Friday, February 1, 2008

The Reagan Coalition is Dead -- Now, What's Next?

I saw this graphic (I think on Steve Clemons' web site) a while back:

Kind of interesting, right? Well, beyond the apparent adherence to the principle that all things in nature act cyclically, it got me thinking. I've been in "the GOP is falling apart at the seams" camp for most of this election season, but have been thinking about the matter in terms of internal Republican division. Lately, however, I think it would be more helpful to look at the crack-up in a more historical context, or at least relative to the two other major American political coalitions that thrived during the 20th Century.

The first -- and this is straight from the Karl Rove textbook of American history -- was the McKinley organized Republican coalition of industrialists that held the White House for all but eight of the 37 years between 1897 -1933. This was a group of voters who agreed with the Coolidge adage that "the business of America is business." Entrepreneurs, businessmen, free marketers, capitalists, industrialists, people who saw there was money to be made from the Industrial revolution or at least those who wanted the chance to try and get rich. They ran against populists like William Jennings Bryan who talked about fighting for the "common working man," but never could get that guy to vote for them.

The coalition lasted a little longer than a generation and came to an abrupt end with the onset of the Great Depression. Enter FDR and the New Deal Coalition, a conglomerate of urban & southern whites, minorities, city machines, and labor unions. This coalition lasted from about 1932 to either signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1965 or when LBJ left office in 1969 (take your pick), when the white Southern vote began to splinter from the Democratic party. But, again, it's essentially the same thing: another coalition that lasts for a little longer than a generation.

Then there came the 1970's -- a decade where America tried to get its shit together and so did its political alliances. The conservative movement was clearly inspired by Barry Goldwater's run for the White House in '64, but really started to take shape in the national identity crisis which was the decade that followed [I'll explain more of this a little later]. At various points during the '70s what would later become the Reagan Coalition Began to germinate: there was the founding of such thinks tanks as the Heritage Foundation in 1973, which came to serve as a model for conservative intellectual apparatus thereafter; there was Roe v. Wade that same year, which motivated many social conservatives to action; all the while the Evangelical movement was gaining steam. Reagan saw what he had to work with and was smart enough to add a national security/"American Exceptionalism" element to it. That seems to have lasted for least 30 years -- again, a little over a generation.

So the historical evidence suggests that the shelf-life of a massive, well-organized and hugely successful political coalition in America during the the last 100+ years seems to be roughly 30 years, which would mean that the Reagan coalition is about due to end soon.

Also, each of the two prior coalitions ended with a Commander-in-Chief who could not solve serious national issues that heretofore their parties had been believed to be superior in addressing (LBJ could not pass the Great Society and win Vietnam the way FDR pushed through the New Deal and won WWII, Herbert Hoover's policies seemed inept during the onset of the Depression). George W. Bush has ruined the GOP's brand as the party of national security "adults" by going into Iraq, as well as his party's image as the guardians of America's economy with a slavish devotion to tax cuts that have produced debatable results. If we graft the historical pattern on to the present day, I think we can safely assume that G.W.B. will mark the end of the Reagan Coalition.

So what's next? We're probably still a few years away from knowing for sure. The next President, who will almost certainly be a Democrat, will probably spend a good chunk of his or her first term in office molding the first New Great American Political Coalition of the 21st Century. This new coalition will likely resemble the last three in so far as it is composed of parties who have recently been left out of power, such as (in no particular order):

* "The Creative Class:" The gears that make the new economy run: young people who work with a computer-based platform doing software design, running internet businesses, "green" entrepreneurs, even some people who work in the financial sector making money using previously undiscovered means of monetary witchcraft. These people will be essential to financing the first political organization in the 21st Century -- they will be the industrialists of the turn of the 20st Century.

