In the years since his death, Ronald Reagan has enjoyed a rapprochement with his liberal antagonists. Speaking in the heat of his primary campaign, then-Senator Barack Obama credited Reagan with “[changing] the trajectory of America” in an at least partially positive direction. Journalist Jonathan Chait, a fierce progressive, went so far as to dub Reagan “practically a liberal” for the compromises he struck with Hosue Speaker Tip O’Neill. In truth, the Gipper had little to offer progressives. His genuinely momentous presidency inaugurated two generations of plutocracy that have left America in shambles. For all his charisma, his legacy does not deserve any nostalgia on the left.
Still, it is possible to see where this rethinking sprang from. Led by a charismatic president who used mainstream patriotic rhetoric, the GOP of the 1980’s contained politicians who respected norms and compromised, on occasion, to accomplished shared goals. Today’s Republican Party, by contrast, is populist, anti-urban, anti-intellectual, anti-normative and devoted with monomaniacal intensity to the cult of a racist autocrat. Some progressives understandably view their former foes in a more positive light relative to today’s Republicans.
The new insurgent GOP causes many problems for the American political system, but it also provides the progressive movement with its greatest opportunity in generations. With its populist bent and rural white base, the Republican Party is repelling millions of Americans, particularly educated people and suburbanites. Those voters are ripe for recruitment into the Democratic Party. In 2018, Democrats made significant progress toward incorporating formerly Republican suburban voters into a potentially dominant center-left coalition.
History, however, runs both ways. For every opportunity, pitfalls run in the converse direction. And as the Iowa caucuses approach, Democratic voters appear ready to risk all the gains they made two years ago in the service of an exhilarating left-wing crusade. If it pays off, it could transform America. But if, in the more likely event, the taking of this risk blows up in an historic repudiation of the far left, it could send suburbanites back in full force to a Republican Party that has no business receiving their votes.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.