The Europeanization of U.S. Politics Continues

Sean Trende, Real Clear Politics, May 3, 2016

It took 20 years to count the votes, but Pat Buchanan won. The 1990s presidential hopeful preached a populist message considered extreme at the time, but it certainly would resonate today. It isn’t all that surprising this has happened. The fiscally moderate, quasi-isolationist/realist, economically nationalist strand of conservatism has been a staple of the Republican Party at least since Richard Nixon’s time, and probably earlier than that. Of late, it has gained strength. As I wrote in early 2012:

While I find it highly unlikely that he’ll be the nominee this time out, there’s a good chance that the Republican coalition will fundamentally change in the next 20 years and move toward [Rick] Santorum’s style of politics. Twice in a row now, the party has toyed with nominating a candidate who combined social conservatism with economic populism; Santorum’s speech last night was essentially a northern version of a speech Mike Huckabee could have delivered in 2008.

We’ve already seen white working-class voters move toward the Republican Party over the past several decades–a shift perhaps epitomized by the GOP’s special election victory in New York’s 9th Congressional District. If a more credible Santorum/Huckabee candidate could emerge, the party would reciprocate by moving toward these voters. This would have major implications for our political dynamic, and could deal the Democrats a serious blow in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.

{snip} Donald Trump–now the presumptive Republican nominee–lacks the staunch social conservatism of a Huckabee or a Buchanan, although I’d argue that he exhibits a traditionalism that resonates with many of the same voters. But the similarities are too numerous to ignore: Both candidates ran on anti-immigration and skepticism of trade deals, both proposed building a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, both ran (in Trump’s case, briefly) for the Reform Party nomination in 2000, both opposed foreign adventurism, both were dogged by accusations of racism.

Perhaps most importantly, this is not an exclusively American phenomenon. Parties on the center-right in Europe have increasingly been dogged by parties that are also skeptical of trade, immigration, and globalization. We’ve seen this with the rise of the National Front in France, the Fidesz Party in Hungary, the Freedom Party in Austria, among others.

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If there’s cause for concern, whether from a National Front-type Republican Party or a Syriza-style Democratic one (and to be clear, given the nature of our political system, both parties will likely remain more moderate than their European counterparts), it probably comes in 2020. Given the length of the business cycle, the probability of a recession during the next four years is extremely high, and many people have not recovered from the last one. The results of that could be catastrophic, depending on the severity of the downturn, and could convince more voters to try something radically different. A Supreme Court with a swing vote justice who is no longer a culturally cosmopolitan Republican who is reluctant, but willing, to utilize his power to push social change could continue the alienation of traditionalists from mainstream dialogue.

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