The Agonies of Party Realignment

It’s Not You; We Are Living in Strange Times

In Mělník, a large town located in almost the exact center of Bohemia, the city hall flies the local standard of red and yellow, the national flag of the Czech Republic, and the flag of the European Union: a trifecta of allegiance, the proper order of which is sure to elicit opinions from residents enjoying their fine local wine or world-class beer at any nearby pub.

But when the conversation runs its course, the people who live in this picturesque place, on the outermost reaches of where once stretched the Roman empire, won’t be paying their tab in euros. Although the Czech Republic is both an EU member and a euro nation, in the back regions and rural areas, the only currency accepted is the Czech koruna (Czech crown). When I purchased some wine there recently, the shop steward was nice enough to check online for the latest exchange rates, convert the bill to euros, and accept my money, but she gave me my change in korunas, and in return I gave her my confidence in her calculations. Neither of us had much choice.

Though the Czechs have pledged to adopt the euro as the sole currency at some point in the future, and though the euro finds easy use in Prague and other large cities, in Mělník and other places like it, the coin of the realm is the national crown.

The Party of the Euro & The Party of the Crown

That Mělník conducts its daily business using the koruna made a deep impression on me. For many months I have sought clarity on the political realignment currently underway in the United States, grasping for terms to describe the some of the more obvious ruptures, as well as slow, seismic shifts propelling the Democratic and Republican parties to new ground.

Drawing on the image of a Janus-face, I synthesized my thoughts by suggesting that one future party would devote itself to “inward-looking politics,” while the other would be “outer-directed” in focus — but, aside from being vague, this description distorted much. After all, an inward-facing set of politics entails global commitments (in fact, these policies can be much more militant and aggressive than their counterparts), and likewise, a party designed to accommodate global exchange carries many domestic implications, from education to immigration policy.

Abandoning those generic descriptions in favor of labels adopted from foreign currencies definitely means that I have yet to locate terms adequate to the situation. But despite obvious demerits, when taken as a prism, this terminology encompasses more and sharpens the analysis. Currencies, like politics, are an intricate and necessary confidence game, inherently possessed of possibilities as well as limitations. A system of money structures value, yet lacks any when it is no longer believed to perform that task credibly.

Like an imbalanced currency, the political parties in the United States have fallen out of accord; their backing suspect, and their reserves called into question.

Such patterns can be hard to detect. They rarely present as an instant rupture; neither do they appear uniform. In halting fashion, after other explanations falter, it is clear, in retrospect, that a change has taken place.

The last realignment had this same fitful pattern to it. When the Republicans launched their “southern strategy,” a drive to recruit white Democratic voters to their party via support for institutionalized racism and the promotion of racial resentment, they gradually transformed the sectional politics of north, south, and west into a pattern dictated less by geography and more by type of residence. Specifically, for much of the past forty years, cities and other progressive outposts have been pitted against conservative suburban corridors joined together with most rural and ex-urban communities. Persistent residential segregation endows this alignment with racial meaning, as was intended, and once completed this pattern of voting assumed certain sectional characteristics as well, simply by virtue of the fact that not every state has a set of large cities to counterbalance its rural population (or vice versa).

The change wrought by the “southern strategy” is assumed to be our current state of play. And so it is — but globalization has stretched this last party iteration to the limits of logic, just as the sectional rivalries between north and south were before. As a result, both political parties must now reconcile internal contradictions, or alter their character and alliances. In fact we are embarked on that strange and painful process already.

The Realignment Underway

Broadly speaking, the Republican party was converted to the “crown” with its adoption of the southern strategy, a commitment to “whiteness” above all else. In metaphorical terms, they are now in the midst of a political currency “devaluation,” a deliberate downward adjustment of their target voter, and one performed with an eye toward punishing “imports” from elsewhere. In a mirror fashion, the Democrats, trading in the “euro” since Bill Clinton signed NAFTA, have recently embarked on a process of “revaluation,” or an upward adjustment of their target voter. Where once political currencies intermingled and exchanged, these most recent valuations force stark choices.

Because global neoliberalism drives this realignment, many of these choices unfold in a familiar fashion elsewhere in the world.

The Party of the Crown

From the overlook of Saints Peter and Paul church in Mělník, looking down on the confluence of the Czech Republic’s two most important rivers, barley and wheat fields are bordered by an occasional chemical factory in the distance. My cousin Pavel worked in one of them; he died last year of a brain tumor, and many in the family, myself included, surmised that his place of work played a role in his illness, one that is otherwise aberrational in our family.

For me, his tragedy punctuates a difficult problem with the EU: its supra-state structure is powerful enough to compel changes that favor financial capitalism, but deference to national sovereignty and its traditional corporate guardians means that environmental and worker protections promulgated in Brussels often do not reach workers in places like Mělník. When it comes to ordinary people, the EU, like other trade pacts, is sometimes powerful in all the wrong places; its social policy achievements lag well behind its wealth generation for the affluent and advantageously situated.

