The Great Revolt = Realignment


I reprint this in full from the Washington Examiner because this is the most accurate reading of American politics over the past 12-20 years I’ve seen anywhere. I’m guessing her book gets it mostly correct.

The Great Revolt enters a new phase: How the populist uprising of 2016 will reverberate in 2020

by Salena Zito November 18, 2019

WESTBY, WISCONSIN — In a country increasingly engaged in national politics and divided, the next 12 months may feel like 12 years. Voters in both trenches are eager to vote, convinced not only of victory but also of vindication. The shocking result in 2016 wasn’t a black swan, an irregular election deviating from normalcy, but instead the indicator of the realignment we describe in The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition, now available in a new a paperback edition in time for the 2020 election season.

The story of America’s evolving political topography is one of tectonic plates, slowly grinding against each other until a break notably alters the landscape with seismic consequences — a sudden lurch long in development. The election of President Trump cemented a realignment of the two political parties rooted in cultural and economic change years in the making. Although he has been the epicenter of all politics since his announcement of candidacy in 2015, Trump is the product of this realignment more than its cause, a fact that becomes clear as you travel the back roads to the places that made him the most unlikely president of our era.

Thirty-year-old dairy farmer Ben Klinkner doesn’t consider himself a member of either political part. “I am a Christian conservative,” he says matter-of-factly.

Sitting at conference table at the Westby Co-op Credit Union, the sixth-generation family farmer has a master’s degree in meat science, Klinkner explains when he left to attend college at the University of Wisconsin River Falls and then North Dakota State University in Fargo for his master’s he vowed he was never going to milk another cow again.

“And I’ve been doing just that every day for the past six years.”

“I chose my life because, not for the money obviously, but because I get to see my family every day. That’s what it’s about. I got to see my parents every day growing up. And my kids get to see that too,” said Klinkner, the father of three with another one on the way.

On Trump, Klinkner is pragmatic, “I am very happy with his policies, I just wish he’d put that Twitter down,” he said of the president’s unorthodox style of communicating. This cuts against the national media’s narrative that farmers will dump the president because of the trade uncertainty.

And yes, Klinkner will vote for him again.

Trump’s 2016 victory came in spite of his historically weak performance in the suburbs long dominated by Republicans. The key was that he more than overcame his suburban weakness with the mass conversion of blue-collar voters in ancestrally Democratic bastions of the Midwest, and his inspiration of irregular voters who mistrust both parties. We traveled to the counties in the Great Lakes states that Trump wrested away from Democratic heritage to find examples of the voter archetypes that define the Trump coalition.

Democrats in the 2018 midterms accepted this new sorting of the American electorate — contesting and winning, U.S. House races in wealthy suburbs long considered Republican fortresses in the pre-Trump era while letting Republicans in industrial and rural regions run unopposed. The strategy worked — and it has kept working for Democrats in the odd-cycle 2019 state elections, as Democrats flipped the Virginia legislature and won the Kentucky governor’s mansion on the strength of suburban margins that would’ve been unimaginable just a decade ago.

In the northern Virginia bedroom communities outside Washington, D.C., Democrats now control 33 of the 35 seats in the House of Delegates, up from just 22 Democratic seats the year before Trump got elected. And the two scant seats in the region the Democrats do not control stretch from the edges of the metropolis into farm country. A similar gain of five suburban seats near Richmond has given the party firm control of the state’s lower chamber for the first time in two decades.

In Kentucky, the Democratic governor over-performed in the suburbs of Cincinnati and Louisville, as the realignment snapped more jurisdictions to the fault lines of Trump’s own demographic imprint. It worked the other way as well, as a gun-toting, truck-driving, fish-hook baiting Democratic nominee for governor in Mississippi failed in his attempt to coerce blue-collar rural voters away from Trump and back to the Democratic version of populism.

In Pennsylvania elections this month, suburban southeast Pennsylvania county governments, long in Republican hands, shifted to Democratic control and ex-urban and rural counties in western Pennsylvania went the other way, toward Republican dominance. Both shifts represented a cementing of the new voting patterns from the election between Trump and Hillary Clinton, and portend another close election in 2020 in what is becoming the Rust Belt’s battleground state.

