasingly anti-carbon Democrats control just one legislature, Illinois, outside the Northeast and the West Coast.
Trump’s romp through the primaries, like that of Bernie Sanders, rode on the perceived relative decline of the country’s middle and working classes. For all her well-calculated programmatic appeals, Hillary Clinton emerged as the willing candidate of the ruling economic oligarchy, something made more painfully obvious from the recent WikiLeaks tapes. Her likely approach to the economy, more of the same, is no doubt attractive to the Wall Street investment banks, Silicon Valley venture capitalists, renewable energy providers and inner city real estate speculators who have thrived under Obama.
Yet more of the same seems unlikely to reverse income stagnation, as exemplified by the huge reserve army of unemployed, many of them middle aged men, outside the labor force. The fact remains that Obama’s vaunted “era of hope and change,” as liberal journalist Thomas Frank has noted, has not brought much positive improvement for the middle class or historically disadvantaged minorities.
The notion that free trade and illegal immigration have harmed the prospects for millions of Americans will continue to gain adherents with many middle and working class voters—particularly in the heartland. We are likely to hear this appeal again in the future. If the GOP could find a better, less divisive face for their policies, a Reagan rather than a Goldwater, this working-class base could be expanded enough to overcome the progressive tide as early as 2018.
The one place where the progressives seem to have won most handily is on issues of culture. Virtually the entire entertainment, fashion, and food establishments now openly allied with the left; the culture of luxury, expressed in the page of The New York Times, has found its political voice by identifying with such issues as gay rights, transgender bathrooms , abortion and, to some extent, Black Lives Matter. In contrast, the Republicans cultural constituency has devolved to a bunch of country music crooners, open cultural reactionaries and, yes, a revolting collection of racist and misogynist “deplorables.”
Yet perhaps nowhere is the danger of Progressive Triumphalism more acute. Despite the cultural progressive embrace of the notion that more diversity is always good, the reality is that our racial divide remains stark and is arguably getting worse. As for immigration, polls say that more people want to decrease not just the undocumented but even legal immigration than increase it.
And then there’s the mountain rebellion against political correctness. Relative few Americans have much patience with such things as “micro-aggressions,” “safe spaces,” the generally anti-American tone of history instruction whose adherents are largely concentrated in the media and college campuses. Fewer still would endorse the anti-police agitation now sweeping progressive circles. For some, voting for Trump represents the opportunity to extend a “middle finger” to the ruling elites of both parties.
Yet Trump’s appeal also represented something of a poke in the eye for the old-school religious right; Trump has actually helped the GOP by embracing openly gay figures like Peter Thiel. He may have caused many bad things, but the New Yorker succeeded, as no Republican in a generation, in making the holy rollers largely irrelevant.
The dangers for the Democrats lie in going too far in their secularism. As recent emails hacked by WikiLeaks have demonstrated, there is widespread contempt in left circles for most organized religion, most importantly for the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, even under a more progressive Pope. Some Democrats may argue that irreligiosity will remain “in” among millennials. Yet this was also said about boomers and turned out to be wrong. Few sociologists in the 1970s would have expected a religious revival that arose in the next decade.
Simply put, millennials’ economic and cultural views could shift, as they become somewhat less “idealistic” and more concerned with buying homes and raising children. They could shift more the center and right, much as Baby Boomers have done.
No matter what happens this year, the battle for America’s political soul is not remotely over. Trump may fade into deserved ignominy and hopefully obscurity, but his nationalist and populist message will not fade with him as long as concerns over jobs, America’s role in the world, and disdain for political correctness remain. If Hillary and her supporters over-shoot their nonexistent mandate and try to impose their whole agenda before achieving a supportable consensus, American politics could well end up going in directions that the progressives, and their media claque, might either not anticipate or much like.
(Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism (www.opportunityurbanism.org. This column was posted most recently at New Geography.)