And while it’s nice for people in Mělník that EU historic preservation money restored St. Peter and Paul’s church from years of communist neglect, and nicer still that the forests they forage for mushrooms, the fields they plow, and the air they breathe all benefit from a regional clean-up after decades of Soviet-led environmental depredation, the demands of the euro have constrained domestic spending while introducing new costs. In that light, it is not surprising to find that many people who live in Mělník think that the EU policy of accepting refugees from the Syrian war should be contingent upon imposing work requirements. For them, the benefits of the EU seem diffuse or distant, while the impositions, or what they regard as such, are clearly marked, often by dint of cultural difference.

Like the EU, the gains achieved by trade deals like NAFTA have been unevenly distributed, and the costs, especially those felt most acutely, rarely acknowledged, at least by the political establishment. Economists discussing trade deals like to speak in terms of “winner and losers,” but this language is devoid of politics and power — and I think intentionally so. Over time, it is unreasonable to expect people to subsidize a deal they believe does not accrue to their benefit. In other words, if there are too many “losers,” even the substantial achievements of trade pacts will ring hollow — a loitering symbol, like a restored church, that lacks a connection or trenchancy to speak to the dispossessed.

Katherine Cramer traces the worldview of “the party of the crown” in her work on rural Wisconsin, The Politics of Resentment. The “rural consciousness” she describes derives force not from the legitimacy of each particular grievance. Some make sense, like the constant neglect of the outsized effect the price of oil has on rural America, where everyone must drive everywhere. Some, like the recurring supposition that undocumented labor benefits from “free programs,” really do not. But taken together they form more than a matrix of positions; they represent a worldview anchored in place.

Surprisingly large and even predatory employers in rural America benefit from rural consciousness. Nathaniel Rich makes this clear in his review of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book, Strangers in Their Own Land. Gulf coast residents forced to endure the effects of oil spills tell Hochschild that “if there’s a spill, it’s probably the best the company could do.” Or, more directly: “Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism.” Rural Americans swaddle companies who employ them in blankets of “benefit of doubt” simply because they have stuck around; others left long ago. In this sense, one of the most painful chapters to read in Cramer’s book is her discussion of the “Great Recession,” an economic contraction barely noticed in rural Wisconsin. Times were tough long before then.

To remove any doubt regarding the fundamental legitimacy of “rural consciousness,” the political establishment not only ignored but, through a multitude of actions, fueled the opioid crisis, the worst drug scourge ever seen in the United States, and one that disproportionately affected rural America for most of its ugly history. I have written on this several times. Here let me just note that, instead of glib smugness, the political and media establishment should approach rural Americans as fellow citizens, who, like others, have been deserted by the political system. The hatred that drives parts of their organized politics deserves to be denounced — that animus has real effects; it is, in fact, deplorable — but it does not exceed in number and in consequence the less fashionable forms of rapacious greed and indifferent regard shown rural America.

The Party of the Euro

Let me begin this discussion by making an arresting observation — one that dovetails with the political establishment’s culpability in the opioid crisis. Former Attorney General Eric Holder is, by most traditional definitions, a Republican.

I realize he is running a 527 for the Democratic Party; that is the point. If the Republican Party had not pursued the “southern strategy,” betraying its roots as the party of emancipation, then Eric Holder, and many like him, would follow in the footsteps of people like William T. Coleman as ambassadors of a corporate party that rejects the southern strategy.

These are no mere caveats. That the Republicans predicated their party realignment on racialized appeals is a blunt historical fact that organizes American politics. Had they not done so, however, and had the Republicans anchored more of their corporate ministry in entities with international competitive ambition, rather than those in need of domestic subsidy and support, then Eric Holder — with his history of shielding corporate malfeasance and promoting the carceral state — would be a natural fit.

Instead, Democrats now appear to embrace the mantle of a business party tailored for the modern era: neoliberalism with a multicultural boardroom — or, a Macron-center. Though leftists sneer at the proposition, this intervention carries considerable force, especially in the United States, where it is a simple fact that, throughout history, race has carried more weight than class (even as historians never tire of pointing out that the two cannot be meaningfully separated). For instance, there is not a single legitimate complaint filed by the “party of the crown” that does not have some searing antecedent in black America, be it the abandonment of small and mid-sized farms; the disappearance of work; or the criminal indifference to drug crises. Some traumas remain unique to the black experience, like the perpetuation of institutionalized racism, sweeping use of gerrymandering, or use of police to instill fear and exercise social control. All told, a party that embraces diversity carries many people, and holds enough explanatory power to attract allies and present a credible worldview, especially in cities and metropolitan areas (like Silicon Valley) linked to a global economy and exchange.

