It is well understood that political parties change their positions over time. Dara Lind of the left-of-center news site Vox has painstakingly described the Democratic party’s pronounced shift on immigration policy since the early Obama years, and there is no question that the Republican party is friendlier to protectionism in the Trump era than it was in the 2000s, albeit less so than in, say, the 1970s and 1980s. A separate question is how parties change. Politicians are famously wary of the charge of flip-flopping, so you’d think they would be reluctant to change their long-held positions. This might lead you to conclude that parties change their positions only through turnover: That is, as old partisans leave office, they are replaced by new partisans who are more in tune with the changing sensibilities of the party’s voting base.
But as the political scientist David Karol has observed, parties also change through conversion, in which incumbent partisans change the positions to align themselves with their voters. The politicians in question might be reluctant to acknowledge that they’ve actually changed their positions, claiming instead that their new stances are entirely compatible with their old ones. And they might even have a point. For example, it is not unreasonable to maintain that while a laissez-faire approach to trade with China might have made sense in decades past, there is now a much stronger strategic case for reducing U.S. reliance on China-centric supply chains. Most of the time, though, it is not new evidence that changes the minds of politicians. Rather, it is the influence of organized groups that have the requisite political muscle.
According to Baylor, organized groups are the key movers in American politics. More important than even politicians, and far more influential than pundits and intellectuals. Alliances between groups form out of convenience, not necessarily because of shared principles. Once a group has reached a threshold of influence, it is able to be a major player in its political party’s nomination process, and can force politicians to advance its agenda. Some of the most important changes occur when a previously weak group gains influence within one of the parties. According to Baylor, however, this can only occur when an outside group cultivates alliances with groups already powerful within a party.
During the Civil Rights era, civil-rights organizations dedicated to improving the status of African Americans aligned themselves with organized labor, an existing Democratic constituency, which in turn gave them the leverage they needed to push the Democratic party to embrace their cause. Culturally conservative Evangelical Christians, in a somewhat similar vein, forged a partnership with New Right activists who sought to push the GOP rightwards. Right now, left-of-center foundations and activist groups are hoping to organize naturalized citizens and second-generation Americans into a durable constituency for more permissive immigration policies, and they may well succeed.
And what of the Right? Are we seeing the rise of organized groups dedicated to “America First” that have the scale necessary to move the Republican party? Not according to Hawley, who writes that “the absence of an organized group committed to the agenda Trump articulated in the campaign allowed the Republicans to maintain the status quo.”
Hawley’s conclusion brought to mind Michael Lind’s new essay in American Affairs, in which he argues that the only durable way for working-class citizens to challenge the managerial elite’s influence over politics and government is to build new working-class grassroots institutions that are funded exclusively by their own members. The barriers to the realization of this vision are formidable, which gives us reason to believe that the populist challenge won’t evolve into something more substantial, as Hawley suggests. But perhaps populists should take Hawley’s pessimism as a challenge.