The Democratic and Republican parties appear to be in the midst of a fundamental change in how they approach foreign policy.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, left, and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. Photo: AP
We have not seen, in perhaps all of U.S. history, a presidential contest quite as discouraging and embarrassing as the current one. For Americans, it should be cause for a period of deep reflection on the state of national politics. At times, it almost seems impossible to give a rational explanation for what is currently unfolding. Truly, the 2016 election has degenerated to such an extent that pundits lack a sufficient vocabulary with which to describe it.
One the one hand, the Democratic Party has nominated a person in Hillary Clinton who has – since at least 1992, when her husband first ran for, and won, the presidency – relentlessly worked to undermine the traditional foundations of the old Democratic coalition. This is known as the New Deal or FDR coalition, named after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was elected president in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The New Deal coalition consisted of farmers, working class industrial workers, the urban poor and the intellectual elite and served as the backbone of the Democratic Party for nearly 40 years.
But by the 1980s, part of this coalition began to unravel with the rise of what were then known as “Reagan Democrats” – working class or blue collar workers who defected from the FDR coalition because of the economic stagnation that had gripped the U.S. in the aftermath of the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s: runaway inflation, cultural and attitudinal differences resulting from the divisions in the country over the Vietnam War, and the spike in oil prices that bedeviled the U.S. economy throughout the 1970s.
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It was the particular genius of the Republican president Ronald Reagan and the coterie of advisers around him to convince not just his most dedicated supporters, but millions of Democratic voters as well, that he had returned America to the path of peace and prosperity. He won a landslide re-election victory in 1984 and in 1988, his vice president George H.W. Bush won handily against his Democratic opponent.
The crisis the Democratic party went through in the late 1980s – after losing three presidential elections in a row – was really a crisis of confidence in their long-time formula of appealing to their traditional constituencies; in response to the string of Republican victories, Bill and Hillary Clinton worked successfully to shift the Democratic party to the right and co-opt many of the issues that were traditionally Republican.
Throughout the Clinton presidency, the Democratic Party sought to portray itself as financially sound and tough on crime. But perhaps most importantly, the Clinton presidency took a new, internationalist outlook on foreign policy.
The foreign policy the Clinton Democrats pursued subsequently transformed the party from one that was hesitant to employ military force abroad, to one that intervened in Somalia (1993), Haiti (1994), Bosnia (1995) and Kosovo (1999). Instead of seriously pursuing Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda during his years as president, Bill Clinton was more focused on not offending the Saudis. This is now largely forgotten after the disastrous presidency of his successor, but it was Clinton who signed into law the so-called Iraq Liberation Act, which made regime change in Iraq official U.S. policy.
All of this is to say that the Clintons transformed the Democratic Party into a more socially tolerant version of the Republican Party, and the surprising success of Clinton’s Democratic primary challenger Senator Bernie Sanders in the primaries indicates that the base of the Democratic Party is beginning to catch on, a quarter of a century later. It also explains why some traditionally Democratic voters have thrown their support behind the Republicans and in particular, Republican candidate Donald Trump.
This history explains to a large extent current American politics – especially regarding the rise of Trump. What the circus-like atmospherics of the current campaign serve to obscure is that 2016 will perhaps be seen in retrospect as the beginning of the second great realignment in American politics of the post-Cold War era.
And so, there is a certain irony that Clinton-era politics helped to fuel the rise of an ill-mannered, reality TV show host turned demagogue. How? Let’s examine two of Trump’s core issues, trade and a less interventionist foreign policy, which he has claimed would put “America First.”
It’s the economy, stupid
Trump – and not insignificantly Sanders – made his opposition to free trade agreements a core part of his message, as was seen by Trump’s perhaps opportunistic (but no less politically savvy) use of the 2,000 layoffs at the Carrier Air conditioner factory in Indiana (which announced it was closing and moving to Mexico) to hammer home his anti-free trade message. The factory closing provided Trump with the perfect vehicle to launch an attack on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that, as it happens, was signed into law under President Clinton.
Job losses due to free trade agreements coupled with the lackluster economic recovery in the aftermath of the great financial crisis of 2008 have caused both Republican and Democratic voters to question the wisdom of what is known as the neoliberal economic consensus – namely, financial deregulation, free trade, and cuts in social welfare spending, which has been championed by the elites in both parties for the past quarter century – if not longer.
At the second presidential debate on Oct. 9, Secretary Clinton promised an “economy that works for everyone” and yet, behind closed doors, she has said the exact opposite, as witness the recent leak of her paid speeches to the investment bank Goldman Sachs, where she made it clear that she still very much adheres to the free trade, deregulatory consensus. Trump (and to a very large extent, Sanders) represents a break from that economic orthodoxy and perhaps represents a first step by the Republican Party to make significant gains among working class voters so aversely affected by those trade policies.
Echoes of the Cold War
During the years in the lead-up and aftermath of the Iraq war, the Democratic Party made significant electoral gains by criticizing George Bush’s handling of the Iraq war and the so-called Global War on Terror. By 2006 the Democrats had won back the U.S. House of Representatives and it seemed for a moment that the interventionist, militarist foreign policy of the Republican Party was on the run. U.S. President Barack Obama was able to defeat Clinton in the 2008 presidential primaries largely on the strength of his opposition to the war.
Fast forward to the Oct. 9 debate and things have been turned on their head; it is now the Democratic nominee for president who is calling for a wider war in Syria, denigrates cooperation with Russia and runs a campaign that has recycled some of the most odious political tactics from the 1950s when Senator Joseph McCarthy smeared innocent people as agents of the Kremlin. Clinton is employing similar tactics against Trump and successfully deployed them against his former campaign manager Paul Manafort and Carter Page, a Trump foreign policy adviser.
Trump, for his part, has turned his back on the Republican orthodoxy (in reality it is more of a bipartisan-elite consensus) of American interventionism in favor of diplomacy, particularly with regard to Russia, with which he has repeatedly said he wants better relations, particularly with regard to the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).
Trump’s disregard for the Republican, neoconservative line in foreign policy is such that many high-profile advocates of American military intervention abroad have openly endorsed Clinton. One of these neoconservatives has even called for a military coup to take place should Trump be elected president.
And so in this way too, there seems to be the makings of a fundamental realignment. In which political party the non-interventionists and the militarists will ultimately end up is anyone’s guess – but it perhaps is not too difficult to imagine that after four or eight years of Clinton as president that the non-interventionists will make their way to the Republican Party, while the neoconservative militarists will retreat back to the Democratic Party.
And so perhaps the best way to think about what is happening in American politics is this: Some of what used to be Republican policy is now Democratic policy; some of what used to be Democratic policy is now Republican policy. And so we are, perhaps, at the beginning of another great realignment.
Nevertheless, if the polls are accurate, Trump has virtually no chance to win the presidency in November. The kind of boorishness he has consistently displayed toward his opponent, combined with a know-nothing approach towards substantive policy issues, along with the ugly undertone of race baiting has very little appeal for undecided and independent voters. His behavior – past and present – has distracted voters from his nationalist and resonant “America First” message, fatally undermining his campaign.
Little wonder he is on track to lose, as he never tires of saying, “big league,” on Nov. 8.
This article is adapted from a lecture given to Russian students in the International Relations program at the National Nuclear Research University in Moscow on Oct. 11.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.