A “party of the euro” is amenable to social policy and the protections awarded to low-wage labor or unemployment. In fact, their political commitments to financialization dictate a proliferation of both, all the more reason to accommodate either. It is a party of a “common market, with open trade and open borders,” as Hillary Clinton put it in a speech to Latin American bankers; a Republican entity shorn of explicitly racialized politics and openly committed to diversity. It is, in short, the modern Democratic party establishment.

This is the realignment underway. In fact, it is more accurate to think of it, as I have suggested, in terms of currency valuation of a previously adopted coin — or, in a language of systems-analysis, as a manifestation of Gödel’s theorem that a system cannot be complete and consistent at the same time. As the southern strategy matures, its consequences made more “complete,” the two parties now confront mirror images of the same vexing problem. For Republicans, the biggest challenge is stitching enough places together to form an electoral coalition that will claim the requisite number of people at the national level. It is for this reason that party leaders cling so tenaciously to the problematic figure of Donald Trump; he represents one in a dwindling set of options to thread a voter turnout needle, and they cannot afford to alienate his most devoted supporters.

If, for Republicans, the problem is identifying a candidate who will deliver enough people, then the Democrats face an opposite problem, rooted in place. After all, it is not difficult for the Democrats to locate someone who will win the nation’s popular vote — counting Gore and Hillary Clinton, they’ve done it in six of the eight presidential elections held since Ronald Reagan. It is almost a default. But, for Democrats, compiling the necessary number of electoral college votes has proved challenging.

Reinforced by gerrymandering and both active and passive voter suppression, the Republicans own the places; the Democrats, the people. Neither can maintain this posture without valuation (up or down) of their “currency”; nor can they court their weakness without altering their character. If, like me, you have felt bewildered and lost in the forest of American politics — noting the strangeness of the difficulty Republicans encounter when trying to elect a House majority leader, or the decimation of the Democratic party at state and local levels despite consistently winning the national popular vote — this is why.

The Realignment We Need

For most of American history, liberalism and republicanism, the great organizing ideologies of representational democracy, held much relevance but no perfect consonance with its political parties. At long last, albeit with residual difficulties, a particular worldview is well-calibrated to a particular political instrument. Republicans increasingly adopt a republican (or communitarian) ethos, and Democrats a liberal (cosmopolitan) one. A republican mindset accepts community hierarchy and with it, personal responsibility (traditionally speaking, also some measure of personal obligation); confronts difference with hostility; and nurtures an attachment to place, provided a place does not change. In contrast, a liberal order confers status based on occupation or function rather than inheritance; rejoices in difference; and assumes change is fundamental to survival.

Despite the growing harmony with a particular political ideology, our current bipolar party arrangement, like others before it, is actually poorly suited to address the most pressing political questions of our time. Bipolar party systems tend to “split the difference” between them rather than starkly expose an issue and organize for and against. In this particular case, the most meaningful separation that structures the world Americans live in is the division between those that rely on occupations for income and those who rely on preexisting financial wealth — or, in more old-fashioned terms, between labor and capital. Though the Democrats rely on race to perform a sort of spade work on issues of justice, and though Republicans tap into a rural consciousness with a language of grievance, without confronting entrenched financial power, both approaches exhaust themselves before troubling any genuine culprit. In fact, in many ways the advertised ideals of either party is the least credible thing about them; both depend upon a “lesser of the two evils” comparison for plausibility. Compared to Democrats, Republicans pay attention to rural America. Compared to Republicans, Democrats are committed to racial justice. That is all.

Truly, our political parties have distorted a great deal. Significant numbers of Americans have been persuaded that government is their enemy and that their own futures are more closely tied to the fortunes of the extremely affluent than the prospects for the poor. For me, the opposite is the case — and for this reason, Bernie Sanders, the most prominent political figure with the deepest attachment to those convictions, is also a leading indicator of the fate of party realignment. Will he and his followers cajole and persuade the Democratic establishment to pursue a “popular front” approach rather than a centrist one? Or will he be cast off to a third party, siphoning voters from both parties with a message focused on cost of living (be it affordable housing in urban areas or wages of value in rural ones) and revitalizing opportunity structures by restoring government commitment? Are we on the precipice of a parliamentary party organization rather than a two party system? The fact that “Independent” is the leading party registration in the United States would seem to suggest a lot of latent support, lying dormant on the bipartisan table.

I can only hope that, contrary to the direction in which we are headed, progressives will not be abandoned by the two party system.

Not to be ignored is another substantial overlap between the party of the crown and the party of the euro — namely, defending the defense industrial complex, our most obvious and ongoing apostasy of the principles of the founding republic. As a final note, when discussing these ideas over the weekend, I was reminded by a fellow historian that political leaders who retool the language of American politics to describe better the structure of power have a tendency to meet less than happy fates. To forestall this ignoble outcome and redeem our politics, we should inspect carefully what the two parties agree on even more than what divides them. Our politics should not make it impossible to name our problems, and consigning entire subjects and power centers beyond the reach of debate poses a real danger of alienating a people from its government.


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