Scientists tell us that the sun’s magnetic poles flip their orientation about every eleven years or so. North becomes south and south becomes north, and then it flips back, completing the 22-year Solar Cycle. Analogous flips occur in American politics, though not nearly as often and they take a lot longer to play out. We seem to be in the midst of such a shift today—in important ways, the Democrats have become the Republicans and the Republicans have become the Democrats.
Take the Democrats. From Franklin Delano Roosevelt (really from the “Prairie Populist” William Jennings Bryan at the turn of the twentieth century) until Bill Clinton they were the party of the working class, as a potent alliance of urban workers and rural agriculture was able to dominate American politics for many decades in the wake of the Great Depression. The impoverished and socially stratified South was solidly Democrat (there was, of course, a racial component to this in that the Republicans were still seen as the “party of Lincoln”). Reflecting this base, the Democratic party tended by and large to be economically liberal and socially conservative. Many were overt populists.
The Republicans, on the other hand, were the party of business and the upper-middle and upper-class establishment. As such, it tended to be economically conservative and socially progressive. For many, fiscal conservatism and social progressivism went hand in hand. It’s no accident, for example, that a key impulse toward socially progressive Supreme Court decisions has tended to come from Republican appointees (e.g., Earl Warren, Harry Blackmun, and more recently Anthony Kennedy).
Now, however, the Democrats have repudiated the working class (especially those “deplorables” who “cling to guns or religion”) and have hitched their wagon to globalized big business and to the woke New Class of university-educated and ideologically driven manipulators of symbolic knowledge. They are socially progressive and they cater to the interests of really big money (that’s not exactly economic conservatism in the traditional sense, but it will do for the purposes of this comparison). Some of the older rhetoric about “care for the poor” continues, but it is vestigial and rings increasingly hollow.
The Republicans, on the other hand, have in recent decades become the vehicle for a visceral populist reaction against globalism and social progressivism and, of course, against the corrosion of local community and religious values that inevitably accompanies such globalist progressivism. The spendthrift economic policies of recent Republican administrations suggest that fiscal conservatism has been left far behind, even as many in the party have embraced social conservatism. This shift in focus from economic conservation to values conservation suggests that a decisive change is taking place in what it means to be a “conservative.”
This shift in Republican sensibilities began under the former Democrat Ronald Reagan, stalled to some degree during the “Olde-Republican” Bush One and Bush Two administrations, and has achieved hurricane-force intensity with Trump. It’s also worth noting that the “flip” among the Democrats is more complete than the shift in the Republican context, and at this point the Democrats may well be more ideologically coherent than the Republicans (which certainly didn’t use to be the case). Where all this will go is hard to predict, though the patterns we are seeing with Trump are also playing out elsewhere in the world as the economic limitations and cultural barrenness of liberal progressivism become increasingly obvious.
Also worth noting is how these shifts have been facilitated by the enormous economic expansion of the post-World War II era and the technological sophistication that has accompanied it. For example, it takes a lot of money and technology to facilitate the Democrats’ embrace of expressive individualism with its quest for sexual autonomy and freedom from the onerous constraints of nature itself. And while many Republicans rightly sense that expressive individualism is culturally rotten and distorts the fundamental contours of human existence, they seem to think that the checkbook for government spending, particularly on middle-class entitlement programs, is bottomless. All this suggests that neither party’s path is ultimately sustainable.