The country is most likely going through a major political alignment that will reshape American politics for another generation or so. We’ve been here many times before. Almost 40 years ago, Reagan’s conservative revolution ended the New Deal and Great Society era that, itself, changed voting patterns and alliances for 50 years in the middle of the 20th century.
This re-alignment feels a bit different. Back in the Depression, Roosevelt and the New Dealers steamrolled the GOP with a clear agenda and hard shift to the left. Reagan did the same to the liberals, shifting the country back to the right. Trump, though, has no agenda. He’s just a reflection of the angst and uncertainty that defines this new age.
The Republican Party of Reagan is all but dead and is now the Party of Trump. He’s pledged a $1 trillion infrastructure program and backed away from free trade as part of his economic policy. He seems to support Russia more than Western Europe, at least on twitter. Trump regularly violates Reagan’s Eleventh Amendment, Thou shall not speak ill of fellow Republicans, and attacks sitting GOP Senators and legislators. Still, Republicans support him at almost 80%, signaling that they’ve abandoned their once-defining conservative values for Trump’s right-wing populism.
Democrats, for their part, are nearly as divided, united only by their anger at Trump. Younger activists are out fighting the threat of anachronistic statues and marching mouth-breathers who’ve emerged from their basements and dark corners of the internet in a feeble attempt to breathe new life into the notion of white supremacy. Other Democrats are still rehashing the Sanders-Clinton primary and debating which issues should be litmus tests for potential Democratic candidates.
And in the middle, there’s a huge hole. According to Gallup, only 30% of independents approve of the president, down about 20% since the election. They don’t like his policies or his demeanor. But they also don’t seem to care much for Democrats. These are the same people who rejected Hillary Clinton and don’t believe that Democrats have their interests at heart.
These independent voters want security, both economic and physical. They want a tough approach to terrorism and they want their own circumstances to improve. They want better wages after three decades of watching the rich get richer while their income stagnated. They want health care that’s both accessible and affordable and they don’t care as much whether it’s coming from the free market or a single-payer system. They want their kids to leave college with the promise of job, not a mortgage-sized debt. They want schools that prepare their children for the 21st century economy and child care that allows them to work but doesn’t bust their budgets.
And that’s the opportunity for Democrats. Trump has taken over the GOP with divisive rhetoric and unpopular policies, like ending DACA and repealing Obamacare. Democrats can build a large centrist party that focuses on economics, not divisive social issues. They can frame every debate around economic security–and language matters. Instead of talking about income inequality, they should be talking about better jobs and wages, protecting small businesses and increasing competition. They should be talking about an infrastructure bill that improves our transportation network, connecting goods to the market and people to jobs. Fighting climate change is not a debate over science, but protection from monster storms like the one that hit Houston and the one heading for Miami.
Democrats have an opportunity to make the current realignment favor them. But they won’t build that party if they make their priority fighting white supremacists that most people don’t take seriously or protesting monuments that most people barely knew existed. Ironically, if they can ignore these concerns to focus on the economic well-being of the struggling middle class, the white supremacists will go back to their basements and the monuments will continue to come down like they have in New Orleans, Lexington and Baltimore. A broad centrist party would do more for the progressive agenda than anything protests could hope to do. Democrats should fill the hole in the middle of the country.