* Latinos: The GOP has lost this group for at least a generation, likely longer. With the sole exception of Cuban-Americans (who alone among Latin-Americans have access to American citizenship via the wet-foot-dry-foot policy), there is no reason for Latinos to consider the GOP a desirable place to do business in its current state -- there is simply too much xenophobia.

Other minority groups will continue their support, as well.

* Women: The only real outreach the GOP has tried to do with women over the last 40 years has been their targeted attempt to reach "security moms" in 2002 and 2004. Other than that, there's not much. And if Roe should ever be overturned, all hell will break loose.

* "Globalists": I hate to use the phrase used so derisively by members of the far right, but, frankly, I don't know what these people call themselves ... "Global Citizens," perhaps? These folks are, essentially, the opposites of the neocons. They will have grown up in a world where communication transcends boarders and where a global economy is factored into every business plan. The idea of "American Exceptionalism" will not mean as much to them as it has to people of the last 30 years, but not for bad reasons: these folks will have studied and traveled abroad in ways previously not done. Let's put it this way: these people will not be mistaken for "Ugly Americans" when abroad.

* Labor Unions: Part of the job of the new coalition will be helping unions make the transition from a membership that is based in a manufacturing-based economy to one that is serviced-based. If the Democrats can do that successfully, they will keep the middle class firmly on their side.
Of course, there will be others.

What does that leave the Republicans? Pretty much a regional party that dominates vast swathes of the Southeast that don't have significant representation by any the aforementioned groups above. That is, if they continue down this road of knuckle-dragging conservatism.

The new Democratic conglomeration, on the other hand, will look something like the New Deal Coalition, but it will be more "economically diverse." That used to mean poor people, but this go-around it will mean wealthy people. Don't plan on hearing as much 'class-warfare' rhetoric from the next coalition, for better and for worse -- and here it will be wise to learn the lessons of the of the Reagan Coalitions' break-up.

One of the major fault-lines in the Reagan Coalition was the alliance between the religious fundamentalists and the libertarians (and this would include the anti-tax establishment). The first group wanted to use government to promote Christian ideals, the latter wanted government to stay the hell away. Those are irreconcilable beliefs. The next coalition may succeed in ushering in a "post-racial" or "post-gender" (whatever either of those mean) society, but it will do so by bringing together to elements of the economy that traditionally don't get along: labor and the wealthy -- and that may ultimately prove to be its undoing a generation hence.

Then again, this might be a safer marriage than one would suspect because it's not a partnership between labor and "management." Much of the "Creative Class" as outlined above will operate without a blue-collar workforce or will have developed their businesses by off-shoring that kind of labor. It's difficult to anticipate how people will feel about that in the future and how that will affect their politics, but no society has ever bridged the divide between the rich and the working/middle-class and unless the new coalition does it with actual dollars and cents, the "class gap" in the party may be the proverbial elephant in the room that no wants to talk about until its too late.

All of this is absent the anticipation of any kind of foreign policy calamity or economic catastrophe or natural disaster that can change everything in a heart-beat, as the last seven years have taught us all too well. While unforeseen events make the duration of the next coalition difficult to predict we can say that it will likely last no longer than 30-35 years at the absolute most. Technology could play a significant role in making the longevity of this new political order much shorter. As we become more connected to events faster than ever before our opinions might change at a correspondingly quicker rate. That remains to be seen, however.

As for the Republicans: 16 years passed between Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. During that time the GOP almost imploded with Richard Nixon, but successfully established a rigid infrastructure of think tanks, advocacy groups, conferences, partnerships, and party-building activities that they have been relying on ever since. That infrastructure may need some serious reconstruction in the next few years and change isn't something Republicans are either used to or good at these days, so it might take a while before they get back into the game.

I don't know if this is some kind of World-Historical moment in the Hegelian sense of the phrase or if this is just another cycle in American history, but it sure as hell is an exciting time to be watching the changing of the guard in America. This election may turn out to be the kind of event that happens once in a generation and something that lays the groundwork for the political organization in this country for decades to come.

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