Large strata of the population are now not just eager to vote in the next race for president, but eager to vote against the party of their ancestry. This enthusiasm for new alliances is perhaps the greatest indicator of lasting realignment.

The election of Trump glued populism to conservatism, an ideology long leavened by anti-establishment rhetoric but rooted in the inertial acquiescence to the status quo that comes with laissez-faire policies. In Trump, Republicans have embraced, or have been forced to embrace, a more muscular and activist approach on issues ranging from trade policy to nonstop legal warfare with liberal state governments like California’s. Gone is the consistency of federalism, replaced in conservatism’s pantheon now with the base-motivating potency of perpetual confrontation.

The emotional exertion of Trump’s combative approach continues to provide Democrats with avenues of appeal to buttoned-up suburbanites who otherwise resist liberal policies. And it has forced populists on the left to copy Trump’s antagonistic style, elevating Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the edgiest of the Democratic contenders for president, into front-runners.

Democratic populists seek to copy Trump’s success but not to win back the same populist voters who flipped margins by 32 points from 2012 to 2016 in places like Ashtabula, Ohio, or 18 points in Erie, Pennsylvania, both of which we profiled in The Great Revolt. Democrats such as Warren and Sanders have given up on winning those places — and those Obama voters. We called those voters “Rough Rebounders” and “Red, White, and Blue Collar” — the types of voters who made up the core of the Democratic working-class base from the Great Depression through Obama’s landslides.

Instead, Sanders and Warren hope to emulate Trump’s success with their party’s version of the voters we called Perotistas, those whose participation in elections is irregular, even elliptical, passing into voting booths every decade or so like comets crashing into an otherwise orderly solar system, only to disappear just as abruptly.

Trump motivated large numbers of these voters to come out in 2016, much as Ross Perot had done in 1992. Nate Cohn, the political data journalist at the New York Times who gave notice to Trump’s potential early in 2016, recently demonstrated Trump’s success in generating this turnout bump from among the pool of chronic non-voters. While less white than the electorate at large, this last reservoir of unrealized electoral clout does not lean left on cultural issues, according to Cohn’s data — making it the big prize for the 2020 elections for both sides.

For his part, the president has accepted that path — choosing not to broaden his appeal by tapering his temperament to one that might suit the two-income, two-degree Republican-leaning suburban families who split their tickets in 2016 and then chose Democratic congressmen in 2018. These voters crave predictability and civility at a gut level, two things in short supply in Trump’s style, but they tell pollsters they are wary of the lurch toward socialism in today’s Democratic Party. Thus far, their hearts have overpowered their heads in off-year elections in the Trump era, and Democrats are banking on the same result in 2020.

Suburban Milwaukee businessman, Neil Karolek is the exact type of voter Democrats are looking to pick off, except the CEO of a Pewaukee technology company isn’t going anywhere towards the Democrats despite not caring for the president’s style, “Do I like his style? Of course not, when you look at the results … there’s this weird disconnection between his demeanor and what happens with his approach on policies,” he said.

Trump’s unwillingness to play to these suburban sensibilities, far tamer than the rousable crowds who attend his rallies, may cost him his winning electoral margin. While he underperformed Mitt Romney in suburban jurisdictions in 2016, he did hang on to just enough college-educated voters to squeeze victory out of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. We profiled these voters as “Silent Suburban” women — and their small-town counterparts “Rotary Reliables” in The Great Revolt. Trump does not need Romney-sized margins in these demographics, but he can’t do worse than he did with them in 2016 and win Michigan or Wisconsin.

Whether or not the president ever turns his attention to winning over the voters who resist both socialism and his own style, other Republicans will be appealing to them. Suburban voters hold the keys to hotly contested 2020 Senate races in Michigan, North Carolina, Arizona, and Colorado — not to mention the entire slate of competitive house districts.

The suburbs may be where control of government will be decided, but the 2020 election will not be the end of the coalition Trump mobilized in 2016 or the resistance that formed in response. Why? Because the individualization of our cultural economy and the self-sorting of our communities will keep fueling distrust of establishment institutions and keep roiling our political and consumer behaviors. Establishment politicians, CEOs, and journalists all ignore the dynamism of this great revolt at their own peril.

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