The Ashes Have No Phoenix
In 1980, Ronald Reagan unseated an incumbent President in a landslide. Jimmy Carter was hardly the equal of his predecessors, but he was hamstrung from the start, and inherited an Executive Branch left in shambles after the Shakespearean tragedy that was the Nixon Administration. Where Carter talked about “a crisis of confidence”, Reagan talked about a new “morning in America,” an optimistic vision of strength and exceptionalism.
1980 represented something new in American politics. It was a realigning election, where voting blocs and coalitions are reshuffled and new coalitions emerged. The Reagan Democrats — socially conservative working class whites — turned their backs on the party of FDR and JFK, mostly because the Democrats became the party of civil rights and women’s lib (as feminism was still referred to then).
Joining these Reagan Democrats, the Reagan coalition included the long time Republican constituencies of finance and big business interests, that pushed for deregulation across wide sectors of the economy. In short, the Reagan Revolution cast its lot as an odd mix of big-business and Joe the Plumber, with a touch of evangelical holy rollers thrown in, and they became a new majority that would hold firm for 36 years.
Republicans would hold the White House for five terms compared to the Dems four terms (and Bill “the era of big government is over” Clinton was a practically a Reagan Democrat himself). While Congress has been evenly divided since 1980 (both houses of Congress saw each party controlling it half the time since 1980), it was a stark contrast to the years between FDR and Reagan where Republicans controlled Congress for only four years.
Even in the courts, where voters have no say, Reagan conservatives held clear majorities, rolling back rights for consumers, criminal defendants, and abortion.
Rancor is at an all time high, not just across the aisle, but with the Republican Party itself. The party apparatus that gave us Reaganite insiders like the Bushes and the Doles cannot is coming unglued before our eyes. The Reagan Democrats drank at the trough of internet conspiracy and became the Tea Party, which in turn became the snake that ate its own tail, consuming itself and shitting out the bones of the Republican operatives and insiders.
In this new climate, professional politicians who cut deals in the name of a functioning democracy are gibbeted and left to rot outside the city walls. Say what you will about John Boehner’s policy positions, he understood the importance of returning the President’s phone calls.
Trump, as ridiculous and destructive as he is to the Republican brand, reaches out to the Tea Party and says join me. His promises range from the non-sensical to the blatantly unconstitutional. He insults women, mocks the disabled, and says he needs to learn more about the KKK before deciding whether to disavow their endorsement. His voters — and they are legion— lap it up because Trump says what they already think.
The leadership of the Republican Party are terrified of the Trump Revolt, because they don’t have a seat at his table. There is talk of a third party run to stop him. I would not even be surprised if a new center-right party forms (the New Federalists?), one that abandons the carcass of the Grand Old Party to the buzzards of Trump and starts anew, a mix of Wall Street bankers, Rand Paul libertarians, and Silicon Valley meritocrats.
No matter what happens, the Reagan Revolution is over. A new system will emerge, one that probably sees Democrats in power for another two election cycles. The question is whether the new alignment sees them in power for most of the next 36 years.