Politics & Policy

Yes, the Democratic Party’s Polarization Helps Explain Trump’s Rise

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in Portsmouth, N.H., July 2016 (Reuters photo: Brian Snyder)
Its rapid shift left helped create today’s GOP.

Should the government ramp up its efforts to help the needy? Democrats overwhelmingly say yes (71 percent); the other party, at 54 percent, is less enthusiastic. Is racial discrimination the primary reason why black Americans can’t get ahead these days? Sixty-four percent of Democrats say yes; you know what the other party thinks: Only 28 percent answer in the affirmative. Do immigrants benefit the country? Democrats overwhelmingly say yes (84 percent); their counterparts are split at 50 percent. Same-sex marriage is approved of by 73 percent of Democrats, but only by 53 percent of those on the other side.

Clearly, ours is a polarized age, with tribal consolidation happening at a breakneck pace.

Yet what will come as a surprise to many readers is that the above is a comparison, not between Democrats and Republicans, but between Democrats and Democrats  —  specifically, Democrats in 2017 and Democrats in 2010. The contrasting percentages as shown in a new Pew Report show the Democratic party’s dizzyingly fast leftward turn.

Noting this trend does not challenge the thesis that the country is in a hyperpartisan moment. If anything, it augments it. If the gaps between those percentages represent how much one and the same party has shifted over a relatively short amount of time, how much greater must the gap be between Democrats and their actual political rivals?

The more significant discovery is that this Democratic liberalization has meaningfully contributed to the Republican party taking the shape that it has. The speed and scope of the Democratic Party’s leftward turn should itself be seen as a partial factor in the development of the current iteration of the GOP. An ascendant alt-right is unthinkable apart from this Democratic drift. Trumpian populism would never have moved the electoral needle as much as it did absent an accelerated liberalization.

A golden man who travels on golden escalators promising to return us to a golden era  —  would this pitch have worked a decade or two ago?

It should not be controversial that Democrats’ leftward leap is partially responsible for Trump’s ascent to the White House. In Trump, the Democratic party saw its identity politics retrofitted and repurposed as a galvanizing force on the right. (This, of course, is only one of many causes of Trump’s success, and hardly one that excuses the bigotry of some of Trump’s supporters.)

In an earlier NRO piece, I sarcastically mused on the surprising result that voters weren’t won over by the following instances of progressivist zeal:

There was no way to foresee this, but it turned out that saying to a student, sitting quietly at her library desk, “f*** your white tears,” wasn’t taken as an inviting gesture by the masses. It was impossible to know beforehand, but it turned out that the Obama administration’s censorship of then-French president Francois Hollande’s reference to “Islamist terrorism,” by muting the audio during that part of his speech for American audiences didn’t evoke a sense that the White House had their priorities in order. You would have needed a crystal ball to predict that rolling out Lena Dunham to muse on the “extinction of white men” would not be received by ordinary Americans as a recovery of Eden.

These are the sorts of episodes that gave right-wing media the material it needed to push a narrative of America in steep social decline. To be sure, right-wing media outlets such as Breitbart had been pushing this narrative for a long time. But the tactic became far more effective  —  indeed, electorally triumphant  —  when the actions being profiled were so genuinely repellent to much of the country. The reality is that both actors  —  right-wing agitators and an ever-liberalizing Democratic Party  —  mutually reinforced each other’s roles in activating Trump’s rise.

Had Democrats remained ideologically fixed over time, there would have been fewer social upheavals for the Right to react against. The Right may have hated Bill Clinton, but because it successfully pushed back what they took to be his more extreme proposals (his initial position on gays in the military, health-care reform, etc.), there was no post-Clinton cry for an outsider to take a flame-thrower to Washington. Nominating the son of a former president is not exactly a rebuke to the establishment.

Obama’s own presidency embodied the rapid changes the Democratic party has undergone in just a few short years. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 platform was far to the left of Obama’s 2008 and even 2012 positions  —  yet it was not enough to warm over a sizable chunk of the party who instead saw Bernie Sanders as an avatar of leftism’s future. The Obama of those earlier campaigns would have been unelectable in the 2016 primary.

The point here isn’t to recommend that those on the left repress their moral convictions. It’s simply to note that, given the remarkably fast and profound ideological changes undergone by the Democratic party, and given that the rival party’s raison dêtre is to resist sudden and wholesale social changes, the resulting moment was perfectly predictable and, even though it is morally problematic in numerous respects, totally understandable.

To believe that the Democratic party’s leftward drift is not in any way responsible for Trump is to bizarrely think that the party is at one and the same time the Left’s most promising and effective vehicle for change and also so socially inconsequential as to be incapable of provoking any sort of reaction from its ideological opponents.


    The NFL’s Polarization Mistake

    Democrats: Stuck Between a Rock & a Hard Place

    The Truth of Todays Polarization

— Berny Belvedere is the editor-in-chief of Arc Digital.

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